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How does cel animation work?

Cel animation is one of the oldest forms of animation. Watch Tony Collingwood describe how it works and how it has been adapted using computers.
When I first began animating films, it was all done on cel. So we’d draw the animation at 12 frames a second on a lightbox on various bits of paper with a pencil. And then we’d move that through and trace it off, individually, onto sheets of cel, maybe five or six levels of cel for every frame. And we’d then paint the back of each level of cel, and then we’d shoot it on the rostrum camera, and then we’d get the rushes back. And that was the way animated films were made. I think it was probably about 15 years ago that we threw away the last paint in our building, as all the painting of animated films moved onto computer.
Shortly after that, it was the animation that moved through onto computer. So, there is still people do animate in the traditional way. The majority of TV animation and film animation is happening on the computer using either CelAction, which is a computer system that some of you may be aware of, or Flash, or other forms of 3D animation, such as Maya. The idea of being able to tell a story and how you tell it hasn’t changed, but the mechanisms and the tools available to us have changed dramatically, certainly over the last 10 to 15 years.

Tony explains how cel animation works and emphasises that, although much of the production process now takes place on computers, most of the principles remain unchanged.

Working at first on paper, a traditional cel animation team will plan out and sketch the animated frames (roughs) or the key positions in a sequence before sketching in every frame of the sequence (inbetweening). Each drawing is then inked and coloured onto transparent sheets or cels – from which the technique gets its name. The transparencies are then photographed, in sequence, on top of a painted background.

Sometimes numerous sheets are layered on top of each other as more than one character or object is moving. To give perspective, multiple cels can be arranged on separate planes in a technique called multi-plane animation. You can see how multi plane camera was developed by the Disney studio in this short extract.

Animators working in 2D still use all of these techniques now, though they can be simulated for ease and speed in a computer program. However, many animators will at least start the process on paper, either for development or to create a particular ‘look’.

Is there anything that surprises you about the cel animation process?

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