Limited Animation

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

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,[1] 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, who encouraged animators to experiment with primitivism and expressionism in the 1950's and 1960's, leading to the development of some pretty trippy stylized backdrops and character models that became a major influence on European avant-garde, modern Thick Line Animation, and Flash Animation.[2]

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.

Anime also uses limited animation. The only difference is that anime does not use layers of cels to do this but rather 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.

Common Sub-Tropes:

Compare Lazy Artist (what this trope is sometimes associated with), Stylistic Suck (when this trope is invoked as an intentional Shout-Out to low-budget cartoons).

Contrast Disneyesque.

Examples of Limited Animation include:

Since this is such a widespread trope, examples should be particularly notable, or play with this.




  • 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.

Video Games

  • Nintendo's early Game & Watch systems used LCD displays, so limited animation was a technical constraint. Carried over into Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Brothers, who moves in herky-jerky single frames.
  • Wario also does this in Super Smash Bros Brawl, presumably as a reference to his lack of animation in the first Wario Land game, or more likely the also-limited animation of the cutscenes in the Wario Ware series.
  • 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.
  • 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. The second Metal Gear Solid 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.
  • Cutscenes in Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars are represented by very limited animation - unless the characters move their heads, even their lips don't move.
  • Most of the beginning cutscene in Ultima VI looks like a bunch of paper dolls - the figures are moving, but not animated. This was fairly common in late 80s-early 90s games.
  • Pokemon Black and White do this with their animated battle sprites.
  • Dragon Quest IX renders some characters with polygons, but not all of them. The inkeepers at Stornway only become 3D when you talk to them behind the bar.
  • Used to excellent effect in Twisted Metal II.

Web Video

Web Original

  • 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.

Western Animation

  • Mr. Magoo, possibly the Trope Codifier, and...
  • Gerald McBoing-Boing, both directed by Hubley in the 1950's.
  • Just about everything made by Hanna-Barbera, which for better or worse put its stamp on the trope as associated more with production values and Hanna-Barbera's own distinctive childrens-animation style more than anything else.
  • An episode of Animaniacs poked fun at this.
  • Clutch Cargo, taken to the point of it not being animation so much as still photography of cut-outs with superimposed live-action lips.
    • In the same vein of Clutch Cargo the other Cambria Studios animations where done using the same technique, namely, Captain Fathom and Space Angel
  • "Mr. Incredible and Friends", from The Incredibles DVD, copies the Clutch Cargo style. Mr. Incredible and Frozone's commentary track lampshades this, among the cartoons' many other shortcomings.
  • The Beatles, mentioned above, is an odd example, since they were producing essentially music videos of Beatles tracks up through Revolver for a Saturday morning children's TV show. "Turn off your mind relax and float downstream... Surrender to the void! It is shining!"
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle.
  • Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.
  • Most of the originals on Adult Swim.
  • The early episodes of South Park, although the pilot was the only one to use actual cardboard animation. 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.
  • Roger Ramjet
  • Hopla
  • Beavis and Butthead in their earlier episodes. Notably, the episode "Burger World" had a two-frame animation of Mr. Anderson repeatedly honking the horn of his car—an animation so simplistic, it can easily be made into an Overly Long Gag.
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series.
    • Just about anything else from Filmation, actually. Which is expected, since they produced their shows on a shoestring budget.
  • The Krazy Kat shorts from the 1910s. Yes, this is Older Than Television. Behold.
  • The 60's 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 90's 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.
    • This in itself was lampshaded in the conclusion of one episode when Peter starts insulting Fox repreatedly, causing Lois to warn him against offending the network. Peter's response was to remark that all they could do is cut the show's budget. The final scene is a static cel with a static Peter basically zig-zagging his way to the kitchen.
  • The Marvel Superheroes 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 like the comics brought to live to some degree.
  • Before the switch to Flash Animation, The Powerpuff Girls used limited animation to great stylistic effect.
  • The Simpsons has always relied on limited animation, although the animation has gotten fuller over the years. In typical fashion, they have Lampshaded it on more than one ocassion:
    • 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 must go home now. My planet needs me", followed by the cel of Poochie clearly being dragged away.
    • In one scene, Homer criticizes the quality of Korean animation, and for the next few seconds his mouth is detached from his face and floating in front of him.
  • Spoofed on the late Looney Tunes short "Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers", where aliens are replacing all of Bugs Bunny's adversaries with "pale stereotypes" with dull, nonconfrontational personalities. The copies embody every concievable bad TV animation cliche out there, from being drawn Off-Model in thick lines to fake Daffy Duck even having Clutch Cargo-style superimposed human lips in one scene.
  1. "UPA" for short, producers of Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing
  2. 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.