Cartoon Commentary! is back, KINDA!

By Shawn Robare

It’s been awhile since I had a moment to sit down and sort of deconstruct a cartoon episode for the Cartoon Commentary! column.  I’m not tooting my horn in terms of importance or quality when I say this, but these columns tend to be pretty time intensive including watching and re-watching cartoon episodes, note taking, getting the screen grabs for the scenes I want to talk about, etc.  It’s still something that I want to and enjoy doing; it’s just been on the back burner for a bit.  Before I get too far removed from doing them though I wanted to sort of revive the column by including another facet to my 80s cartoon nostalgia.

Recently I began thinking about how I want to ‘collect’ and remember the cartoons I loved as a kid.  I have a few goals as far as a collection goes, and since I have some silly issues about buying up old toys and stuff off of eBay I’ve mainly been focusing on picking up whatever I can on DVD.  My original goal was to get at least one episode from every show on DVD, but as the format changed and season boxsets became first the rage, and then affordable, I’ve been focusing on those.

Lately though I’ve stumbled unto another money sucking aspect to the collection, but one that really solidifies the idea of ‘owning’ a piece of my childhood, which are animation cels.  Pretty much, for me at least, animation cels represent the ultimate keepsake when it comes to cartoons, as you can’t get much closer to the source material beyond finding a weird Charlie Kafuman-esque way of crawling into the heads of the animators and writers who created these shows (and it’s much less disturbing in that stalker sort of way.)  Also, as far as the collecting gene that I suffer from, I’m the type that prefers the ability to easily look at (my wife would say ‘blankly stare at’) the collection, as opposed to simply squirreling it away with the knowledge that it’s there (which is one of the reasons I can’t bring myself to buy individual comic books anymore as they don’t display well.)  So the nice original hand-painted cels will hopefully look really swell framed and on the wall.  Anyway, I figured since I’m going to be scanning these in as I buy them for posterity reasons, I might as well share them on the site, and it might as well be under the Cartoon Commentary! heading as it fits in really nicely.

Today I thought I’d share the first cel I decided to buy.  It’s a medium sized shot of Orko from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe show…

Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with the process of traditional animation, each second of footage in a cartoon in made up of a series of drawings and paintings done on cellulose acetate (think of a clear plastic sheet much like a transparency) overlaid on top of an opaque painted background.  Typically, each separate element in an animation scene that moves will be painted on it’s own transparent cel, and then the cels are laid on top of each other to form a scene.  So when I say I’m picking up animation cels for the collection, they are usually going to be one of the individual elements on it’s own cel without the background (as this is pretty much the only way I’ve seen them available for purchase.)  Since the backgrounds are re-used so much they are a bit rarer and might have been sold off in separate lots than the bulk sets of animation cels when studios liquidate their stock.  Also, there are typically a series of production numbers at the bottom of a cel (so the animators can keep track of each cel as there are thousands per episode), and I’m going to try and keep those in the scan when I can, but my scanner only has an 8"x12" bed, so for the Orko cel above I couldn’t fit both the painting and the production notes.

I was really happy with this cel (especially for the price), as it’s a character I adored from the He-Man cartoon and the actual image itself it pretty nice.  He’s floating in a more or less normal pose, which his full body in the shot and his eyes are open.  This points to another aspect of collecting cels that’s sort of weird.  Like I mentioned above, there are thousands upon thousands of cels produced for each and every cartoon covering a whole range of movement and perspective, so it’s a gamble as to whether or not you’ll find a cel where the character or element you want is small, medium or close-up, whether it’s in a weird position, whether the character’s eyes are closed or if there’s an element from another cel intended to sit directly on top of this one you want (in which case that portion isn’t painted as it wouldn’t show on film anyway.)  Sometimes characters are cut-off on the side of a cel if they are entering the scene from either side, and it depends on what you are looking for as to where there is a full body shot or if it’s more of a bust-like close-up.  It really is a crap-shoot.

As far as the actual quality of the artwork itself, this particular cel has survived pretty well over the 24 year or so that’s it been around changing hands.  None of the paint has chipped off or stuck to the pencil under drawing that was included (see below), and all of the tiny little blemishes in the black line work appear to be original from when the cel was first produced.  Again, going into a little bit of the process of cel animation, and I’m certainly not an authority on the matter, but from what I can gather there are a series of pencil tests done on paper that is the same size as the finished cels.  These pencil tests include drawings of the various elements through out their series of movements in a scene.  Each pose is rendered on a separate piece of paper which are them scanned in or photographed to see how well the movement works.  If these pass the inspection, they are passed on to junior animators who fill in the gaps of the movements, again in pencil on separate pages.  When the final set are approved, they go onto to yet another group who use model sheets as guides and they re-draw all the pages so that it all looks like one artist drew the final sequence.  These final pencil drawings are then copied to the acetate cels, either hand inked, or photocopied.  I’m not positive but I would assume with the speed at which television animation needs to be produced that they are typically photocopied onto the acetate and then painters come behind them and paint the cels.

The blemishes in the black linework in the above Orko cel look like a bad photocopy job, is basically what I’m getting at here.  Now, for completeness sake I thought I’d also scan in the back of the cel where the actual paint is applied…

Now the Orko cel above is pretty simple in terms of color choices, there aren’t any shading or color variations in the final image.  So basically it was simply a matter of painting on the back of the cel (so that the front will look crisp and clean) underneath the copied black linework (so that the line work when the image if flipped around will be showing with the paint under), taking care to paint anything perspective-wise that would be closer to the camera (for instance his right hand and ear with overlap both is cloak and hat respectively.)  You’d want to paint the closer aspects first so that they appear to overlap the colors that are ‘behind’ them and so that the red of his cloak doesn’t bleed onto his hands, which would break the suspension of disbelief aspect to the image.  So when you look at the back of the cel you can see that the paint is pretty messy, but because of the way it’s layered it looks crisp and clean from the other side.

The last element of the process (which is actually the last image created before the final cel is painted) is the pencil under drawing above.  This is the final drawing that is transferred onto the cel before it’s painted.  As you can see in the drawing, it’s initially done in non-photo blue lead to get the pose and basic shapes down, and then is ‘inked’ with a regular graphite lead for the final line work.  You can see in the artwork above where the animators kept changing the placement of the tip of Orko’s hat.  When the final pencils are done there is no need to erase the blue under pencils because they won’t copy onto the cel.

So I don’t have a ton of animation cels in my collection yet, but over the next few months I’ll try and share them as I scan them in.

  • Lamar The Revenger

    i have no cel art, but i want some. it reminds me of this comic store in our area that sells the metal printing plates of comic books. both (right now for me anyway) are super expensive.

  • The Lizard

    Interesting you should cover the D&D cartoon for awhile and now delve into collecting cels. I’ve always been a big fan of lizard-man characters and for years I’ve been trying to find a cel featuring one of the ubiquitous lizardmen from the D&D cartoon. I’ve had pretty decent luck with other cartoon cels, as I’ve found the Lizard villain from Spider-Man and a lizard-woman from Filmation’s 1978 Flash Gordon. That D&D lizardman is still eluding me however…