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What Is Cel Animation & How Does It Work

Mar 7, 2024

Cel animation, short for celluloid animation, is a traditional animation technique that has played a pivotal role in the history of animation. In an era dominated by computer-generated imagery (CGI), cel animation holds a nostalgic charm and remains an essential part of animation history.


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What is Cel Animation?

Cel animation, a classic form of 2D animation, derives its name from the term 'cel' or 'celluloid,' signifying the thin, transparent sheets of plastic material on which the animation frames are drawn. While the material used is often celluloid, various plastics have been employed. The traditional cel animation process unfolds with meticulous attention to detail.

In the initial stages, each frame is individually hand-drawn onto a transparent cel using black ink, outlining characters and defining their features. Subsequently, the cel is flipped, and vibrant colours are meticulously applied to the reverse side, breathing life into the characters. Meanwhile, backgrounds are crafted separately, allowing for a layered composition.

The compositional magic unfolds when the completed, coloured cel is carefully positioned atop the background. This layering is captured through photography, resulting in a single frame of animation. Interestingly, the same background may be utilised with multiple cels, explaining why backgrounds often boast more intricate details than the foreground characters.

This painstaking process, repeated at the desired frame rate for the final production, creates the illusion of continuous motion. Traditional animation frame rates typically oscillate between 24-frames-per-second and 12-frames-per-second, aligning with industry standards. However, it's worth noting that the practice of cel animation has dwindled in professional animation circles with the advent of digital animation, marking a transformative era in the evolution of animation techniques.

The Origins of Cel Animation

The origins of cel animation can be traced back to the early 20th century when animation as a form of entertainment was just beginning to take shape. In the pioneering years, animators sought ways to bring illustrations to life on the screen. One significant leap came with the introduction of cel animation, a technique that departed from the earlier method of animating directly onto a single sheet of paper. The innovation allowed artists to draw characters and objects on transparent celluloid sheets, known as cels, which could then be layered over intricate background scenes. This breakthrough, credited to animation trailblazers such as Winsor McCay, set the stage for a more efficient and visually dynamic animation process.

The true watershed moment for cel animation, however, occurred in the 1920s with the advent of synchronised sound in animation. This era marked the rise of major animation studios, including Walt Disney Studios, which embraced cel animation as the primary method for creating animated films. The revolutionary success of Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie" in 1928, featuring the iconic Mickey Mouse, not only introduced sound to animation but also solidified cel animation as the standard technique for bringing animated characters to life. From this point forward, cel animation became synonymous with the burgeoning animation industry, and its evolution continued to shape the landscape of visual storytelling for decades to come.

The Cel Animation Process

Cel animation involves a meticulous and labour-intensive process that brings static images to life frame by frame. Here's a step-by-step breakdown of how cel animation works:

1. Storyboarding:

Before the animation process begins, a detailed storyboard is created to outline the sequence of events. This serves as a blueprint for the animators, guiding them through the narrative.

2. Character Design:

Artists create detailed character designs, defining the appearance and personality of each animated figure. These designs are crucial as they form the basis for the animation process.

3. Background Art:

While characters are drawn on transparent cels, the backgrounds are painted separately on non-transparent backgrounds. This separation allows for easy layering of characters and backgrounds during the animation process.

4. Cels and Inking:

Animators trace the character designs onto transparent celluloid sheets, known as cels. The outlines of the characters are then inked to provide a clear and defined appearance.

5. Painting:

Once inked, the cels are flipped over, and artists meticulously paint the characters on the reverse side. The use of transparent cels allows for vibrant and colourful characters that can be placed against different backgrounds.

6. Layering and Filming:

The cels are placed on top of the background and photographed frame by frame. Each frame represents a slight progression in movement, and when played consecutively, the illusion of motion is created.

7. Editing and Sound Integration:

After filming, the individual frames are edited together, and sound elements are synchronised to create a cohesive animation. This step brings the characters to life with synchronised dialogue, music, and sound effects.

