Cel Shading: the Unsung Hero of Animation?

Left: a computer graphics render with soft shadows. Right: a cel shader (also known as a toon shader) and border detection. This creates hard edged shadows with lines drawn around the model. Illustration from Hash Animation Master manual.

This is a guest post by Olivia Lennox.

As you’ll well know, there are far more animation techniques out there than the average movie-goer or TV watcher knows about. You can’t blame them for only really knowing about stop-motion animation, CGI animation, and what goes into shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. These techniques are what ‘make it big’, and what can be seen on screens, both big and small, all over the world. But there are plenty of other forms of animation that don’t get the credit they deserve.

Take cel shading for example. This lends animation a ‘cartoony’ look which can be very effective in certain media. This form of animation has actually only been adopted by a handful of film and television productions; however it has been used extensively in video games. Perhaps the reason for this is that cel shading is easier on the graphics processor, so games can look great even on less powerful hardware. When cel shaded animation does make its way into film and television, it’s usually used conservatively, but there are exceptions as we’ll see. There’s an important distinction to make before we get into the cel shaded world: whilst there are plenty of techniques that use block colours, cel shading refers specifically to the cartoony rendering of light and shadow.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the history of cel shading, and why it may well be the unsung hero of animation.

The first examples of cel shading

Another reason that cel shading is so heavily associated with video games is that it’s them that pioneered the tech. Popular belief holds that the first commercial use of cel shading was in the Sega Dreamcast game Jet Set Radio from the year 2000. This fast-paced title has a very jocular and light-hearted tone throughout, so the cel shaded graphics really help to set the scene. In this game, cel shading was developed to emulate the cartoon style of Japanese anime and Manga – without which the entire technique would not exist at all. Whilst Jet Set Radio is known as the pioneer of cel shaded graphics in games, Sony technically released a cel shaded game before it – 1999’s Fear Effect. However, this title wasn’t truly cel shaded, featuring instead characters rendered with flat, block colours. Fear Effect’s graphical style was a direct response to the announcement of Jet Set Radio the year before, so the latter game still holds the title.

Sega Dreamcast game 'Jet Set Radio' from the year 2000

The rise of cel shading in games

It was really the first decade of this millennium that saw the popularity of cel shading really boom. Best-selling titles such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003 really put the technique on the map, and created an interest that’s endured ever since. Cel shading enabled game developers to create an all-new take on their game worlds, and because consoles at the time weren’t as powerful as those today, this meant they could do more with less. The Wind Waker is a good example: the game world is huge, and far bigger than it could be if it had used more realistic graphics. Cel shading also gives The Wind Waker its unforgettable style, and helps the title stand out against the many other Zelda games. Cel shading even made its way to the Zelda games on Nintendo DS. As the decade progressed, we saw more examples of cel shaded games: first-person shooter XIII in 2003, numerous Tales of… RPG games, and 2009’s Street Fighter IV. Even Pokemon got the cel shading treatment on the Nintendo DS.

'The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker' for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003.

Cel shading in film and TV

Numerous TV and film productions have used cel shading, but it never really takes centre stage (except in a few anime films including 2004’s Appleseed). In the western world, cel shading is most often used as a shortcut. For example, if something would take too long to animate by hand or via CGI, animators may opt to cel shade the model. It’s easier on the animator and cheaper on the production. You can see examples in Futurama and Family Guy, to name just a couple. The only thing animators need to do is be sure that the cel shaded elements blend well enough into the rest of the animation, otherwise the result can be jarring.

Family Guy © 2009 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

So there you have it: a short history of cel shading. Where it will go next, nobody knows, but with any luck it will once again gain popularity and we can continue to enjoy this most unique of animation styles.

This guest post was written by Olivia Lennox who is a London-based film buff. She’s normally at her local arthouse, but when she isn’t occupying her favourite theater seating or awaiting Aardman’s next release, she’s writing on the subject of cinema, animation and CGI.

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