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Animation FEATURES

Cel (or traditional) animation explained: definition, types and methods.

Disney delighted generations of fans with its cel animation films throughout the 20th century. The hand-drawn traditional animation technique revolutionised the look and feel of cinema. But what is cel animation all about and how does it work? Get the full lowdown with our expert guide.

What is cel (or traditional) animation?

Cel animation is one of the most traditional forms of animation and involves objects - usually characters - being hand-drawn on clear celluloid sheets and placed over painted backgrounds. These are known as animated cels or animation cels.

Artists at Walt Disney Studios popularised the technique from the 1930s. Cel animation was standard practice throughout the 1950s and 60s through to the 80s with films like The Little Mermaid. 

But by the early 1990s, the digital era was underway. Initially computers were used to colour film but soon the entire process was being handled digitally, Disney animator Floyd Norman told Collider. Critics, artists and cinema enthusiasts however remember the cel animation days as a golden age.

‘Back in those days animated films were made by hand, no technology. It was a handmade product.’
Disney animator Floyd Norman

Cel animation v digital animation: key differences.

Cel animation was the dominant form of animation used across Hollywood for much of the 20th century, as popularised by Walt Disney Studios. It wasn’t until 1995 that the first computer-generated film arrived in Toy Story, from the then-new studio, Pixar. But what are the key differences between digital and traditional animation? 

Hand-drawn vs computer designed.

The key difference between these two types of animation is way they are created. Cel animation saw artists draw by hand onto celluloid sheets, known as animated cels. Digital animation is created largely by software and computers.

Woman at desk looking at laptop drawing on design pad.

Algorithm vs artistry.

The Disney animators working on films like Snow White were artists first and foremost. Their tools were pens, pencils and paints. CGI creators, on the other hand, are working with algorithms and 3D graphics. CGI artists boast huge creative skills, but it differs from the hand-drawn approach of old, which was more like a form of fine art. 

Huge teams vs smaller teams.

Films created using traditional animation and animated cels needs heaps of resource. With every frame drawn by hand, productions would need lots of animators. Production companies could create CGI films with far fewer people in far less time.

Fascinated by the world of animation?

Keep learning by reading our beginner's guide to animation.

Examples of cel animation.

Cel animation first came to public attention in the late 1930s when Disney used the technique on its animated films — bringing previously unknown colour, movement and realism to animated films. Some key examples of traditional animation films include:

Hands holding an open clapboard.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

When critics and industry people talk about cel animation, Snow White is never far from the conversation. Released in 1937, it was the first American full-length animated feature. Animators hand-inked character outlines onto each individual cell, raising expectations of what could be created through animation.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

In 2015 ArtInsight asked its readers ‘why is original art from Sleeping Beauty so beautiful?’ The 1959 Disney used a mixture of hand-inked colours with the then-pioneering technique of xerography, which automatically transferred the original ink drawings onto the cell. This enabled Disney to create richly detailed frames more efficiently. 

The Lion King (1994)

By now, Disney had built over half a century of experience in creating traditional cel animations. And the arrival of the Lion King came during what critics referred to as “the Disney Renaissance”, with critics praising its warmth and colour. Many still see The Lion King as a benchmark for Disney animation.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

By the late 2000s CGI animations had become the norm, with Disney buying animation studio Pixar in 2006. But in 2009 Disney created a new hand-drawn film, The Princess and the Frog, under the direction of the team behind The Little Mermaid. It was one of the last hand-drawn Disney animations. 

How to make a traditional animation.

Traditional cel animations may have been replaced by CGI and other digital animation techniques, but you can still create a cel animation today. Learn how in a few simple steps:

 

  1. Get the right tools. Traditional animation relies on pens, pencils and paper rather than software and laptop screens. 
  2. Source your plastic. You’ll need a thin sheet of colourless, transparent and flexible plastic to create your animated cel. 
  3. Draw your outline. You can now hand-draw your outline on the front of the plastic sheet. 
  4. Add your colour. Now, on the flipside of your sheet you can add colour and detail within the outline. 
  5. Repeat for each frame. Draw and fill an outline for each individual frame in your scene. 
  6. Create a background. Design the background of the scene on a separate sheet of paper or board. 
  7. Place the animation. Place the animation cels over your background and photograph. Repeat for each frame. 
Man sat at desk sketching on a piece of paper.

Traditional animation techniques.

Traditional animation is made up of several techniques and processes, including cel animation. To give you a better idea of how those iconic animations were put together, we’ve detailed some of those below.

Cel drawing.

The practice of hand drawing individual frames of animation on sheets of thin, transparent plastic. These animations were called animated cels and the technique, popularised by Disney from the late 1930s, became known as cel amination. The outline is drawn on one side and the colour added on the other and then the animated cel is placed over a pre-created background and photographed. 

Cel overlay.

Cel overlay is part of the cel animation process that transformed how animated films were made in the mid-20th century. Characters were hand-drawn on plastic sheets and placed over existing backgrounds. These sheets of animated cels are called ‘the overlay’ because it’s being laid over the background, enabling characters to move and change their positions and expressions. 

Limited animation.

Frame by frame cel drawing created animated cels that looked incredible — rich in detail, colour and depth. But the process itself was time consuming and drained resource. Limited animation was developed as a compromise. Where possible, teams using limited animation techniques would re-use existing frames, only creating new animated cels where necessary.

Animation loops.

An animation loop is an animation that repeats. Generally, it will be a relatively short and simple sequence of animation set to continually replay. The first animation loops date back to the early 1900s and were used in Steamboat Willie, a short film by Walt Disney from 1928. In more recent years, digital technology transformed what could be achieved with animated loops.

Animation loop sheet showing different stages of a flame burning.

Multiplane processes.

Disney developed the multiplane camera in the late 1930s, revolutionising the cel animation process along the way. Previously, all animations in a frame were assembled on a single-level plane. This led to flat, 2D imagery. As the name would suggest, the multiplane camera introduced different levels or planes with different characters and objects placed at different levels. Shooting these from above created a sense of depth.

Xerography.

The printing company Xerox pioneered the technique of Xerography in 1938 as a new method for producing text and graphics on paper. When developing what became 101 Dalmatians in 1959/60, Disney used xerography to streamline the cel animation process. Scanning drawings directly onto cels saved animators lots of time and money, according to Disney animator Floyd Norman

Rotoscoping.

Rotoscoping is a technique animators use to bring realistic movement to characters. It involves tracing over footage of characters as they move frame by frame. It was developed in the early 1900s but was brought to the big screen by Disney in Snow White in 1937. Disney filmed actors in movement and then traced over that footage.

Fascinated by the world of animation?

Keep learning by reading our beginner's guide to animation.

Cel animation FAQs.


What was Disney’s last cel animation?

Disney’s last hand-drawn cel animation was Winnie the Pooh, released in 2011. The move ended an era of 2D animation that began in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and dominated 20th century popular culture. Other hand-drawn Disney classics include Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the Lion King (1994). Fittingly, AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories goes back to the very early days of Disney. 


What are the advantages of traditional animation?

The main advantage of traditional animation is the quality it created. With each individual frame hand-drawn by skilled artists, it brought previously unknown levels of colour, depth and realism to animated film. The main downside of cel animation is the time and costs associated with producing it.


Is cel animation still used today?

Cel animation is very much a product of 20th century Hollywood, most associated with Disney in the era of Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians. But there are enthusiasts who still use the techniques today and it has built an iconic status among a generation of animators and cinema enthusiasts. Often, those practising cel animation today and blending it with modern digital techniques. 


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