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What Is Cel Animation and How Do Pro Animators Do It?

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Cel animation is a very popular way of creating animated films. It's been around for more than 100 years, and it's still used today! Cels are thin pieces of transparent celluloid that are placed over the top of painted backgrounds to create the illusion of moving characters. 

Although it's not as easy as it sounds - the cels have to be hand-painted and inked before they can be photographed, making it a more long and more tedious process than other types of animation. 

Still, this method was widely used before computer-generated graphics came along in the 1980s and many popular movies like The Little Mermaid (1989) were made using cel animation techniques, it was actually the final Disney animated movie to use this method of cel animation! So, what is cel animation? And how do animators go about doing it? Keep reading this blog post to find out!

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What Is Cel Animation?

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Cel-based animation is a traditional method of animation and is done by creating hand-drawn animations that use cels, or transparent sheets. They can be made of plastic, acetate, or even glass. The sheets are placed over backgrounds and drawn on with colored pencils, markers, or paint pens. 

Once the image has been completed, the cel is placed in front of a camera, which takes a picture. The cels have to be precisely aligned to ensure that the image appears on the same spot for each frame of film and is then digitally edited to create the final product.

Talk about a process that requires a lot of work! As you may know, it takes way more time to produce an animated film using this method than it does to use CGI. So why use it? Well, some animators prefer cel animation because they feel that it’s more lifelike when compared to traditional hand-drawn 2D animation or 3D computer graphics and they get to use their drawing talents!

How Did Cel Animation Start?

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The cel animation process was invented by Earl Hurd and John Bray in 1915. Later, Disney found alternatives to the original clear plastic cels and changed the way of cel animation techniques. The original material (cellulose nitrate sheets) was highly flammable and released dangerous fumes, not to mention it also had a very short life span even in the best possible conditions!

The new material used was cellulose acetate which was used for cel animation for a short time, but it had many downsides too. Another material was sought after, something that wouldn’t deteriorate so fast, and that was clear polyester. It was preserved at a much better rate compared to both cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate and was also so much easier for animators to work with. 

In this day and age cels are more artifacts of history than practical tools that are used in the animation industry today. 

How Is A Cel Created?

Snow White and The 7 Dwarfs on a plastic cel

Image by The New York Times

In short, cel animation happens in much the same way as traditional hand-drawn animation. Animators draw each image on paper before they are photographed and put together to create an animated film. 

However, instead of drawing directly onto paper, the outlines of the characters were carefully drawn in ink on the fronts of the thin transparent plastic sheets, while the reverse sides were used to paint the colors and details of the characters. 

The plastic sheets (cels) were then placed face up over painted backgrounds and photographed by camera one at a time. This gave the illusion of movement when all the scenes were played in sequence. 

This took a massive amount of resources, time, and effort, especially when animators had to create full-length animated movies!

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How Long Does It Take To Create A Cel?

An animator painting a yellow worm character on a animation cel

Image by Wikipedia

The time it takes to create a cel depends on the complexity of the image. A simple scene can take anywhere from 1-3 days per cel, while more complex scenes may take up to a week or month. The size of your image will also affect how long it takes to draw and paint, as larger cels require more time and effort.

If you want to explore cel animation and test it out yourself, create a scene that is simple and minimal. This will make it easier for you to draw out each cel. When your drawing speed increases, add more details later on and have fun experimenting with this golden-age animation process!

Are Cels Still Used Today?

animation cels still used in animation today such as this man walking with an umbrella


Yes! Cel animation is still used today. The most popular examples of cel-based animation are traditionally hand-drawn, but it's also possible to use this method in digital animation. Cels are still used in anime and film production, as well as video games.

Cel animation has been around for over 100 years, but it remains popular among animators who want their work to look like it was made decades ago - and why wouldn't they? The style has stood the test of time!

So What Is Cel Animation? Now You Know!

Snow White and the evil witch giving her the red apple

GIF by Disney via GIPHY

Cel animation may be an old process of creating animated films, but it's definitely still a process that can be used today. Pro animators have been using this technique for decades to create some of the most iconic cartoons we know and love today. From Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny, cel animation has truly stood the test of time!

So the next time you're watching your favorite animated show or movie, take a moment to appreciate the hard work and skill that went into creating it using cel animation. And who knows, maybe one day you'll be able to create your own animated masterpiece using this classic technique. Just don't forget to stock up on plenty of ink, pencils, pens, and cels!

For more information about cel animation, as well as answers to any other questions you might have about working as a freelance animator, be sure to follow our blogs, check out our free masterclass, and our Animation Business Accelerator Program, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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