The practice of using mix-and-match parts in animation, rather than drawing every single new cel. This trope also covers using deliberately abstract character designs and backgrounds that will not obviously clash with the low production values.
This technique was popular in the early days of animation. It is seen in Emile Cohl's first animations and early comedy shorts like the Colonel Heeza Liar series.
Traditional cel animation took over and dominated the field for years, until Chuck Jones's The Dover Boys short reminded people that extreme stylization was okay. Studios like United Productions of America*
, MGM Animation and, of course, Hanna-Barbera revived the technique. Initially it was a way to stand out from Disney, but in very short order it was recognised as a way to save time and money, too.
A strength of limited animation is that it emphasises the writing and voice acting by making the visuals rather minimal. When the creators wrote well, it led to some of the most beloved cartoons ever.
John Hubley from UPA was a well-known advocate of limited animation as art. He encouraged animators to experiment with primitivism and expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to the development of some pretty trippy stylized backdrops and character models that became a major influence on European avant-garde, modern Thickline Animation, and Flash Animation.note Which is to say, most current traditional Western Animation. Interestingly, Miyazaki, anime's biggest traditionalist, harks back more to the naturalism of classic Disney studio films such as Bambi, which was itself storyboarded by a Japanese artist.
Unfortunately, not all the cartoons had good writing. Some were written very much from the Viewers Are Morons mentality. The Saturday Morning Cartoon was conceived as a way to focus advertising onto young kids, so this resulted in a flood of slapped-together cartoons, most of which are not held in high regard, due to bland and unimaginative writing. There were, and still are, exceptions, but they tend to be Screwed by the Network for attracting the wrong audience and failing at their job.
But by itself, limited animation can be a powerful tool. Take some of the cartoons by Chuck Jones in the 1950s, or John Hubley's work in the same period. Limited animation actually facilitated the artistic look of those short films more than the traditional kind.
In a certain sense, almost all animation is limited in one particular way: The use of cels over static backgrounds. In very early animation (e.g., "Gertie The Dinosaur"), the background was redrawn for each frame. In very short order it became clear that drawing your characters on cellophane, and laying that over a background image (that might not change for minutes at a time), was the right way to do things, and today this is so universal it scarcely bears mentioning. (CG animation operates under different rules, but the creators will still tend to focus their time and processing power on the foreground characters rather than the background.) Scenes where the background is not static are rare, often look a bit odd, are very expensive, and are unlimited animation in several senses.
Anime also uses limited animation. The only difference is that anime does not use layers of cels to do this, but rather it is the use and reuse of cels that sets it apart from western limited animation. This effect is noticeable in talking scenes where the characters speak. Video Games also use it by necessity. See also The Dark Age of Animation.
Applies towards Anime in general, due to lower budgets and tighter schedules compared to the average Western Animation project. It can also be done in a well-animated series as a stylistic decision for a few scenes.
This is also put forward as one of the driving reasons behind early Humongous Mecha genre and spaceship shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam and Uchuu Senkan Yamato. Big robots and spaceships are a lot easier to animate with minimal motion and fewer keyframes than organics, because if they look jerky and awkward, well, they're mechanical so it does not look out of place.
The entire "motion comic" genre is built on this, taking stills from comic art and composing them together, often with text bubbles redacted from the scene and voice acting used in its place. Usually this is a montage of stills, but often mixed up with slow pans and zooms, or some slight shifting in positions of objects to give the impression of motion. Several video game franchises have used these as tie-in materials, such as Metal Gear, Dead Space, and Halo Evolutions all having motion comic adaptations or side-stories.
One of the earliest uses of limited animation was the "Baby Weems" segment of the 1941 Disney film The Reluctant Dragon. It tells the story of a baby genius in storyboard sketches with occasional bits of movement, to show how story artists plan a cartoon.
Ironically, Williams's first film, The Little Island, actually did use Limited Animation. This is partially justified in that The Little Island was his first animated film and because of the incredibly deep philosophical background of the film.
Done for deliberate stylistic effect (and to avoid essentially hand-drawing each frame on the desktop, thus enforcing the trope all over again) on a lot of modern Thickline Animation and Flash Animation.
Terry Gilliam's famous animations on Monty Python's Flying Circus consisted entirely of this. Though he used it to cope with tight deadlines, he adds that it also helped with comedic timing when characters weren't drawn making flowing, graceful movements, and instead jerked quickly from point A to point B.
Nintendo's early Game & Watch systems used LCD screens, so limited animation was a technical constraint. Carried over into Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Brothers, who moves in herky-jerky single frames.
A third example would be Pit, who only appeared in an NES and Gameboy game before that. Despite this, his animation looks fine, but when he picks up the Hammer, he inexplicably uses the jerky two-frame mallet animation from his own game as a reference.
Some of the animation bits in Final Fantasy VI can be downright funny because of the video game's limits. For example, it looks like Locke is throwing Terra around in one scene.
In an early cutscene, Locke and Edgar swoon at Terra winking like them. What this looks like is a freeze frame of their laughing animation, with the top half of their head detaching and floating down to their feet. What was the animator thinking?
