Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why I Love Cel Animation (Specifically in Anime)

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how anime today are so “detailed” and “beautiful”.  For me it’s hard to see it, at least when I compare it to cels.  In my opinion Japan made the most gorgeous cels, in their detail style and color.  Their appeal for me goes much farther along than with digital coloring. 

Within each single shade, there are what I like to call permutations within the colors.  When animated, going from cel to cel, you can see a sort of flicker of life between then.  There are endlessly more colors inside the apparent one than there would be in the flat colorization of tra-digital anime.  The colors are so rich in cel animation, they can’t just be copied.

To give an example, I’ll use two shots from Evangelion, one from the original series (actually Death and Rebirth) and one from the Rebuild films. Both are pretty much the same shot, but one used a cel and the other colored digitally:

Original Cel:

Rebuild Scene:

This is the same scene.  You’ll definitely notice with the second image, the one colored digitally, that there is a sort of haze, a diffusion over the image.  This is done almost always in post production of anime now since digital colors are very flat on their own, a diffusion filter is added to give the appearance that the colors are denser than they actually are.

However, with a well known studio like Ghibli, they tend to not use this method of having filters. Compare a publicity cel from My Neighbor Totoro to a similarly lit image from Ponyo.

Though the backgrounds in Ponyo are still hand painted, the characters are not so they stick out and do not blend with the backgrounds as well as those in My Neighbor Totoro. Therefore, the contrast was taken down a bit. Ghibli’s animation is very good and they often have very rounded, dense drawings, yet their coloring too suffers from a, comparative, flatness.

Another thing that is missing from the new anime is a wider range of styles and spontaneity in the drawings.  I’ve found that digital coloring is much easier to do when there are more fixed, jagged character designs, and that’s just what today’s anime is filled with.  Flat looking, details widely spaced and angular.

Now, this certainly isn’t true with all contemporary anime, some are quite soft looking, but it seems this is a good example of the modern style. Digital mapping, however, is something that has produced some very beautiful looking anime, such as Gunkutsuou. In this anime, colored textures are mapped onto the folds of characters’ clothes and even hair.

I’m not complaining overall about digital coloring, but I am expressing that I feel it’s a pale shadow of a now lost art form. 

When I was speaking of spontaneity in drawings, I was referring to how cels were, in the time of anime, xeroxed from the pencil drawings and hand painted.  There was a retention of the texture and energy of the drawings.  In 70s and early 80s anime, one probably notices a very gritty look to cels, which usually contained hatching left from the drawing stage.  Also, since the cels were hand-painted, it allowed the drawings to be more curvy in places or crammed with detail. 

Also, besides inking and painting, there was also the use of dry brush and airbrush techniques on the front of the cels to add texture and more volume, still done in digital but with a more visceral sense with cels.  Not only that, but many times cels needed to be rephotographed in order to have things like bright light sections or separately animated reflections, things that were matted, to photograph one element and countermatted to photograph another on one frame of film.  Sometimes many “passes” would be made, combining different elements.  All before digital compositing. 

The reason I’ve been using examples from Macross so much is because that’s a show (and movie) where the delicacy of some of the character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto would not have been possible through digital scanning and coloring. 

Anyway, that’s my opinion on the matter, which I do feel very strongly about.  It’s a matter of taste, whether you like cel or digital painting, but for me the most beautiful will always be that done on cellulose acetate.  

Also, if you can’t tell, my favorite animated film is Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984).

If you want to investigate many more anime cels, I suggest checking out this site:  as it has tons of them to look at and appreciate. 


  1. cell animation is the finest. pure artistry.

  2. Replies
    1. I also have a theory about animation today:

      Not only has much of the original charm of the hand-painted quality of animation in general been largely lost, but I personally find that much of the writing and story quality in animation in general has been rather lazier as well (in my opinion).

      Animé series particularly, for instance, were generally of such a peak quality in the 80s and 90s because back when animation was entirely hand-produced, it was time-consuming and careful work, so you as producer had better made sure that what you're producing was worth the time. They were careful in selecting what they animated.

      But since digital (cheaper/faster) means of producing animé (or most animation) has replaced much of the care and labor, they've generally become lazier. You can see this sort of "mass-production," ready-made feel of most animé today, There are few titles today with stories or animation quality that rival the quality of Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Wolf's Rain, Rurouni Kenshin, etc.

      You just don't find too many series with the level of solid character development as Cowboy Bebop or Outlaw Star (or pretty much anything from the likes of Sunrise back then) much anymore, and you don't find many series that feature spectacular delicately-hand-painted scenes like Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory and Samurai X. I watch these and they still impress me, just the amount of sheer details those folks put into these series. True labors of love.

    2. Of course, there are exceptions to my overall theory (Death Note is one of the greatest anime of all time to me and I love Soul Eater, digitally-painted or not), but just not in plenty enough (to my tastes). I agree with you--I too am not complaining about digital painting. I think there's a place for all sorts of animation, and I do enjoy some digital animation. Though, my preference will always lie with hand-painted cel animation, much like how a wine lover appreciates a well-aged wine. It's a thing of beauty to taste.

  3. I'm happy I came across this article. Yes, I too miss the painstakingly made cel animated Japanese shows during the 90's. All the things you said about those shows and how more charming they are to today's anime are the same as what I have always had in my thoughts. To think that they have hand drawn and hand painted ALL the "frames" in a sequence, it's mind blowing. You've said it, it's truly a labor of love.

    To me, Rurouni Kenshin is the best. The details, the line art - it's just a masterpiece.

    Thanks for this!

  4. I agree 200% with everything in this blog piece! Only thing I want to say is that I loved how the animation was in the beginning of mass-produced digital animation, when it was done right, but after that,fuck it!

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  6. I couldnt agree more. I found this particular post because ive been interested in getting into animation for a while. Partially as a hobby, but mainly because I grew up watching anime like Rurouni Kenshin and Yu Yu Hakusho and Ghibli films. I dont think anything would make me happier than being able to produce work at the same level of quality. Even if I never get further than painting a few cels in my free time.

    Watching newer, digitally painted anime is very strange for me. As an artist I find a lot of things I can appreciate about digital art, but I can never shake this nagging feeling that its just not the same, that its missing this warmth and depth that computers just cant reproduce.

    Maybe its the same reason I prefer vinyl over all other means of experiencing music. That almost indescribable quality that you either get or you dont. Maybe its because it never ceases to amaze me that somebody made every frame by hand and that thought stands ever present in my mind when I watch cel animation. Whatever it is, I want to learn how to do it.

  7. Another thing to take into account is the film its shot on which has random grain from frame to frame! Which also adds to the traditonal feel

  8. Interesting read, however there a few things not quite right. One is that Anime in the 80s and 90s was also mass produced, in fact all animation post 1950s is. The amount of work, is not much more than today, there certainly isn't as much work put in to most works as you seem to think. The drawing stage is basically the same with pencil drawings, xeroxing onto cels is quick and the painting is really just adding one or two layers of flat colour. Airbrushing and dry painting is something they wouldn't have the time for unless it was a high quality film or OVA. Cel paint is also just as flat as digital and the use of digital paint doesn't have any effect on the way the characters are made, the example you used, the characters are from a Manga.

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