NeoPancho's corner

A blog mainly about videogames and other interesting things

So… what is a cel?


It has been a good while since animation cels stopped being used to create anime or cartoons and were replaced by digital animation… so there might be quite a few of you who don’t know what’s a cel. Let’s go!

Whether we discuss about cinemas, your computer screen, the TV or actually any device with a screen… well, they are incapable of showing “movement”, sure enough they can’t but they are quite good at mimicking it, the trick is to fake the true movement by showing a lot of static pictures (each picture slightly different than the precedent one), if you can produce static pictures (frames, each one of the pictures that create the sensation of movement) at a good enough speed, you can trick the eyes.

Anime and cartoons in general use this very same principle, they have to create the sensation of movement/animation by using enough frames, and that means they had to draw a lot!. Weekly common series like Dragon Ball, my all time favourite Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon use around 10 frames per second (OVAs or movies use a much higher frame rate) which is quite in the low side, but it depends a lot of the series or the scene, for example an action scene (for example a fight) require a higher frame rate to make it looks fluid while 2 static character speaking can be even lower than 10 frames or just 1 frame!. Now days, all those pictures are done in digital format, but (give or take) up to the 2k year, all that work was actually done by drawing  and coloring by hand each one of those thousands of frames used in each episode, obviously they recycled as much animation as they could in each episode. I’m sure i’m wrong with this, but it’s my understanding that the last anime super production that used cels was the Oh, My Goddess! movie.

To make this point clear; your TV more likely is 60hz (NTSC, HD) or 50hz (PAL), cinemas usually display movies at 24hz and there are some 120hz screen monitors and TVs… the hz (hertz) indicate the number of times that device refresh (shows a new picture) the screen… so technically those devices should be capable of showing as many pictures per second as hertz they use… so in one side we have figures like 60, 50 or 120 while i was talking about anime using just 10 pictures per second, both figures are obviously related but they mean different things… but the main point is that if for example, you only have 10 pictures (remember than even most Hollywood movies run at just 24) but need 60 for each second, you just repeat each frame 6 times to fill up… ^_^U


The process to create any animation sequence would be (roughly) the following:

  • It doesn’t matter if we are talking about an anime series or The Lord of the Ring trilogy, it all starts with a “story bard”. It looks a lot like a comic, but it details everything is needed for each scene.
  • Once we know how each scene should go, some rough draft are drawn of each main point of an scene.
  • If we feel that the draft are right, we can start the true production and for this the so called dougas are done, these are some paper sheets (you can see few in my gallery) in wich you can see the final art outline with indications about the shadows, brightness, colors ot those special details they have to pay extra attention.
  • Once the dougas are done, a process called xerography is applied, it’s similar to a photocopy, this process copy just the outlines (wich are much darker) of the dougas in a transparent layer… those are the cels, but we aren’t done yet.
  • Now that we have the cels, it’s about time to begin coloring them… and here we have a problem, if you buy 3 can of blue paint of the same brand, the same color, they should be identical… but well, more than likely they are not (even if you can’t tell them apart), if instead of using the natural color of the paint, you are going to mix them by hand, the problem is much bigger. To avoid this to some point, each cel is painted with just 1 color at each time; for example, once you have the right mixed color for the skin (for example), firstly all the skins (wich use that particular color) in a sequence is colored, by the time it’s finished, the firsts cels are already dry, so a new color can be applied to the sequence… using this technique they could  avoid to some point incoherences with the coloring (but it still happened anyway).
  • Now, it isn’t as easy as say “1 cel = 1 frame”. A single frame might use 3 or 4 cels, for example if in a scene there are 3 characters it’s not uncommon to use a cel for each character and combine them to look like a single picture; another typical use would be to have a single main cel of the face of a character without eyes and/or mouth, and then add those parts in different cels, so you only have to draw the mouth or eyes to animate the cel.
Nabiki Tendou (storyboard, douga, cel, frame)

Nabiki Tendou (storyboard, douga, cel, frame)