The history of the animation cel

Stained glass windows, gun cotton, incendiaries and Celluloid

By Brian Clark of Film Sales Ltd.

The West window of the Church of the House of Prayer, Newark, New Jersey bears a spiritual likeness and Latin inscription dedicated to the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin. The motivation for this stained glass dedication was not so much related to his devout duties as rector of the Church, but more directly to commemorate an unusual legacy in memory of which every animator should be truly grateful. For, in 1887, the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin filed a patent application for the world’s first continuous casting process to make transparent film in long lengths. Not so endearing was the fact that the film cast used Collodion – a rather noxious cocktail of gun-cotton in ether. Whilst His Animation-unaware Reverence was intent only on improving his etchings, the Eastman Kodak company had other ideas, leading to them filing an expanded patent in 1889. Their initial 1891 production involved solvent casting reels of cellulose nitrate film (Celluloid, a close relative of gun-cotton) on 200 foot long glass topped tables. Soon competitive production blossomed in France where perhaps the heady benefits of alcohol laden factory air may have fired industrial fervour. Clear celluloid film in long joinable lengths provided the Animator, from 1891, with the potential to draw upon cel and to shoot it onto cine film in his Kinetograph. Armament enough to make cartoons, but, unfortunately, with celluloid ammunition that could disintegrate with time and had a disturbing disposition to conflagrate with violence if provoked, and sometimes if not! As late as 1942 the flammability of celluloid from British Xylonite Ltd. was aiding the war effort with its use in little crop destroying incendiaries that were cost-effectively produced in their millions.

Three more components were needed before the curtains could be finally opened upon safe, stable and storable Cel and cine film. In 1891 Celluloid film was starting the first component: economic production of long film lengths, using continuous wheel or drum casting machines was achieved at the US Celluloid Company, aimed specifically at the Photographic industry. Only ten years later the second was in place, for in 1901 Bayer showed that cellulose triacetate could be made into a film by the casting process. The stage was set, but suffered a very long overture as the solvent researched and patented by Bayer happened to be chloroform, even then not too people-popular for such vast volume applications, even if the off-putting price was accepted! The need for safety was highlighted by celluloid fires, especially where the loss of X-rays was concerned -and more particularly in 1925 when the afflicted X-ray store was in the middle of a Hospital in Brooklyn. Awaiting the bulk production of the then-considered-safe solvent, methylene chloride, a quarter of a century passed from 1901 before even tentative production of triacetate film was made at the Bauchet company in France. Economics ruled, so not until wide casting machines and bulk (cheaper) solvent capacity became available did triacetate seriously displace nitrate in 1936. With typical human ingenuity triacetate arrived just in time to help the war effort in tandem with Celluloid – by proving to be an effective insulating material for coils, cables, transformers and motors that are so much more useful to a war than animated films.

So today’s Cel material of the 90s, with every likelihood of healthy passage well into the 21st century, celebrated its 90th birthday in 1991 and anticipates its 60th anniversary of adult production in 1995. Everyone knows the gigantic strides of the Plastics Industry since ‘the War’ – but triacetate is nearer the norm than the exception with its longevity. Exempting specialist low volume and high performance materials the newest ‘bulk’ clear film with which it rubs shoulders is Polyester – an infant one might suppose in comparison, but an infant that has an age of nearly 40 years. Despite much trying and cajoling the innovative, technically impressive and truly British polyester never really proved suitable for the stringent demands of animation cel. Geriatric triacetate has always been quicker round the block with its better clarity, impeccable surface finish and ability to grab and hold onto a wide range of water based animation paints. Compared to polyester it has to be said that it tears rather easily – but then if that was the yardstick it would certainly rule out that very delicate paper stuff in almost every one of its uses. The very strength of polyester gives such headaches to camera and cine projector designers that it is far more practical to stay loyal to tn-acetate, which every night of its life seems to withstand express and fitful feed through tens of thousands of cinema and TV converter projector gates world-wide.

Being near its pensionable age, Triacetate is not the most likely of candidates to be thought able to enjoy any further technical progress. It still had one Achilles heel, which is more likely to become a trump card to maintain its appeal to new as well as old generations of animators. Without entering the ‘Will Animation Go Bit-Mapped?’ argument it is indisputable that one mid 20th century technology is decidedly impinging more stridently into the Animator’s life. A technology that post-dates triacetate by the odd 60 years or so, originally exulted under the Xerographic banner but now known simply as the plain paper or office copier. For the animator the plain paper copier is a convenient route to film outlines that will be identically accurate whether one or one-thousand copies are produced. The quality of reproduction from new copiers achieves a remarkably good likeness of the texture of the paper drawn original line as well as its exact shade and size. For a material to triumph against that hostile copier environment it must have appropriate electrostatic properties to accept the right amount of toner and then keep moving through the machine without losing it, or jamming. It must allow the toner to fuse onto its surface and still doggedly remain there during subsequent studio workings, but, primarily, it must withstand the heat of that fusing process without turning into a mini corrugated sheet. A happy, albeit determined combination of events has virtually cracked the problems as far as triacetate is concerned, such that Film Sales’ experience shows an ever increasing move towards outline copying onto Cel has been successfully contemplated as a cost-effective alternative to repetitive tracing. Copiers, traditionally roasting their toners on to substrates at temperatures in the region of 200°C have developed far less stringent temperature needs – though still commonly operating at 140°C.

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