A Quick Introduction to Anime Cels

I grew up with hand drawn animation everywhere in my life. I lost count how many times I watched the classic Disney films – Aristocats was past the hundred count, at minimum. Anime films kept the momentum going through my teen years and into adulthood with the likes of Studio Ghibli and Satoshi Kon’s works. The art is feast for the eyes. But when it comes to pure visual indulgence, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is my favourite. The gothic style, imaginative world, and fluid animation never fail to leave me in awe.

Some months ago, I acquired several animation cels from Bloodlust and after finally framing my favourites, I thought it a good opportunity to share my passion for cels with you all. So here’s a quick introduction to anime cels. (Every Bloodlust cel in this article is from my collection.)

The Name

A cel derives its name from celluloid, the plastic on which artists painted the layer of a frame. However, celluloid is highly flammable – old film reels would catch fire from the heat of a cinema projector – and was replaced by cellulose acetate.

The Layers

Each element of a scene usually goes on a separate layer – one for the background, one for each character – to avoid the need to redraw the whole scene every frame. It is common in lower budget productions to find a character’s arm, for example, on a separate layer for even more time efficiency. This does result in the character looking a little stiff, however. Some mad men will redraw everything for each frame in key shots to make them as beautiful as possible, which we will see later. It isn’t unheard of to use a physical model in the background either instead of painting it.

Genga vs. Douga

Most cels you buy come with the corresponding production sketch, or ‘douga’ in Japanese, stuck on the back. Artists refer to a douga to paint the exact frame needed – the different colours on the sketch denote the levels of shading and differentiate parts of the subject.

It is easy to confuse douga with ‘genga’, which are the drafts of a cel. A genga, often drawn by the lead animator of the scene, gives an idea of how the subject should look, whereas a douga is the exact blueprint of the final cel. Once an artist reaches the douga stage, the decisions should be final.


The Value

The price of cels vary immensely, even within the same series. Three key factors determine the value in most cases:

Condition: A cel in great condition is obviously worth more.

Source popularity and scarcity: Cels from popular shows are more sought after, naturally, and thus increase in value. However, the number of cels produced for a series is also a factor. Dragon Ball Z, while more popular than Evangelion, has so many more frames available that if a fan wanted one of, say, Goku, they have countless choices. But if you wanted one of an EVA Unit-01, you are limited to 26 episodes and a couple of movies worth of cels. As a rule, the most expensive cels in terms of anime are from Studio Ghibli productions. Not only are their films popular and gorgeous, they only have cels for 90-120 minutes of screen time.

Framing: Once you start comparing cel value within a single production, it all comes down to framing – what looks best on my wall. The crown jewels are what we call ‘hero shots’. A major character will fill the frame like a perfect photo, their face will be visible with eyes open, and have no missing parts for another layer, as mentioned earlier. The value also goes up with the importance of the scene – this is the ‘cool’ factor. A hero shot of Goku from the Saiyan Saga will be valuable. A hero shot of when Goku goes super Saiyan for the first time will be worth ten times more.

The following cel of D is barely worth anything since you can’t make out much detail and the frame looks empty without the background (I included the exact screenshot for comparison). The ‘shadow’ image is the douga pasted on the back.

In Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, I’d wager the cels for the two screenshots below would be worth the most of the entire film. They look great with or without the background, have perfect framing, and ooze cool.

You can greatly increase the value of a “weak” cel – a character missing an arm and poorly positioned in the frame – by combining it with the other layers. If you can get the background, the missing arm, and the other character she’s talking to, which balances out her position in frame, the value now jumps back up.

Look at my cel below of Bloodlust antagonist Meier Link missing his lower legs and the screenshot of this cel in action. Should I find a frame with the carriage, it would be perfect.

The next cel of interest is the following close up of Meier. It looks odd, doesn’t it? The grey shading on his left cheek isn’t good, no? And what is with that thumbprint on his chin?

Well, look at this cel in the film. That shading on his left cheek is actually a special paint that gives a glow effect under a certain light. It’s magic!

You may be interested to know that artists paint cels from the back, not the front. Painting from the front looks great on canvas to give texture to portraits and the like, but with animation, you need that smooth, even finish provided by the celluloid. It’s hard enough that artists need to keep frames consistent, but they have to paint in reverse as well? That’s nutty.

Here is the above cell of Meier from the back.

Lastly, this is my favourite piece in my collection. You will recognise it as the feature image from my Vampire Anime Guide in the side bar (my cel is a few frames earlier). It was pure fortunate to have stumbled upon this cel so similar to the image I had used.

This is a single cel – no layers. The team redrew the complete frame each time for this shot, allowing for subtle movements in the hair and lighting. That is a lot of work for a second or two of footage. The mad men are dedicated!

My next goal is to acquire some great cels from Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but they aren’t cheap if you want a good one. Reinhard, where are you!?


4 thoughts on “A Quick Introduction to Anime Cels”

  1. That is very cool. I’ve never really looked at cels before. I have a few copies of parts of storyboards (and nothing very impressive) from movies but never really looked at the production side of anime before in terms of collecting. Thanks for sharing that (though I suspect budgetary constraints are going to keep me from getting too interested in pursuing this, it was great to see).
    And I really love that last one of Meier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As long as you aren’t going for the expensive cels, you can get good ones for a reasonable price. In fact, the framing will cost more than the cel, as you want to get UV glass to protect the cel from fading over time. Never hang them in places that get direct sunlight (not even for a minute a day).

      My suggestion to start with would be to look for just one good cel that you like and go from there.

      Liked by 1 person

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