____ FAQ

Q: What is a "cel?"

A: "Cel" is the first syllable of "celluloid," a plastic made of cellulose nitrate. Before digital ink-and-paint software, the pencil drawings used in hand-drawn animation were transferred onto these sheets of clear plastic by skilled artists using ink and paint, or by using a special Xerox process ("Xerography") and paint. Later cels were made of cellulose acetate instead of cellulose nitrate, but still called "cels." Collectors spend a lot of money to buy these pieces of animation history.

Q: If an animation "cel" has only one "l," why do some folks spell it as: "cell?"

A: They're thinking of the spelling used for a prison cell or ameoba cell, instead of the spelling used in Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation, The Illusion of Life. The correct spelling for animation "cel" is "cel." Folks who use the incorrect spelling often don't know enough about cel animation, and might have a tough time tricking an audience into accepting their "cellshading" as feature-quality animation cels.

Q: What is "celshading?"

A: In the world of 3D graphics, "celshading" is a subset of non-photorealistic rendering, a.k.a. NPR. While NPR covers a much broader range of rendering styles, celshading's more specific. In celshading, the artist uses tools to make his or her 3D models look more like a hand-drawn animation cel when rendered.

Q: What is a "cel shader?"

A: A cel shader is the tool used to make a 3D surface look more like the paint of an animation cel when rendered.

Q: Why did you create this site?

A: In 1997, I had trouble scraping up information about celshading from the Web. In 2000 I decided to create a site to help others more easily find information about celshading. Since then I've also added links pointing to traditional cel animation resources, information critical to folks trying to recreate the look of cels with celshading.

Q: What 3D software do you use?

A: I use LightWave 3D.

Q: Why do you use LightWave?

A: In early 1997, it was the only affordable 3D package that came with a built-in celshader and had widespread use in the animation/FX industry. I continue to use it today because it still does what I need at a price that I can afford, and because I still earn a comfortable living as a LightWave artist.

Q: I'm a 3D artist interested in celshading. What software should I use?

A: If your software package of choice comes with celshader tools, stick with that package. Most (all?) of the major 3D packages now either come with built-in celshader tools or have 3rd-party solutions, so you should be set.

Q: I run a 3D studio, and money's no object. What software should I use?

A: Stick with the software and crew you have right now, since you can probably get celshader tools for your software of choice. Invest in the best preproduction artists that you can find, and give your crew enough time to master their celshader tools and techniques.

Q: I've never used a 3D package before, and I'm not interested in working in the unpredictable animation/FX industry. What software should I use?

A: Start with Blender. It's free, and it has everything you need to get familiar with the basics and concepts of 3D. Plus, it has a built-in Toon shader and "Edge Rendering" ("inking" tools). After mastering Blender, if you find it lacking in any way, you can then choose to migrate to a commercial 3D package.

Q: Do all celshaded renders look hand-drawn?

A: No. Some artists choose not to recreate the look of cel animation. Others lack the skill or knowledge required to recreate the look of cel animation.

Q: Should all celshaded renders look hand-drawn?

A: No, not if the artist has a different vision for his or her work.

Q: What is the secret of making a celshaded render look hand-drawn?

A: Either the celshader artist must know what a good drawing looks like, or he/she must be supervised by an artist who knows what a good drawing looks like. Note that the finest celshaded works to date, such as the 3D models used in Iron Giant and Treasure Planet, had traditional artists in control of the designs and the final look.

Q: Could you be more specific?

A: Master the celshader tools you have at hand, and master your 3D modeling skills. Then get a hand-drawn model sheet -- either draw it or have an artist you respect draw it. Then build a model whose contours and proportions adhere precisely to the contours of the drawings on the model sheet. If you model from a drawing, your render will look like a drawing. The quality of the model sheet and your modeling skills will go a long way towards the quality of the finished model/render, since you are translating the drawing on the model sheet into a 3D "drawing." The model must have a mechanically smooth mesh and the stylized proportions of a drawing. Most (all?) Disney heroines lack visible fingernails, for example, so don't model fingernails for a Disney heroine. Don't model a photorealistic translation of the model sheet; model a translation of the drawing that instead resembles a precise animation maquette. If the render's missing some necessary ink lines, fix them in the model or paint the missing ink lines on with texture maps or geometry.

