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5 Ways Animators Can Implement Cel Shading in Animations

ben marvazi 2020

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The Appeal and Advantages of Cel Shading for Animators

Cel shading is a technique that makes animations look like they've jumped right out of a comic book or cartoon. 

It's known for its bold lines and bright colors, creating a fun and eye-catching style that stands out. This approach isn't just about looking good; it's a unique way to blend the world of animation with the style of comics and graphic novels.

link from the Legend of Zelda video game shown with different shading techniques

Cover GIF by eyedesyn via GIPHY

In this blog, we're going to dive into how you can use cel shading in your animations. Whether you've been animating for years or are just starting to play with different styles, learning about cel shading can really shake things up in your work. We'll start with the basics and then move on to some of the more advanced stuff. 

Plus, we'll take a look at how cel shading is used in famous games like "Borderlands" — its style is so cool that there's even a mod for Fallout 4 cel shading that adds cel shading to the game. 

Understanding Cel Shading

Cel shading is a technique that gives animations a distinct, hand-drawn look, making them appear as though they’ve been lifted straight from a comic book. But what exactly is cel shading, and why has it become so popular in animation and gaming?

What is Cel Shading?

At its core, cel shading is an animation technique that uses fewer gradients and less shading to create bold, cartoon-like visuals. Unlike traditional 3D rendering that goes for realistic lighting and textures, cel shading relies on less shading and often includes black outlines to highlight forms. 

a rotating donut with cel shading


The History and Evolution of Cel Shading

Cel shading has its roots in traditional animation, where cels (short for celluloid) were used to create layered animations before the digital age. 

The digital version mimics this style, giving a nod to classic animation while using modern technology. Over the years, it's evolved and has been adopted in various forms, from TV shows to blockbuster video games.

Why Do Animators and Viewers Love It?

This style has a special appeal because it's different from the hyper-realistic graphics we often see. It offers a fresh, artistic look that stands out. 

For animators, cel shading is a way to experiment with styles that are both nostalgic and forward-thinking. For viewers, it's a visually engaging experience that reminds them of the cartoons and comics they love.

two character riding on a dragon illustrated with cel shading

GIF by Xbox via GIPHY

Basic Techniques in Cel Shading

Getting started with cel shading might seem daunting, but with the right approach, it's an exciting and rewarding process. 

Fundamental Techniques of Cel Shading

Simplified Shading: Unlike traditional shading which uses a range of gradients, cel shading uses a limited palette of colors to create distinct shadows and highlights.

Bold Outlines: One of the hallmarks of cel shading is the use of thick, black outlines around characters and objects. This not only defines the shapes clearly but also adds to the comic-book style.

Color Selection: Cel shading typically involves choosing vibrant, high-contrast colors to make the animation pop. This is where your creativity can shine, as color choices play a significant role in setting the mood and style of your animation.

Video by Micah Buzan ANIMATION via YouTube

A Step-by-Step Guide to Cel Shading for Animators
  1. Start with a Simple Model: Begin by creating or importing a basic 3D model. This could be a simple character or object.
  2. Apply the Base Colors: Use flat colors to fill in the different parts of your model. Think of it as coloring a comic book panel.
  3. Add Shadows and Highlights: Use a limited number of shades to create depth. Typically, one to two shadow colors and a highlight color are enough.
  4. Outline Your Model: Add the distinctive black outlines. Adjust the thickness to suit the style you’re aiming for.
  5. Experiment and Refine: Play around with different color palettes and shading intensities. Remember, cel shading is as much about art as it is about technique.

Now that you’ve got the basics of cel shading down, we'll delve into 5 ways to can implement cel shading to further enhance your animations.

5 Ways To Implement Cel Shading in Your Animations

1. Cel Shading in Character Design

Cel shading offers a unique avenue for animators to craft characters that are not only visually striking but also full of personality and expression. 

