What Is Cel Animation & How to Use It

Animaniacs Wakko Production Cel and Background Warner Brothers

What is cel animation? Is it still relevant after the advent of 3D and digitalization?

Cel animation is the traditional cel animation, hand-drawn animation technique that involves drawing and painting objects on celluloid (cel), a transparent sheet. Nearly all the cartoons in the pre-1990 era were created using cel animation.

One of the aspects of this technique is that it requires incredible attention to detail and an organized team of people with varying skill sets. Cel animation is not used much these days, as animators rely on computers.

2D animations still rely on many of the techniques and parts of the cel animation process, though most of the work is done digitally.

To give you a better understanding of what is cel animation and how to use it, we have addressed it in three parts – materials, process, and transition to digital animation.

What Is Cel Animation & How to Use It

What Is Cel Animation How to Use It 2

Materials Used in Cel Animation

The first thing you need to know about cel animation is what the materials you will need are? Being a technique that was invented a century ago, it relies less on materials and more on human skill. And since there was negligible technological development back in the day, these materials are rudimentary.

1. Cel

As the name suggests, cel animation needs a cel or celluloid. It is a transparent plastic sheet – you draw on the front and paint on the rear side of it. It is the raw material of the cel animation process.

Cel has seen an evolution over the years:

  • The first half of the 20th century saw the use of actual celluloid, made from camphor and cellulose nitrate. It was flammable and tended to wrinkle, yellow, and generate toxic gases with time.
  • Cellulose acetate replaced actual celluloid, as the former was more chemically stable and safer than the latter.
  • It was discovered that cellulose acetate is also not ideal for the preservation of cels. Hydrolysis released acetic acid over time, thereby deteriorating the cels.
  • Cellulose acetate was eventually replaced by polyester, which did not require any plasticizers.
  • Today, computers are capable of carrying out entire animation projects, eliminating the need for cels.

Animaniacs Production Cel Original Yakko Wakko and Dot with Guy

2. Paint

Now that we have talked about the raw material for cel animation, it is time to discuss the primary tool – paint, or as animators like to call it, “cel paint.” Cel animation uses an opaque and heavy gauche, acrylic, or similar type of paint. Paint is applied on the side of the cel opposite to the inked drawing, to avoid brush strokes.

Just like the plastic sheets, the paint has seen an evolution. Colorists used to paint the characters, and special artists used to paint the backgrounds by hand. Nowadays, the painting tasks are completed digitally on a computer using specialized software packages.

Cel Animation Process

If you want to use Cel Animation, you need to know how it is done. It can be a bit challenging for beginners to get it right as the learning curve is a bit steep. Make sure you understand the animation process and the steps involved to get better at it.

The Cel Animation process is time-consuming, expensive, and tedious. It involves a large team of people with specialized skills to complete cel animations. We have divided the meticulous process into three large parts:

What Is Cel Animation How to Use It 1

1. Communicate the Idea

Everything starts with an idea! A good idea is a prerequisite for good cel animation. Here are the steps you need to follow to communicate the idea:

  • A storyboard is created based on the script to convey the story to the production team.
  • An animatic is designed to check if the film’s timing works.
  • After approval of the story and timing, artists create characters and backgrounds.
  • Actors lend their voices to the lines in the recording studio.
  • Animators lip-sync the characters using the vocal tracks.
  • The director creates a dope sheet using the animatic and soundtrack. The dope sheet contains the timing of the sounds, movements, and scenes.

2. Draw and Paint the Cels

Once the idea has been communicated, the real work begins. It is the lengthiest and most intricate part of the entire process. Drawing and painting the cels involves the following steps:

  • Lead animator creates rough sketches of a scene’s keyframes (extremes of action).
  • Assistant animator cleans up these rough images, creating in-between drawings if needed.
  • The rest of the action (between the extremes) is drawn on separate sheets. The number of drawings is determined from the dope sheet.
  • After all the drawings are completed, a crude animation is done using a pencil test to detect any missing lines.
  • After a successful pencil test, the cleanup artist traces the rough sketches to ensure frame-to-frame consistency of the lines.
  • The inker transfers the cleaned-up drawings to the cels.
  • Cels are transferred to the paint department; special background artists paint the backgrounds.
  • Colorists apply cel paint on the opposite side of the inked side.
  • Painted action cels are placed in front of the background cels in the photographing process.

3. Film the Cels

The final part of the complicated process involves filming the cels. This is where all the action starts to take shape. It can be done in the following order:

  • The camera person gets all the inked and painted cels. The backgrounds with matching cels are photographed according to the dope sheet.
  • Synchronize and edit the vocal tracks, music, processed film, and soundtrack.
  • The final film is transferred to the lab, which makes a project print or puts it on video.
  • If you are using digital equipment, all of these steps can be done on the computer before publishing the film.

The Future of Cel Animation and 2D

Cel animation and other forms of 2D animation prima-facie have a somewhat uncertain future. Can you use these techniques for any of your future projects? Is it viable to rely on these processes in the dynamic and challenging digital environment today?

Cel Animation bugs bunny

1. Cel Animation – A Thing of the Past?

Is Cel animation a thing of the past or can you use it today as well? You can very well use it, but we don’t see why you should. With more powerful digital tools at your disposal, going through the long and tiring cel animation process is not feasible.

If you don’t want to take our word for it, take a cue from Disney. The last Disney-produced film that used 100% cel animation was way back in 1988. With “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, Disney started using the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS). CAPS was an efficient tool to lower the animation costs without compromising on the quality.

Today, most of the animation projects undertaken by reputed studios like Disney are completed using dedicated software packages, allowing for higher productivity at lower costs. So traditional cel animation is a thing of the past with close to zero practical uses today, except for students who want to explore traditional animation techniques.

2. Is 2D losing out to 3D?

It is not only the materials of cel animation that have evolved over the years but also the scope of animation projects. The 2D era was nearing its end with the onset of the 21st century, as the world of animation reaped the perks of a 3D perspective.

It would be incorrect to say that 2D has no place in the animation industry today. While 3D has undoubtedly become vastly popular, you can still find a decent number of 2D animation projects. One of the popular software for 2D animation projects is ToonBoom.

Animators’ preferences are subjective – some still prefer drawing sketches by hand to digital software, some still prefer 2D to 3D animation. 2D animation may not be as widely used as it was before we got introduced to 3D, but it is still going strong.

Disney’s “Winnie The Pooh” in 2011 was their last 2D feature, meaning that they have switched to 3D for all their projects since then. Japanese award-winning Anime films still use 2D animation with no plans to venture into 3D animation soon.

Most of the children’s cartoons are still developed using 2D animation. We don’t see that changing to 3D anytime soon. So it is safe to say that 2D animation is here to stay and it is not losing out to 3D animation.

Summing It Up

An animated feature would typically need over 100,000 cels. Cel animation used to be the only technique animators could use in the 20th century. There are far better tools and software packages in an animator’s arsenal today. Cel animation can still be used for small-scale projects that are not created for commercial purposes.

It is a tradition that animators across the globe value and learn from to this day.

Till next time, have fun animating!

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Anna Vaughn

Anna Vaughn

Immense painting experience recommends Anna. She shaped The Little Painters, a small local painting workshop for children that invites the little ones to explore painting through simple and creative means in a safe, loving and extremely colorful environment. In her home panting studio she plays with all paint mediums but watercolor is her expertise.

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