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Limited Animation History Essay

“Limited Animation…Unlimited Imagination”

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Over the years, I’ve occasionally heard Hanna-Barbera criticized for “cheapening” the art of cartoons by inventing a technique for television called “limited animation”.

Here’s the true story: When theatrical cartoons were on death’s door, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera single-handedly (or, rather, double-handily) rescued cartoons from oblivion.  As a cartoon blues man might say,  “If it wasn’t for limited animation, we wouldn’t have no animation at all.” 

Seven Oscars weren’t enough.
In 1957 Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were veteran cartoon directors with over forty years experience between them. These two men had created the cartoon cat and mouse team, Tom & Jerry. (That’s tantamount to having “invented” Abbot & Costello.) They had won seven Oscars with Tom & Jerry, more than anybody else in cartoon history.

But in the mid fifties none of that mattered anymore. Television had arrived. The theatrical market for cartoons had dried up. And MGM, where Hanna and Barbera had risen to the rank of executive producers, suddenly closed up shop without warning.  Overnight, Bill and Joe found themselves out of work, along with virtually all of their cartoon colleagues in Hollywood.

Never say die.
But these two cartoonists refused to go gently into th-th-th-th-that’s all folks.  They started a studio, and figured out a way to make cartoons viable for television. You think that’s easy?  Consider this: The “full animation” cartoons that Hanna and Barbera made at MGM took six months per seven minute episode, with budgets that often exceeded $60,000.  Now they had to create thirty minutes of cartoon material every week, with budgets that were half the size of what they used to spend to make a single short!

They had a plan.
How did they do it?  They called upon the “planned” animation technique they had developed to test out new Tom & Jerry cartoons at MGM.  Instead of making twenty or thirty thousand drawings, a planned or “limited” cartoon only used 2 or 3 thousand drawings. Now Hanna and Barbera had to make this “planned” approach work for them on actual cartoons.  They adopted the minimalist cartoon style which was becoming popular at the time, with its simple lines and suggested backgrounds, and turned it to their advantage.  They made backgrounds that could be used in multiple scenes; cloud formations that worked whether the action was going up, down, or sideways; characters with “muzzles” so only their mouths had to be animated; characters that blinked a lot, to enhance the illusion of motion.

Shooting stars.
And to keep the entertainment value of their TV cartoons high, Hanna and Barbera turned up the burners on their imaginations.  With Tom & Jerry they had worked with the same characters over and over, dreaming up different cat and mouse gags each time. Now these men in their late forties responded to the challenge of their careers by bringing out an avalanche of vivid, hilarious, new cartoon stars and stories.

Ruff & Reddy, Pixie & Dixie, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw (and his alter ego El Kabong), Topcat, Magilla Gorilla, Snagglepuss, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Space Ghost …the list goes on and on.  (Oh, and let’s not forget the most successful television cartoon team of all time, The Flintstones.)

In the list above I’ve barely scratched the surface of what sprang from the imaginations of Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, and the other great cartoon talents they assembled at their studio in the fifties and sixties.

Stories, characters, ingenuity, and a dedication to the cartoon cause.  That’s how Hanna-Barbera rescued cartoons from death’s door.  Anybody who says different will have to answer to El Kabong! (I wouldn’t risk it if I were you.)

“Limited Animation…Unlimited Imagination”
Essay #1 (of 15)
Original essay written by Bill Burnett, Creative Director, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, 1993-1996

0 commentsTagged: HB essay,Hanna-Barbera,1993,1994,1995,1996,.
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 Americanote  "UPA" for short, producers of Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, 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 Thick-Line 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.note Jones, who believed that the best animation can be watched without a soundtrack, was extremely critical of Hanna-Barbera's cut-rate animation style and appropriately dubbed it "illustration radio."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 can be considered unlimited animation in several cases. 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. Common Sub-Tropes: Compare Lazy Artist (which is sometimes associated with this trope), Stylistic Suck (when this trope is invoked as an intentional Shout-Out to low-budget cartoons). Contrast Disneyesque.

