One of the major characteristics of limited animation is stylized design in all forms and shapes, which in the early days was referred to as modern design. The short-subject and feature-length cartoons of Walt Disney from the 1930s and 1940s were, and still are widely acclaimed for depicting animated simulations of reality, with exquisite detail in every frame. However, this style of traditional animation is more time-consuming and both labor and budgetary-expensive. "Limited" animation creates an image with abstract art, symbolism, and fewer drawings to create the same effect, at a much lower cost (in terms of time, money and labor). 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 motion picture style that could not have developed if animation was solely devoted to producing simulations of reality. Without limited animation, many groundbreaking films such as Gerald McBoing-Boing, Yellow Submarine, Chuck Jones' The Dot and the Line, Watership Down and many others could have never been realized.
The process of limited animation aims to reduce 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. Limited animation mainly reduces the number of inbetweens (the routine drawings between the keyframes which define a movement) and can cause stuttering if inbetweens are poorly set up.
Overall, the use of limited animation doesn't necessarily imply lower quality (as it visually seems), since it allows the use of many time and labor-saving methods (particularly the reduced number of routine drawings) that can practically improve the quality and flow of the keyframes and overall presentation of an animated drawing.
The use of budget-cutting and time-saving animation measures in animation dates back to the earliest commercial animation, including cycled animations, mirror-image and symmetrical drawings, still characters, and other labor-saving methods were employed. In general, the progression was from early productions in which every frame was drawn by hand, independent of each other drawing, toward more limited animation that made use of the same drawings in different ways. Winsor McCay, a man who put an unprecedented amount of detail into his animations, boasted that in his 1914 film, Gertie the Dinosaur, that everything moved, including the rocks and blades of grass in the background. In contrast, his 1918 film The Sinking of the Lusitania progressed to using cels over still backgrounds, while still maintaining a level of detail comparable to that of Gertie. The 1942 Merrie Melodies short The Dover Boys was the first Warner Bros. cartoon to employ some of the processes of what would become known as "limited animation", but their use was sparse and pressure from Warner Bros. curtailed further use of these processes.
Limited animation as an artistic device and a style for an animated short film was pioneered in the independent animation studio UPA, which made the first serious attempt to abandon the inbetween-heavy approach first perfected by Disney and Max Fleischer. UPA's first effort at limited animation, Gerald McBoing-Boing, won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Subject a few months after its release 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 inbetweened animations, it is much less expensive to produce. The 1950s saw most, if not all of the major cartoon studios change their style to limited animation, to the point where painstaking detail in their efforts occurred only rarely.
Limited animation styles 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.
The variety of styles (aka methods or processes) used to produce cartoons on a reduced budget include:
- Cels, and sequences of cels, used repeatedly; animators only have 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.
- Suggesting movement by either moving the camera or by moving the cel across a background. A famous implementation of this is the "crash" method, 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 cel to represent the opposite angle). Many cartoon characters are drawn symmetrically to expedite this process.
- Visual elements made subsidiary to audio elements, so that verbal humor, voice talent and script writing become more important factors for success.
- Silhouette, to help avoid having to keep track of shading on an animated character or object.
- Stock footage: sequences that are reused frequently. This is the case of the character transformations in the Magical girls subgenre of Japanese anime series, such as Sailor Moon. Filmation used this strategy for the majority of their 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).
- Syncro-Vox, involves 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 method, 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.
- Canemaker, John (2005). Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (Revised ed.). Abrams Books. ISBN 978-0-8109-5941-5.
- Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-betweens - A Life in Animation (PBS 2000)