What is cut-out animation?

Cut-out animation is an animation technique in which pre-cut elements of the desired shape are moved frame by frame to recreate the illusion of movement.

Let’s take a concrete example: in the case of character’s animation, we will first divide the whole character by as many cut elements as needed to animate them. Each part of the body corresponds to an independent piece that can usually be articulated around a pivot point.

So for example, in the case I want to animate the arm of my character and my puppet is “rigged” properly. If I move the hand, then should follow the forearm, and then the arm. Each pivot point of the puppet usually corresponding to an articulation of the human body.

This kind of animation is similar to Inverse Kinematics. A process used a lot in 3D animation that allows to move several members in a logical an more natural way. For example, if I lift the foot of the character in a 3D space, his whole leg should rise with it.

Below, here is an example of puppets seted up for cut-out animation. We can see that pins have been placed where you want the cut element to rotate. These are usually placed in the same places as the joints of the human body:

Animation en papier découpé
Cardboard puppets prepared for cut-out animation

Cut-out animation pioneers

Among the first ones to have used this animation technique in a traditional way (because yes, it is still widely used today with digital animation -but I’ll come back to it later), stands out Lotte Reiniger.

This German director specialized in animating cut-out silhouettes. She began in 1919 to make several short films. Then she directed the first feature film ever made with this process named “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926).

For those interested, here is also a making-of the process she was used to make cut-out animation!

In the continuity of cut-out animation, we find an evolution of the genre that uses not only paper. But also other elements or even painted objects.

In this field, stands out the Russian director Yuri Norstein. He directed the short film “Hedgehog in the Fog” (1975) using various elements to create visual effects on the screen such as water and fog !

The Cut-out animation in the digital era

Nowadays, technology evolving, animation processes have also evolved with it. But despite the progress and complexity of new devices and software put on the market, the cut-out animation technique remains almost the same. It is still widely used by animation studios nowadays.

The only difference is that the puppets are drawn in an animation software. The points of pivots placed in a 2D or 3D space. And then the rotation of these points of pivots is calculated by computers! This is called Tweening Animation.

So here we find our character, completely cut, part by part, before virtual pivot points are applied to its members in order to animate them :

Marionette en papier découpé digitale
Puppet prepared in an animation software for digital cut-out animation

Nowadays, animation studios often use this production technique because it saves a lot of time and money.

No need to redraw frame by frame each drawing, as it is supposed to be with traditional 2D animation. We can draw each part of each character juste one time.

But it still is a tedious process when you think about it, because it is necessary to separate and prioritize each element 1 by 1 and it takes time!

However, after that, we can use them as much many times as we want to do for as much animation as possible. Sometimes we can even reuse some animations already done.

A good example of what is made nowadays in digitital cut-out animation is the TV series “South Park” :

Of course, this technique has its limits. The character remains quite stiff if you only animate around its pivot points and always with the same point of view.

This can be a good option on limited budget productions when you want to save a lot of time without spending too much time on animation.

But if you want more finesse, the technique of forms substitution remains a good option. This is a process that takes the basics of cut-out animation, but enable you to change images within the same element. It allows you to add an extra layer of animation and more subtlety to animation.

Especially when an element has to rotate around itself or when we want to add perspective when rotating a forearm. Sometimes, we have to redraw the wole character by hand during a fast action phase to have the best fluidity of movement.

The best solution being, if you want to save time in 2D animation while having a good final result, to use a hybrid animation technique. Like a mix of cut-out animation (for the characters that don’t move that much) and animation by substitution. Or even traditional animation for action phases when things move very fast!

Here is an example of animation that mixes the 3, this hybrid technique is widely used today by animation studios that produce TV series like “Archer” :

Some inspiration from recent movies

Among the contemporary directors of the stop-motion genre, French director Michel Ocelot gave us some pearls that should inspire you. He directed “Princes and Princesses” (2000) :

He later directed “Tales of the Night ” (2011) entirely produced in a 3D software. The hybrid animation technique can sometimes revive the flame of some old animation processes in a contemporary way!

And for those who would like to make their own cut-out animation movies?

I didn’t forget you!

Of course, the techniques used to do this kind of animation have a little bit changed over time … But the basics remain the same!

Here is a very interesting video of the stop-motion process to guide you step by step through the production of this kind of animation :

Feel free to show us your stop-motion animations in the comments section at the bottom of the article and share your passion for animation on Animation Nuggets Blog!

Now it’s your turn!

Cut it out meme


I am a professional 2D and 3D animator who worked for years on Animated TV Series and Video Games. (see complete profil description on the sidebar of the Blog). Have fun!

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