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

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  • This was also put forward as one of the driving reasons behind early Humongous Mecha genre and spaceship shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship 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.
  • Parodied in Cromartie High School, where even the characters sometimes complain about the obvious lack of animation.
  • Lampshaded in the Haiyore! Nyarko-san shorts (Nyaruani), where often the title card will say things like "Sorry, there's not much movement in this one". Of course, it's worth noting that Nyaruani was primarily made with Adobe Flash (a program that thrives on this method) as opposed to traditional animation.
  • This is practically Studio Trigger's signature style, most evident in Inferno Cop and Ninja Slayer, which are completely and partially animated with still frames, respectively. However, this is a case of Tropes Are Not Bad as the limited animation is used primarily in the casual or comedic scenes making them even funnier as well as avoiding budgetary issues that were so prevalent in the studio it was descended from, Gainax.
    • Kill la Kill, in addition to indulging with this to save the budget every so often (with episodes 4 and 22 being standout examples), makes it a character trait to Nui Harime, a cute, yet psychotic fourth-wall-breaker. A part of the off-putting, eerily wrong air she gives is the fact that she almost never seems to make full movements, but instead tensely jumps around or else floats between places with her Parasol Parachute. In battles, she appears to stand completely still aside from her primary hand most of the time, and even when she's jumping around to evade her foes, her character model spins around like a cardboard cut-out, stiff as a board.
      • A lot of Mako's animation seems to have been based on the same rules as Nui's.
    • All over the place in Space Patrol Luluco, most notably with Over Justice who is an Expy of Inferno Cop. With the exception of the flames, he only has a single frame of animation, until he gets serious and receives a massiveAnimation Bump.
  • The notoriously bad Chargeman Ken, where the number of frames of animation in any given scene is usually in the single digits.
  • The animated version of Tonari no Kashiwagi-san is a motion comic, so it's not much more than a colorised manga with audio and Mouth Flaps.
  • Gainax took this to its logical extreme with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Because they used up most their budget for the show midway through, they had to use limited animation for non-fight scenes and outright ditched the planned ending (which later saw a feature-film adaptation) because it would've been too expensive. Nevertheless, Episode 26 resorted to using still drawings most of the time and little-to-no backgrounds. To quote Rebel Taxi, Gainax "blew their budget on Evangelion so hard, they had to finish the final episode using goddamn Crayola markers."
  • Invoked with Teekyuu, where all characters have rapid-fire speech featuring only two mouth flaps per character.
  • Parodied in Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto, with Sakamoto climbing a staircase multiple steps at a time to appear to simply glide up it. A bystander comments that it was a brilliant pantomime.
  • Used to impressive effect in this Love Live!Fan Vid.
  • Played with in Carnival Phantasm. Taiga's animation is really detailed in the first Taiga dojo segment, with a number of Super-Deformed antics. Then in the next episode, it's revealed just how much that animation cost (325,000 yen - about $7000 - for 40 seconds of animation), and to get back on budget, she's been reduced to line art, and her companion Ilya has no intermediate frames.

    Comic Books 

  • 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.

    Films — Animation 

  • The later Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons.
  • Disney:
    • 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.
    • Experiments with it in such shorts as Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and The Saga of Windwagon Smith.
    • Implementing it on a feature film: Robin Hood uses anime-style limited animation, reusing bits of animation not only from within the movie but from previous movies as well.
    • Fantasia has one of the most ambitious uses of this ever devised — the five-minute long "Ave Maria" sequence, comprised of holy people traveling across the landscape, has barely any animation at all. Almost all of the "movement" is done by the camera, including a 160 second ending shot pulling into a gorgeous sunrise.
    • In Wreck-It Ralph, the Nicelanders are animated less smoothly than the other characters, to mimic the limited animation of 8-bit video games.
  • Yellow Submarine, Depending on the Artist (a who's who of British animators worked on the film). Ironically, The Beatles saw it as a throwaway project and assumed that it'd be animated in the style of their 1965 cartoon, which was done Hanna-Barbera–style by the same people. They changed their minds after seeing the finished film.
  • The opening sequence of Watership Down, storyboarded by John Hubley, who died before its release. The hallucination sequences are drawn on the same model, notable for its Art Shift to detailed naturalistic animation and back again.
  • Subverted by The Thief and the Cobbler parts of which look like Limited Animation but was in fact painstakingly crafted cel-by-cel by its lead animator over a 30-year period, only to be farmed out to other studios for completion.
  • 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 Thick-Line Animation and Flash Animation.
  • The Incredibles contains an in-universe example. One of the DVD bonus features is an episode of a fake Mr. Incredible TV show full of limited animation and other forms of Stylistic Suck. It even includes an in-character commentary by Mr. Incredible and Frozone.
  • The first Astérix movie, Asterix the Gaul.
  • The animated Spaghetti WesternWest and Soda has limited, television quality animation and a UPA-ish art style.

