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Limited animation is a process of making animated cartoons that does not redraw entire frames but variably reuses common parts between frames. One of its major characteristics is stylized design in all forms and shapes, which in the early days was referred to as modern design. The short-subject cartoons and feature-length cartoons of Walt Disney from the 1930s and 1940s are widely acclaimed for depicting animated simulations of reality, with exquisite detail in every frame. This style of animation is time-consuming and expensive. "Limited" animation creates an image with abstract art, symbolism, and fewer drawings to create the same effect, at a much lower cost. This style of animation depends upon animators' skill in emulating change without additional drawings; improper use of limited animation is easily recognized as unnatural. It also encourages the animators to indulge in artistic styles that are not bound to real world limits. The result is an artistic style that could not have developed if animation was solely devoted to producing simulations of reality. Without limited animation, such ground-breaking films as Yellow Submarine, Chuck Jones' The Dot and the Line, and many others could never have been produced.
The process of limited animation aims at reducing the overall number of drawings. Film is projected at 24 frames per second. For movements in normal speed, most animation in general is done "on twos," meaning each drawing is displayed twice, for a total of 12 drawings per 24 frames per second. Faster movements may demand animation "on ones" with a new drawing in each frame, while characters that do not move may be done with a single drawing (a "hold") for a certain amount of time. It is said that the Disney average was about 18 drawings per second, pretending that all characters of a scene share the same sheet of paper. Limited animation mainly reduces the number of inbetweens, the drawings between the keyframes which define a movement, and can cause stuttering if inbetweens are poorly setup.
Overall, the use of limited animation does not necessarily imply lower quality as it allows the use of many timesaving techniques that can improve the quality and flow of the keyframes and overall presentation of an animation.
The use of budget-cutting and time-saving animation measures in animation dates at least to the 1920s; recycled animations, mirror-image and symmetrical drawings, mumbling characters and such were common even when traditional animation dominated. The 1942 Merrie Melodies short "The Dover Boys" was a particular early prototype of the use of what would become known as limited animation, though pressure from Warner Bros. curtailed much further use of the technique.
Limited animation was originally founded as an artistic device, though it was soon used widely as a cost-cutting measure rather than an aesthetic method. The UPA studio made the first serious effort to abandon the keyframe heavy approach perfected by Disney. Their first effort at limited animation, Gerald McBoing-Boing, won an Oscar, and it provided the impetus for this animation method to be accepted at the major Hollywood cartoon studios, including Warner Brothers and MGM. However, the real attraction of limited animation was the reduction in costs: because limited animation does not require as many drawings as fully keyframed animations, it is much less expensive to produce. The 1950s saw all of the major cartoon studios change their style to limited animation, to the point where painstaking detail in animation occurred only rarely.
Limited animation techniques in America were used during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to produce a great number of inexpensive Saturday morning cartoons. Such TV series as Clutch Cargo are known for being produced on extremely low budgets, with camera tricks used in place of actual animation. Despite the low quality of the animation, the TV cartoon studios Hanna-Barbera, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, Jay Ward and Filmation thrived during this period. The desire of the time to emulate full animation with limited animation led to many highly apparent visual issues.
These techniques used to produce cartoons on a reduced budget included:
- Cels and sequences of cels were used repeatedly — animators only had to draw a character walking once.
- Characters are split up into different levels: only portions of a character, such as the mouth or an arm, would be animated on top of a static cel.
- Clever choice of camera angles and editing.
- Use of camera techniques such as panning to suggest movement. A famous implementation of this is the "crash" technique, which involves the camera shaking rapidly back and forth or up and down to simulate a shock wave.
- "Smear animation:" movement is rapid and portrayed in only three frames: the beginning state, the ending state, and a "blur" frame similar to that of a picture taken with a camera that had a low shutter speed.
- Cel reversal (simply using a mirror image of the cell to represent the opposite angle). Many cartoon characters are drawn symmetrically to expedite this technique.
- The visual elements were made subsidiary to audio elements, so that verbal humor and voice talent became more important factors for success ("talking heads").
- Silhouette helped avoid having to keep track of shading on an animated character or object.
- Sliding a cel across a background to suggest movement.
- Stock footage: sequences that are reused frequently. This is the case of the character transformations in the Magical girls subgenre of Japanese anime series. Filmation used this strategy for much of its productions, and Hanna-Barbera often used it when necessary (most notably on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?.)
- Extensive recaps of previous episodes or segments, to cut down on the amount of new material necessary (used often in serial shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Underdog).
- The most egregious case of limited animation, known as Syncro-Vox, involved pasting a film of the moving lips of a real-life person over a still frame of an "animated" character to give the appearance that the character is doing the talking. Cambria Studios held a patent on the technology, and as such, it was primarily used on their productions, such as Clutch Cargo; it still has limited use today, the most widely known example being the online series The Annoying Orange.
- Chuckimation, another notoriously low-budget process, simply moves various "animated" figures by hand or by throwing them across a space. Most commonly used with stop-motion animation, it usually does not allow for characters' mouths to move.