The Metal Gear series of video games mixes in-game cutscenes with CODEC conversations - whenever the protagonist talks over the radio, small pictures representing the characters are shown, with only the lips moving. Metal Gear Solid 2 upped it slightly by including full animations of the characters, which led to a Hong Kong Dub effect - lips were wildly out of sync with what the characters were saying. The third one was even more limited - whoever Snake was talking to was represented by a still picture, and Snake himself was in the shadows. The fourth one avoided this entirely by showing a full video of whoever Snake was talking to.
In Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, Phoenix Wright's mouth isn't in sync with his words, and in his Level 3 Hyper animation, it just looks like his mouth alternates between a smug smile and hanging open. This was to emulate the text based nature of his games that only had a couple of voice clips each, as in those games someone's mouth would just flap open as the text entered the screen. Also, in said Hyper Combo, the affected opponent would stay in one static pose devoid of animation even as they gave anguished screams as a reference to his games' limited frames of animation.
Red vs. Blue averts this. They use existing models from the Halo series, so you would think they could just be slapped together, but the episodes require a lot of painstaking work.
Later seasons avert it entirely; Bungie gave Rooster Teeth access to the animation engine for the cutscenes, allowing them to do things they could never do with the game engine alone (one scene where a character gets run over in a Warthog, only to clamber up the front of it to visit merry hell on the driver comes to mind).
Elemental Goddess zigzags with this trope. The first episode and second episodes are limited, but soon got an Animation Bump with The Mentor's Origin Story. Soon after the mentor's first fight, the animation changed to just being still shots with voices added to them. Word Of God states that the latter will be the norm from now on.
Youtube Poop is fond of Limited Animation due to how easy it is to edit clips of video that don't change much. As a result, the most common sources for Youtube Poop typically have this as a defining trait (Mama Luigi, Zelda CD-i, etc).
Inferno Cop consists of cut out models moving across photo backgrounds with voices dubbed in. Also, things explode in live-action.
Neurotically Yours started off with limited animation in its early years. Characters doing actions, such as typing, would only have a few frames of exaggerated animation and would loop endlessly as long as the action was being done. When the characters weren't doing anything, they would be incredibly stiff and just blink most of the time. The series has improved movement animation a lot since then, though movement of arms are covered by a quick motion blur and the characters are still not animated for walking.
The early episodes of South Park, although the pilot was the only one to use actual cardboard animationnote They were forced to recreate it using computer animation in order to make episodes fast enough for seasonal restrictions. In the later episodes the characters have a wider range of movement: for example, instead of shuffling when they walk, their legs are actually seen moving. Lampshaded in The Movie.
The 1967 Spider Man cartoon, as well as Rocket Robin Hood, very seldom had unique animations/cells on different backgrounds. The few times they did ended up getting reused in later episodes, most extremely using the cells from an episode of the latter in the former, just replacing Robin and John with Spider-Man and changing a few lines of dialogue.
The 1990s Spider Man was guilty of this as well, sometimes using scenes from earlier episodes with different dialog.
Family Guy in its early run had some animations that made the characters seem off and other animations that were clearly recycled for when characters repeated a physical action several times. For the former, the animations were limited on the mouth when characters talked but it greatly improved as the series went on. For the latter, an example of this can be seen in the episode "I am Peter, Hear Me Roar" where in one scene, a group of elderly people are watching soft core porn and one of the men punches his crotch several times to "wake up" his penis so it can get erect. One of the ladies next to him glances to the man when he hits his crotch, but her eyes dart back to the TV screen when the man pulls his fist back, and then they fall back to the man when he punches his crotch again. You can see the lady's eyes twitching back and forth between the man and the TV as the punching animation plays over and over. Cases like these faded as the series went on.
But as a compromise - everyone became stiffer, stuck in 3/4 view, and their movements seeming like being trapped in eternal fast-forward.
One scene from "And I'm Joyce Kinney" had Peter mentioning that half the background characters don't move at all and just stand there blinking a few times.
A scene from "Baby, You Knock Me Out" had Peter receiving an audio birthday card from Cleveland which he recorded while driving and got pulled over. During the whole scene, Peter's eyes blinked only once.
The Marvel Super Heroes shorts took limited animation about as far as it could go, at times doing nothing but panning the camera across still images. Fortunately, they used original Marvel art, like the greats Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, along with generally the original stories to make it look like the comics brought to life to some degree.
When Bart and Lisa are given a tour of the Itchy and Scratchy studio, the hallway is a Wraparound Background, with what is clearly the same couple of doors passing over and over again, complete with the same janitor working inside one room.
Bart once ordered an original Itchy and Scratchy cel over the mail. It turned out to be a mostly empty cel with a tiny little arm painted on it.
In "Itchy, Scratchy and Poochie", after Poochie's first appearance doesn't go over very well, Homer records a passionate speech for his second cartoon, apologizing to the fans and asking for a second chance. The studio clearly don't go for it, as the scene freezes just before the speech and a different voice over says, "I have to go now. My planet needs me," followed by the cel of Poochie clearly being dragged away.
In one scene, Homer criticizes the quality of South Korean animation, and for the next few seconds his mouth is detached from his face and floating in front of him.