Materials used in Cel Animation

Cel animation is intrinsically linked to the evolution of plastic materials, a crucial component that made this animation technique possible. The early days of cel animation were characterised by the use of cellulose nitrate, the earliest type of plastic employed for this purpose. However, cellulose nitrate posed significant challenges – it was flammable and prone to degradation, resulting in issues such as yellowing, crinkling, and the emission of hazardous gases over a short period.

Recognising the need for improvement, the animation industry transitioned to the use of cellulose acetate. This material proved to be a substantial upgrade in terms of durability compared to its predecessor, offering a longer lifespan for the cels. Nevertheless, cellulose acetate was not immune to degradation, and over time, it exhibited a particular issue known as vinegar syndrome. This phenomenon, named for the pungent vinegar-like odour released due to the chemical breakdown of cellulose acetate, became a concern in preserving the long-term integrity of cel-animated works.

In the realm of cel painting, a heavy, opaque acrylic or gauche known as 'cel paint' was commonly used by animators. As the plastic cellulose degraded, the paint on the cels experienced a parallel deterioration, often resulting in a condition known as 'paint lifting.' This affliction manifests as the paint flakes off the plastic surface, leading to cracks and imperfections on the animated frames. The intersection of animation and material science in cel animation highlights the ongoing pursuit of finding materials that can withstand the test of time, ensuring the preservation of these handcrafted works of art for future generations.

Cel Animation in the Digital Age

The transition from traditional cel animation to digital animation marked a significant paradigm shift in the world of animation. The advent of digital technologies brought forth a host of tools and techniques that revolutionised the animation process. As computer-generated imagery (CGI) gained prominence, animators gradually moved away from the painstakingly manual process of hand-drawing each frame on physical cels. Digital animation offered unprecedented flexibility, efficiency, and a broader scope for creative expression. Animators embraced software platforms that allowed them to create, manipulate, and edit animations with greater precision, speed, and a wide array of visual effects.

The transition to digital animation also introduced a new level of realism and three-dimensionality in animated works. Computer-generated imagery enabled animators to simulate lifelike movements and textures, pushing the boundaries of what was achievable with traditional cel animation. While this digital evolution brought about remarkable advancements, it also sparked nostalgia for the unique charm of hand-drawn cel animation. Despite the shift to digital, some animators and studios continue to incorporate elements of traditional animation, honouring its legacy and finding a harmonious balance between the old and the new in the ever-evolving landscape of animated storytelling.

Examples of Cel Animation in Pop Culture

Disney Classics:

Walt Disney and cel animation share a deeply intertwined history that has left an indelible mark on the animation industry. Walt Disney, along with his collaborator Ub Iwerks, played a pivotal role in popularising and perfecting the art of cel animation. With iconic films like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), considered the first full-length cel-animated feature, Disney showcased the potential of cel animation for creating immersive, feature-length narratives. The studio further refined the process with classics like "Cinderella" (1950) and "The Lion King" (1994), demonstrating the enduring appeal and versatility of cel animation across different eras.

While Disney has embraced digital animation in recent years, the legacy of cel animation remains deeply rooted in the studio's identity. The timeless appeal of characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, all originally brought to life through cel animation, continues to resonate with audiences of all ages.

Studio Ghibli Masterpieces:

With a distinct style and storytelling that captivates audiences globally, Studio Ghibli, the renowned Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, has left an indelible mark on the world of animation.

In its early years, Studio Ghibli produced masterpieces such as "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988) and "Spirited Away" (2001), both of which showcase the studio's commitment to artistic excellence and narrative depth. Hayao Miyazaki, the creative force behind many Ghibli classics, has been an advocate for the art of hand-drawn animation, and his meticulous approach to storytelling has garnered international acclaim. The characters, landscapes, and fantastical elements come to life through the careful layering and intricacies of cel animation, creating a unique and enchanting visual experience.

While Studio Ghibli has also incorporated some digital techniques in its later works, the studio's dedication to preserving the essence of traditional animation remains a defining characteristic. Films like "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" (2013) and "When Marnie Was There" (2014) showcase a harmonious blend of traditional and contemporary animation methods, illustrating Studio Ghibli's adaptability while retaining the artistic integrity that has become synonymous with its name.

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