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.

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The ReBoot series takes viewers into a world inside a personal computer, to the multi-level city of Mainframe populated by sprites – an eclectic mixture of digital information in the forms of robotic-looking biomes and human-like data sprites. ReBoot is a cross between the Gerry Anderson puppet production Thunderbirds (1966) and the Disney feature Tron … Read more

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Ironically, it is the realistic three-dimensional quality of ReBoot’s computer-generated characters that make its animation unique. The member’s of ReBoot’s cast behave, move and speak like actors in any television show. But ReBoot’s characters exist only as digital information – complex mathematical equations that imitate life. Like the concept of the show, until the digital … Read more

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