Definition and Examples of Limited Animation

Limited animation makes use of special techniques to limit the effort involved in producing the full animation so that not every frame has to be drawn individually. When producing anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours of animated film at 12-24 (or even 36!) frames per second, that can stack up to thousands or even millions of individual drawings. Even with a full animation team in a large-scale production company, this can be almost impossibly labor-intensive.

So animators will make use of limited animation techniques, which involve reusing all or parts of existing animated frames while drawing new frames only when necessary. You'll often see this more prominently illustrated in Japanese animation; in fact, it's one of the reasons that people often claim Japanese animation is inferior to American animation, even if American animation also frequently makes use of limited animation techniques. It's just a little less obvious about it.

Examples of Limited Animation

One of the easiest examples of limited animation is reusing walk cycles. If your character is walking toward something and you've created a standard 8-frame walk cycle, there's no need to redraw the walk cycle for every step. Instead just replay the same walk cycle over and over again, either changing the position of the character or the background to show movement progressing across the screen.

This doesn't apply only to people; think of a locomotive's wheels churning or a car's wheels turning. You don't need to animate that over and over again when viewers won't be able to tell you've reused the same cycle as long as the motion is smooth and consistent.

Another example is when characters are speaking, but not moving any of the other visible parts of their bodies.

Instead of redrawing the entire frame, animators will use one cel with the base body, and another with the mouth or even the entire face animated on top of it so that it blends in seamlessly with the layered cels. They may just change the mouth movements or may change the facial expression or even the entire head. This can count for things like arms swinging on static bodies, machine parts, etc.—anything where only part of the object is moving. What matters most is that it blends in seamlessly.

Yet another example is in hold frames where characters aren't moving at all. Maybe they've paused for a reaction beat, maybe they're listening, maybe they're frozen in terror. Either way, they're not moving for a few seconds, so there's no point in drawing them in the exact same position. Instead, the same frame is reused and snapped over and over again for the correct duration using the rostrum camera, when the animation is brought to film.

Stock Footage

Some animated shows make use of stock footage—animated sequences that are reused in almost every episode, generally for some hallmark moment that's a key part of the show. At times footage will also be reused in mirror image, or with various changes in zoom and pan to just use part of the animated sequence but with enough of a variation to make it seem unique.

Flash, in particular, makes limited animation techniques extremely simple and commonplace, often reusing base character shapes and animation sequences even without the extensive use of tweens to substitute for frame by frame animation. Other programs such as Toon Boom Studio and DigiCel Flipbook also enhance this process and make it easy to recycle footage and character art.