    Live-Action TV 

  • 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.
  • Mr. Show (which is influenced by Monty Python) had a few particular sketches with this, most notably the animals in the Biosphere sketch as well as the "who you meet in Heaven". The birds in the Intervention link are (slightly) better about this. Overlapping with Roger Rabbit Effect.
  • Poked fun at repeatedly in this sketch entitled "Cheapo Cartoon Man" from London Weekend Television.
  • Reconstructions of Doctor WhoMissing Episodes do this a lot, as any motion usually has to be extracted from still images or painted on top of them. Characters talking will be an edited slideshow, Daleks will move around like paper cutouts (with their head bulbs flashing as they speak correctly), occasionally there will be an animated sandstorm or a CGI flame, but everything else is usually just production slides. Even the cartoon reconstructions suffer from this due to the very low budgets, although how much depends on what studio is making them. Some will take the easy route and use Adobe Flash, but others such as Planet 55 Studios will take painstaking lengths to create breathtaking visuals.
  • The Late Show with Stephen Colbert uses this for their recurring "Cartoon Trump (Hillary, Putin, etc.)" characters, who have only three or maybe four moves that they repeat unless an extra is added as The Reveal for a punch line. These are animated in time for a same-day broadcast.

    Video Games 

  • 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 Bros., 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 WarioWare series.
    • A third example would be Pit, who only appeared in an NES and Game Boy 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 series as a reference. This also applies to Dark Pit in the fourth installment.
    • Mega Man also has this in Super Smash Bros 4 to emulate his 8-bit incarnation.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Pokémon 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 become 3D only when you talk to them behind the bar.
  • Used to excellent effect in Twisted Metal II.
  • 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.
  • Played with in Guilty Gear Xrd: the game is fully rendered in cel-shaded 3D, but the animation was made intentionally choppy to emulate the aesthetic of classic 2D fighting games.
    • Played straight in all of the other games in the series and pretty much every Arc Systems Works fighting game in general: large and gorgeously drawn 2D sprites but the tradeoff is Street Fighter II-era animation.
  • The Paper Mario series began using mix-and-match parts to build its characters after the first game, which combines with the already-present Thick-Line Animation to create a visual effect very similar to an Adobe Flash cartoon.
  • Swamp Sim simply had Shrek as a T-posed model that slid across the ground when appearing and chasing you. A later update eventually gave him an actual running animation.
  • Hotel Mariospawned many memes, particularly a YouTube Poop intro which goes, "Where there's smoke, they pinch back." This comes from a combination of two of the game's infamous lines: "Be careful, when you pinch Wendy's pennies, they pinch back," and, "Remember, where there's smoke..." which clearly shared cels for Mario, to the point that you could paste the "smoke" bit before the "pennies" bit and only the background would change. Mario would not move one iota.
  • A typical facet of the Visual Novel genre when speaking to another character, although it might be subverted depending on the game. Despite making the leap to full 3D character models and scenes, Zero Time Dilemma still shows its characters snapping from one pose to the next off-camera with few instances of movement animation.

    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 with some scenes utilizing motion capture.
    • Played straight in seasons with Monty Oum's character animation. Oum had stated that he kept a pose library full of already keyframed animations and used Poser because the animations could be easily reused among different rigs. This also makes it a case of 3D limited animation. In addition, the show hides some unpolished animation in creative ways, like angling the camera and adding artificialJitter Cam to hide an arm glitching out from mocap data mishaps, along with having clipping and duplicated model extras justified by the original format.
  • RWBY, another Monty Oum project, uses limited animation much more conspicuously. Monty reused animations from previous projects with the show's characters and modified MMD character models, and the first season consisted entirely of playblasts with no lighting aside from the prebaked lighting in the environments. The seasons afterwards also had a limited number of background extras that would be reused over and over, sometimes leading to instances where one could spot "twins" in crowds.
  • 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.
  • Most of the animation in The Cartoon Man movies is quite limited.
  • The extent of the Ducktales characters' animation in Ducktalez is just the addition of angry eyebrows.
  • Girl Chan In Paradise parodies this to no end (when it's not delving into Deranged Animation instead.) Main character Kenstar is almost always seen with the same vaguely determined expression on his face (which in some cases is even just sloppily copy-pasted on,) and Kotomaru is almost always in the same "arms-crossed, eyes closed and looking kind of irritated" pose. Other scenes are blatantly recycled (including Yusuke falling down an identical flight of stairs from earlier in the the middle of the desert.) Also done semi-in-universe as well after Green Guy's Heroic Sacrifice; his voice actor is angry that his role ended so early and convinces the localization team to add him back in "as cheaply as possible," leading to a poor quality cut-out of Green Guy copy-pasted into random scenes (including on-top of Yusuke in one shot.)
  • The Happy Cricket's Solar Eclipse spin-off short
  • The work of Irish animator