Guide to cel shading animation.

Cel shading animation is a highly stylised visual artform that uses computers to give 3D characters a hand-drawn, 2D appearance. The distinctive style is commonly associated with video games and Japanese anime films. Some of the most celebrated and beloved video games around have used the style, but despite being widely popular, cel shading has only been around for a little over 30 years.

 

Discover the cel shading story and find out how to recreate the effects for yourself below.

Cel shading effects are used to make a pink racing car. © Bao T. Nguyen on Behance

Cel shading effects are used to make a pink racing car. © Bao T. Nguyen on Behance

What is cel shading?

Cel shading is a computer rendering technique often used in animation, particularly Japanese-style manga and anime. The method uses computers to replicate the appearance of a hand-drawn image, like those commonly seen in a traditional comic. The look is achieved by altering the way light falls across a 3D model. Conventional shading and gradients are replaced by smoother block colours and shadows.

 

The effect appears rougher, creating a sense that the image has been hand-sketched rather than generated by software. The name ‘cel shading’ comes from the material historically used for animation drawings: celluloid. 
 

History of cel shading animation.

The animation style first emerged in the late-1990s in Japanese anime films. Indeed, this technique is most strongly associated with animation cels in anime. But as the 1990s became the 2000s, the technique’s popularity grew, spreading into video games and beyond Japan’s animation houses. The success was, in part, down to the proliferation of ever-improving, cost-effective 3D rendering tools.

A cel shaded comic strip depicting a superhero flying away from a one-eyed monster.

A cel shaded comic strip depicting a superhero flying away from a one-eyed monster. © iQOO on Behance

Cel shading animation is a popular video game art-style and in recent years, it is in this medium that the technique has found a home. Jet Set Radio, released in 2000 on the SEGA Dreamcast, was the first game to truly utilise the technique. The beloved game garnered several accolades at the year’s E3 Game Critics’ Awards, including one for ‘Excellence in Visual Arts’.

 

The rendering method found even more mainstream success in hugely popular franchises like Dragonball Z, Guilty Gear and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

 

The method is used primarily in games as a visual style. 3D characters and images are made to appear more akin to traditional 2D figures, creating a highly stylised look for the game. 

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Examples of cel shading.

Some of the most visually distinctive and celebrated games over the past 20 years have used cel shading to great effect.

 

Here are some classic examples.

 

Jet Set Radio (2000)

The first game to truly delve into cel shading as a game art form. SEGA Dreamcast’s Jet Set Radio had players skating around a futuristic cityscape to an electronica soundtrack.

 

Jet Set Radio opened the doorway for future game creators and publishers to adopt and enhance the cel shading technique and widen its usage in the video industry.

 

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)

The tenth instalment in the huge The Legend of Zelda franchise, 2003’s The Wind Waker represented a big visual divergence from the art style commonly used in previous iterations in the series. The change in visual style proved divisive at the time, with many long-term players unhappy with the switch to cel shading and more cartoon-like character features.

 

However, over time the techniques used first in The Wind Waker have become a beloved feature of many of the game’s sequels and prequels. Indeed, the game now sits among the best-loved of The Legend of Zelda series, with its distinctive art style having proven a hit with gamers.

 

No More Heroes (2007)

No More Heroes launched on the Nintendo Wii in 2007. The free-roam game follows would-be assassin Travis Touchdown as he attempts to track down and eliminate his rivals in the business.

 

The game’s expansive world was brilliantly captured with cel shading, delivering a unique and immersive gameplay experience that delighted fans of the Wii console.

 

Okami (2006)

Capcom’s Okami launched on the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Set in feudal Japan, the game immerses itself in traditional Asian art-styles. Making full use of cel shading animation techniques, Okami is widely celebrated, not just for its innovative and expansive gameplay, but for the wonderful visuals used to create the world of the game.

 

Cel shading was not, in fact, the first choice of visual style for the game’s developers. Clover Studio had hoped to use more realistic rendering, but found their scope was beyond the graphical capabilities of the PS2 at the time. They turned instead to cel shading and the rest is history.

 

Borderlands Series (2009-)

Action role-play shooter looter series Borderlands has one of the most distinctive visual styles around. The game franchise adopts a cel shaded look, but the process to achieve the appearance is actually a slightly different graphical technique.

 

The Borderlands series does use hand-drawn techniques, which are then scanned into Photoshop and colourised using a method more commonly associated with celluloid rendering. Afterwards, stylised elements like sketch marks and heavy-pencil lines are added to the characters, further emphasising the chaotic, hand-drawn look that has made the franchise so appealing.

 

The Legend of Zelda; Breath of the Wild (2017)

Unlike its predecessor, The Wind Waker, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is hugely popular in part due to its incredible visuals and immersive art style. The game combines traditional cel shading rendering with soft pastel colours and soft lighting to craft a hyper-stylised world that blends realistic, cutting-edge graphical capabilities with the comic-book look that this form of rendering is associated with.

 

Hades (2018)

Supergiant’s smash-hit Hades is another award-winning game that uses celluloid-style shading to craft its visual style. In the game, players control Zagreus, son of the titular God of the underworld, as he embarks on an adventure - hacking and slashing his way through legions of enemies.

 

The game’s impressive visuals add to the fantastical element of the world in which the game is set. 

Cel shading is used to colourise a pile of CD discs in cases.

Cel shading is used to colourise a pile of CD discs in cases. © Bao T. Nguyen on Behance

How to do cel shading.

Start your cel shading journey in Adobe Photoshop. Follow the below steps to create your own style.

 

  1. Start with the colour. To begin, you’ll need to choose a block colour to add to your 3D image. For example, you might choose to use a shade of blue to block colour a car. You’ll want to stick with one shade to create the desired shaded effect.
  2. Lock in the layer. Turn “Lock Transparent Pixels” on for the layer you wish to shade. This prevents you from colouring outside of the lines of your chosen image section.
  3. Begin brushing. Select a darker colour than the shade you picked before. Then, switch to the hard brush tool to start shading your character. Consider how the appearance of light and shadow in your image is affected by the position and pose of your 3D character. You can use drop shadow effects for areas of the image that would be considerably darker.
  4. Lasso Tool. Alternatively, rather than free-drawing with the hard brush, you can use Photoshop’s lasso tool to highlight a particular section of your image before colouration.
Two cel shaded cartoon figures battle with swords.

Two cel shaded cartoon figures battle with swords. © Alessia Trunfio on Behance

Cel shading FAQs.

 

What’s the difference between soft shading and cel shading?

Soft shading blends colours more readily, creating a softer look that more closely resembles a painting in style. Cel shading animation, however, often uses block colours, with little blending between different hues and tones. This creates a harsher, stylised, hand-drawn appearance. 

 

What’s the difference between a cel shaded picture and a traditional shaded image?

Cel shading uses computer rendering to alter the appearance of light and shading. It creates the look of a traditional, hand-shaded image, but is not hand-shaded in process.

 

Does Genshin use cel shading?

The hugely popular JRPG Genshin Impact is one of the best-known cel-shaded video games around. Many classic JRPGs lend themselves to the cel shading, with celebrated series like Fire Emblem and Dragon Quest also using the technique.

 

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