In Fred Schodt’s book The Astro Boy Essays, Fred points out that many of the qualities and traits of Japanese “limited” animation (as opposed to Disney-esque “full animation”) could trace their origins back to Tezuka Osamu’s original Tetsuwan Atom anime TV series, a series which was impeded by a staggeringly low budget that all but required these sorts of animaton “shortcuts.” Critics in Japan at that time would remark that the qualities of anime described above, qualities that were born out of necessity, gave anime much of its distinctive Japanese style and that it was in certain ways better than Disney-style full animation.
Of course, not everyone agreed, and others saw the fact that the limited animation style was because of a lack of money, and could not see it as a “style.” Evidently, Tezuka himself had mixed feelings about it: he was happy that these cost-cutting measures allowed him to animate Atom in the first place, but as a loyal fan of Walt Disney it hurt him to be unable to use the full animation he loved so much to bring Atom to life.
There is a sort of latent fear that goes hand in hand with the use of limited animation, and it is the fear of limited animation gone awry: Still frames, camera pans on single images, talking heads, if a show consists of nothing but blatant animation shortcuts, how can it be called animation? From that perspective, the concept of full animation seems safer, but it too carries its own pitfalls, namely “over-animation.” This is where an animation wants to show off its use of full animation so much that everything is animated and nothing ever stays still, to the point that it is difficult to concentrate on what’s actually happening in a cartoon. That’s not to say that it is impossible to do either extreme well, but that ultimately the answer lies somewhere in the middle given the limitations.
A similar problem occurs in 3D animation. Sometimes an animator will work very hard on a scene and it will look visibly impressive and absolutely gorgeous. However, because of the ease of replication in 3D animation, where with a simple switch of the camera angle you can use the same animation or effect and make it seem like it’s entirely new, many animators become tempted. They are so proud of their work that they want to use it again, and again, and again, until it loses all meaning and impact, much like the animators who wanted everything in a frame to move in order to prove just how amazing their animation could be. At this point, the animators must choose to limit themselves, to realize that their tools while seemingly infinite will not produce an infinitely enjoyable experience.
People are boxed in by their limitations, but within those limitations they find ways to improve and to get the most out of what they have. Then, should those limitations no longer be necessary, the people who worked in that style might continue to do so, having honed their technique all those years, and from there it no longer becomes a necessary step but a stylistic choice. Among those stylistic choices are stylistic limitations, to keep a work from being overwhelmed by seemingly endless potential.
What’s amazing about this concept, style born out of necessity, is how often it occurs in art: Tezuka and Tetsuwan Atom leading to the prevalent style of the anime Industry is one example, but you also have video game music of the 80s and 90s giving birth to the “chiptunes” (electronic music made through sound chips, generally the kind found in video games and computers) scene, and even oils becoming one of the de facto forms of paint, among many others. What’s even more amazing is that when you move well beyond the era in which the artistic style was born, well beyond the memories of anyone who was alive to experience that era, you get fresh minds and fresh faces who can approach material with few preconceived notions.
A while back I attended a outdoors chiptunes concert with some friends. While I was enjoying the music myself, I also noticed that a small boy, no more than four years old, enjoying the hell out of the chiptunes. At first I thought it was cute, but then something occurred to me: this kid had been born well after the heyday of the NES and SNES, and so he wasn’t enjoying chiptunes out of some sense of nostalgia, but rather out of the aesthetics he had acquired in the little time he had been alive. It gave me hope that we would be rid of the idea that just because a style was born out of necessity that it would not be considered inherently inferior.