The Greatest Battle In History: Cel Animation VS Digital Animation

One of the many things that divides old fans from the new is a preference towards either older cel animation or newer digital animation. Older fans will argue that digital animation is dull and bland, while newer fans will argue that cel animation is dirty and clumsy. Me being someone who isn’t a close-minded motherfucker can enjoy both of them, and can see the advantages and disadvantages between the two media.

Considering it’s the older medium, a majority of the anime that exists in this world has been painted onto cels. If I had to pick any one aspect of cel animation that I think makes it stand out, it would be its texture. What defines the look of cel animation is the obvious marks of traditional instruments, an element of noise that comes through in the filming process, and striking fully painted colour palettes. All of these factors (and more) come together to create a look that’s very rich and bold. When it has money behind it, anything cel animated just looks impressive, simply because it’s obvious a lot of work went into it. Cel animation isn’t easy. Just the process of photocopying the lineart to the cels, then laying down the various layers of paint for the base colours and shadows is an extremely painstaking process, especially when you’re going all out with five layers of shading. But, when all that’s done well, it simply looks amazing.

That said, considering the budget and time constraints placed on most outfits that make Japanese animation, a decent number of cel-animated productions with TV budgets behind them don’t look spectacular. Sure, the not-quite-perfect look to older shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s can be charming, but it’s really difficult to make something that looks good cheaply. That doesn’t stop a lot of cel-animated TV series from looking fantastic, but bad cel animated shows simply look really bad. Also, cels are just really expensive.

At the turn of the century, most anime production companies switched over to digital means to produce anime. I think now every anime–even Sazae-san–is produced digitally. The best part about digital animation is that you can make things look good a lot easier and for a lot cheaper than you can with cel animation. A lot of the time consuming work of cel animation–the photocopying, the painting, the filming–is all streamlined with the use of animation programs. It’s also much easier to pull off special effects and complex lighting situations. You can apply all manner of effects to your cartoon and make it look nicer all with the push of a button. Things that once took hours of work now take no longer than a few minutes, and can be executed at a fraction of the cost. As a result, I think a lot of beautiful looking shows have come about due the convenient nature of digital animation.

This ease and cheapness of production can however be quite negative. If you look at a lot of early digital productions (and heck, a lot of current ones) a lot of them look cheap. I think this mostly has to do with the digital colour palette. You can doll up your cut of animation with as many layers of shading as you want (perhaps even all five) but it’ll still going to look like crap if your colours suck. What it comes down to is that the base colours on your computer’s colour picker simply don’t have the depth of a Gouache painted cel that is later photographed to film. As such animators have to put a bit more thought into the colours they use to create something more natural looking and less sterile. This issue of cheapness also shines through in simple digital shortcuts used to cut down on production costs even further. Of course, some studios can do this with style, but most can’t.

While I didn’t go as in-depth as I thought I would (words for this post were coming to me a lot easier two weeks ago than they are now), this more or less outlines what I think about both digital and cel animation. They’re both wonderful media, and a lot of beautiful productions have come about from both of them. At the same time there’s been a lot of duds, too. If I had to choose one I liked better, I’d have to side with cel animation due to its tactile nature, and simple nostalgia value. That said, I love what a lot of the more talented studios out there do with the digital medium, and think a lot of digitally produced shows are great looking, too.