Cel-ular Anatomy 101

The Cels


After the pencil sketches are drawn, it's time to create the actual cels.  (Before we continue, a little about the word cel.  It's not spelled with two L's, as it's actually a shortened form of "celluloid", the material that they were originally made from back in the early part of the 20th century.)

The first step in the creation of a cel is to get the linework off the pencil sketch and onto the cel.  The traditional method is to put a blank cel on top of the pencil sketch and to trace the lines with an india ink pen.  A cel that is produced by this method is called a hand-inked cel (imagine that!).  This method is very time consuming and therefore costs quite a bit more money than the more common "xerographic method".  The xerographic method is quite simple: the pencil sketch is fed into a machine (like a photocopier) which puts the image onto a blank cel. 

Both methods have good and bad points.  A hand-inked cel's linework looks sharp and clean, but because it is traced from the pencil sketch, certain details may be lost in the transition.  This, in addition to the higher cost, limits the amount of hand-inked cels now created.  (Most cels created until the late 1960's were hand-inked.)  Linework put onto the cel through the xerographic method resembles the animator's vision more closely than hand-inked cels because they are copied directly from the pencil sketch.  The problem with this method is that the lines may look quite rough.  Also, xerographic lines are put onto the back of  cels, not the front (like hand-inked cels).  Cels are painted on the back and certain colors of cel paint react to the linework, causing it to change color and/or fade as time goes by.

Once the cels have the linework on them, they are painted.  Cel painters carefully paint each cel on the reverse side.  This is done so when the cel is flipped over, the colors are uniform and flat.  (They photograph better this way.)   Since cels are hand painted, mistakes often occur.  Sometimes corrective cel layers are produced, or small areas may be painted on top of the cel.

Once the cels have been painted, it's time to photograph them!


background.jpg (11436 bytes)

This is a background painting.  Since images in the background are not going to move, there is no need to put them on the cel.   Background paintings are usually done by hand, but a newer method is to use computer generated backgrounds.  Computer generated backgrounds are usually used when the shot demands that the background be out of focus, while the characters remain in focus.  It's easier to get a computer to generate an out of focus style picture than it is to paint/airbrush one. Computer generated backgounds are therefore getting more common these days..

Many studios sell cels together with backgrounds (like Toei & AIC).   If the background and the cels match, and were photographed together, then you have what is called a key-master setup.  These are especially nice to have since what you see on your TV is exactly what goes up on your wall!  Since these Burn Up cels match the background (and the numbers match that storyboard sketch), this setup is also a key-master.


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Here's the background painting, with the "A" layer on it.   Pegs on the animator's table fit into the cels' registration holes (the three holes along the top edge of the cel).  The registration holes/pegs system is what keeps the cels from sliding around and enables them to stay in synch.


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This is the background with three cel layers (A,B,&C).  Layer "B" is the old dude's mouth and layer "C" is Maya's mouth.  This is what is called a multi-cel setup.  It made sense for the animators to only animate the mouths since they are all that is moving in this shot.  If they decided to do this shot as a single-cel setup,  Maya, Rio and the old dude would have to have been painted on every cel used.  This would have been time consuming and expensive.  It  would also have created a "shimmering" effect when the cels were photographed, as each cel would be slightly different. (Try coloring 30 of the same image and see if they are exactly the same.  We bet they won't be!)   Multi-cel setups are handy for animators, but because they are photographing through many cels, the colors can look murky.  Also, cel imperfections (scratches, and dust) are much more visible.  Cel spotting is common with multi-cel setups, as the constant contact of each layer causes abrasions which resemble spots.

Single-cel setups are primarily used when there is motion, or only one character in the shot.


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By now, Koji and Lilica have entered the shot.  Each one of their arms is on a separate cel.  The action called for each arm to slide into the shot.  Since the arms aren't really moving (they are slid), only one of each cel was made (D1end & E1end).  There were only a couple of mouth cels made for Maya and the old guy.  By using the mouth cels over and over, you can make it appear that they are talking.  An entire scene can be shot with only a handful of cels!  It all depends how the cels are photographed.  Instructions for how the cels are to be be photographed are written on a sheet of paper called shooting instructions (pretty smart, those crafty devils!).  They tell the cameraman which cels to photograph and how.  Many cels include shooting instruction sheets, especially cels from Toei.


The final word on cels is the final word on cels....  As technology gets cheaper and labor costs get more expensive, there will be a point when it costs studios too much to generate traditional hand-painted cels.  Computer technology already enables animators to scan their drawings directly into computers.   They then use the computer to "digitally paint" their animation.   This method doesn't require cel painters, so it is cheaper than traditional animation.  This method doesn't require cels, so it is cheaper than traditional animation.  Many studios have already made the switch to computers.  It's only a matter of time before the others do to.  Animation studios are concerned with the bottom line.   Production cels are a happy byproduct of traditional animation, but when studios can do the same thing for a fraction of the price, guess which way they will go.    The creation of cels as we know them is a dying art form, so enjoy them while you can!


Back to Cel-ular Anatomy 101 - Page 1


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