This style also allows for a wide range of stylization, from whimsical and cartoonish to more serious and grounded designs. The flexibility of cel shading means that characters can be tailored to fit any narrative or aesthetic requirement.

a rotating video game character with cel shading

GIF by sketchfab via GIPHY

Looking at examples from popular media can provide valuable insights into effective cel-shaded character design. Characters from video games like "The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker" or animated shows like "Archer" showcase how cel shading can be utilized to create distinct, memorable characters. 

2. Animating Environment and Backgrounds in Cel Shading

In cel-shaded environments, the focus is often on striking a balance between realism and stylization. This approach allows animators to create settings that are realistic enough to be relatable, yet stylized enough to evoke a particular mood or atmosphere. 

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While cel shading is characterized by its flat colors and lack of gradient, subtle texturing can add depth and interest to backgrounds without detracting from the stylized nature of cel shading. 

When designing backgrounds and environments in cel shading, it's important to consider how they interact with the characters. The environments should not only be visually appealing in their own right but also serve as a coherent backdrop that complements and enhances the characters' presence in the scene.

3. Cel Shading in Motion
a running robot from Borderlands with cel shading

GIF by Borderlands via GIPHY

Bringing cel-shaded characters and environments to life involves more than just visual design; it requires an understanding of how to animate them in a way that feels natural and engaging. 

Animating cel-shaded characters is a blend of traditional animation principles and the unique characteristics of cel shading. One of the key challenges is maintaining the style's distinct lines and colors while ensuring the movements are smooth and lifelike. 

This often involves carefully planning out each frame, paying close attention to how the outlines and shaded areas move with the character. It's essential to preserve the integrity of the cel-shaded look, even in fast-paced or complex movements.

4. Video Games: Fallout 4 Cel Shading and Borderlands

"Borderlands" stands as a quintessential example of cel shading done right in video games, offering a unique visual experience that has captivated gamers around the world. Its distinct style has not only defined the game's aesthetic but also influenced the broader gaming industry.

The game's visuals are a blend of sharp lines, vibrant colors, and exaggerated features, all hallmark traits of cel shading. This approach gives "Borderlands" a comic-book-like appearance, making it instantly recognizable and visually intriguing.

The success of "Borderlands" proved that cel shading could be more than just an artistic choice—it could define the identity of a game. 

The game's striking visuals have inspired other developers to explore cel shading in their titles, showing that this style can create immersive and engaging gaming experiences.

screenshot from a modded fallout 4 using cel shading

Image by Gamespot

It has inspired modifications in other games, such as a mod for "Fallout 4" cel shading that mimics the distinctive style of "Borderlands." This modding community's endeavor highlights the enduring appeal of cel shading and its ability to transform the visual experience of existing games.

5. Cel Shading Beyond Traditional Media

Cel shading, while deeply rooted in animation and gaming, has also found its way into other digital media forms, expanding its influence and showcasing its versatility.

In virtual reality, cel shading has been used to create immersive, stylized worlds that offer a unique visual experience. Cel-shaded VR experiences can feel like stepping into a living comic book, offering a distinct alternative to the more common photorealistic VR environments.

The potential of cel shading in digital media is vast. As technology advances, there are opportunities to apply cel shading in more interactive and dynamic ways, potentially in areas like augmented reality (AR), interactive storytelling, and online content creation.

Use Cel Shading To Boost Your Animation Appeal

a video game character with cel shading saying "let's rock, big boy!"

GIF by Nateb64 via Tenor

Cel shading is more than just a technique; it's a bridge between artistic expression and digital innovation, offering a distinct visual language that resonates with audiences and creators alike.

Whether you're a seasoned animator or just starting out, the world of cel shading offers endless possibilities to explore and experiment. Its blend of simplicity and expressiveness opens up new horizons for creativity in animation, gaming, and beyond. 

As technology continues to evolve, so too will the ways we can use cel shading to tell stories, build worlds, and captivate viewers. The question is: Is your animation business ready to evolve with it?

If you’re unsure, our Animation Business Accelerator Program provides insights, resources, and a supportive community to help professionals navigate the evolving landscape. 

If you’re an animator who’s looking to start your own studio or grow your career, check out our blog on How to Start an Animation Studio to kickstart your animation career today or give our free Masterclass a try first if you’re curious.

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