Q: I use LightWave, but I'm not getting the results you're getting. Why?

A: If you just started learning 3D, give yourself some time. You need to master the modeling tools, model from a hand-drawn model sheet and thoroughly understand Edges. If you already enjoy complete control over your geometry, your sticking point might be your current understanding of Edges. Until LightWave 8.3, the documentation for Edges gave flat-out wrong information, leading many LightWavers to frustration and despair. With LightWave 8.3, the docs finally have correct information on the LightWave celshader tools.

Q: I just started learning 3D. How long does it take to get the hang of celshading?

A: With all the learning material now out there, give yourself two or three years. I learned 3D at home with a few books and video tutorials, so for me it took a bit longer. Within my first year I had a few wretched celshaded models to my credit. The following year I learned enough about modeling to take second place in a celshading contest with a less-awful model. I also attempted to create a 3D version of Lore at that time, but I still lacked the modeling and drawing skills I needed to translate him properly into 3D, and the celshaded results looked hideous. Each new celshaded model after that got better, as both my modeling and drawing skills improved. The 2003 version of Lore's head took less than a week to create in LightWave, but it came after six years of using LightWave and three years of drawing classes at the American Animation Institute.

Q: This XXXX artist told me my YYYY software's no good for celshading. Is it true?

A: If your software can simplify the shading on the surfaces and trace the geometry with clean "ink" lines, it's enough for celshading. Maybe it can't easily recreate other traditional-media styles, like Bill Plympton's work, but it'll be good enough for recreating the look of cel animation. Gain a clear understanding of your celshader tools, then focus on improving your modeling and drawing skills. Don't listen to folks who claim that the right celshader software can guarantee good drawings with a minimum of effort. The most advanced celshader tools out there can disguise awful work to look hand-drawn, but it will never make bad work look like good drawings. Good work always takes work. Otherwise, everyone would have Lord of the Rings-quality work on their demo reels.

Q: Is it worth buying XXXX software?

A: If it does something that you need that your current software package does not do, then sure. Just don't expect the most advanced celshader packages to correct bad models/poses/designs. That's a problem that no software upgrade can fix.

Q: How can I improve my models, poses and designs?

A: Constant study and practice. The more you model and explore your modeling tools, the more control you will gain over your geometry. As for improving poses and designs...drawing/animation books, drawing classes and studying the hell out of traditional animation worked wonders for me; I recommend it to anyone who has the required time and money. For those on a budget, I recommend the resources available on the web -- especially and

Q: Hey, I've got a model sheet here where some of the facial features don't perfectly align in the front and side views. I've already aligned the drawings as best I can in Photoshop and my 3D software, but some of the features still don't line up. What should I do?

A: Pick the better-looking drawing and adhere religiously to that view, while using the other drawing as more of a general guide. Remember that your goal is to create the best "drawing" possible. Well, that's my goal in celshading, anyway.

Q: I want to break into the animation/FX industry. Can I?

A: I don't recommend this unpredictable business for those looking for a steady career. Artists tend to move from project to project, with no guarantee of permanent employment. You also have no choice of what you get to work on at a studio -- maybe you'll model a dragon, or maybe you'll model telephone wires. You create whatever the studio needs to deliver to the client. That said, everyone's welcome to try breaking into this business, though there's no one way to do so. I got in because of the prototype for my website -- in early 1999 a studio happened to need a LightWave celshader artist, and my website proved I could create the look that they wanted. Others have gotten noticed by creating articles, books, demo reels or remarkable animated short films. It usually boils down to a studio finding an artist who fits their specific needs at a given time.

Q: I'm not Japanese, but I want to break into the anime industry. Can I?

A: Given enough will power, anything's possible. Read Jan Scott-Frazier's story to learn how one determined American got work in the anime industry. However, I recommend creating your own animated short in the style of your choice before seeking out work in the anime industry. That way you can create anything that you want, and you don't have to deal with the hassle of a work permit.

-- Jennifer Lynn Hachigian