Cel-Shaded Animation in a Nutshell

Drawing by hand will always be regarded as the beginning of animation. This is why even with advanced technologies now in the art of making things move from static images, computer graphics can still return to the look of hand-drawn animation. One key animation style to get that look is cel-shaded animation.

By the name of the animation style itself, it is clear how it is rooted in hand drawings. Cels are the clear sheets of acetates wherein the classic 2D animation style of Disney films of the past were drawn. In a nutshell, cel-shaded animation aims to make computer graphics appear as though they were hand-drawn. This is accomplished through non-photorealistic lighting.

The results may look simple but the actual process is quite complex. Beginning with a 3D model, cel-shaded animation proceeds to create discrete shades which would give a flat look typical of 2D animation. Similar to comic books, emphasis can be given to drawings highlighting black ink outlines and contour lines.

Cel-shaded animation, curiously, is more popularly associated with video games. Whenever a new game will come up, many gamer geeks and aficionados would often ask about the quality of the cel-shade. To recap, the first successful application of cel-shaded animation in video games is with the Sega Dreamcast game Jet Set Radio. Not to be outdone, Sony PlayStation released Fear Effect. Good times for sure.

However, the first criticisms then involved the quality of the appearances of the characters. Although dramatic textures were achieved with these early games, it lacked dynamic light-sourcing and outlines.

Even with the technological limits of the first batches of cel-animated video games, a small trend began to brew among game developers. Cel-shaded games started to appear like mushrooms: Sly Cooper, Thievius Raccoonus, Dark Chronicle, Cel Damage, Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil, Viewtiful Joe and of course Jet Set Radio Future. What stood out among the pack, at least commercially, were The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Tales of Symphonia and Sly 2: Band of Thieves.

One game which tried to capitalize on the popularity of cel-shaded animation unfortunately experienced adverse results. The House of the Dead III, designed for the Microsoft Xbox, started production of the game with cel-shaded graphics – yes, an anime-like look for a zombie-based gunner game. So with disaster brewing for this awkward recipe, SEGA decided to scrap the cel-shaded look and go for conventional animation styles. Maybe the negative response was so overwhelming to ignore.

Although cel-shaded animation has not taken the video game industry by storm, it is still an effective motif to used when implemented properly. Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy, Killer 7, No More Heroes, Metal Gear Acid 2, Okami and the most recent incarnation of Prince of Persia all feature 3D animation which appear anime-like or hand-drawn. Moreover, when handhelds were not as powerful as today, most games were in cel-shading animation. Examples would be the Tony Hawk series and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS.

Cel-shaded animation can somehow be compared with abstract painting. It does not have to exactly represent reality but when used with skill and adequately, it can create stunning treatments for multimedia entertainment such as video games and even animated movies.

Mildred K. Pearson

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