Cel Shading – Everything You Need To Know

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In this article, we dive deep into the history of cel shading and how the cel shade effect is created both in video games and in Japanese animation, and how it’s used in artworks. We also look at examples that might look cel-shaded but are, in fact, something else. Let’s get started!


Key Takeaways

  • Cel shading is often misspelled as cell shading.
  • Cel shading comes from the words cel (celluloid sheet) and shading (darkening).
  • Cel shading is often and easily mixed with toon shading.
  • As cels are not used anymore in modern anime, video games, or art production, a more correct wording would be anime shading instead of cel shading.
  • Some of the most notable cel-shade-style games are Guilty Gear Strive and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
  • AKIRA was one of the most significant anime movies that brought cel shading to a new level.

What Is Cel Shading

Cel shading often misspelled as cell shading, is a technique where the shade (darker) color is applied on top of a base color on a celluloid sheet.

Cel shading is easily mixed with toon shading as the toon shader’s primary purpose is to make the 3D computer graphics look 2D.

Toon shading is an art style of non-photorealistic rendering designed to make 3D computer graphics or artworks look three-dimensional by creating flat shade colors on top of a base color, making the object look three-dimensional while still keeping a 2D effect in it.

However, toon shading has nothing to do with cel shading, as cels are not used in modern visual media production anymore. The term cel shading is used to better understand what style an anime, video game, or artwork has.

The main stylistic features of cel shading:

  • The appearance of a hand-drawn cartoon, even if done digitally
  • Colors are less gradient and have significantly fewer color shifts
  • Less shade colors compared to 3D animation or gradually shaded 2D digital paintings
  • Fewer tints and simple in style-wise
  • Clean and differentiable colors and color palette

A Brief History Of Cel Shading

A cel, short for celluloid, is a transparent sheet on which objects are drawn or painted for traditional, hand-drawn animation. The use of celluloid sheets dates back to 1914, a technique patented by Earl Hurd and J.R. Bray.

The first use of cels wasn’t to create shades but to overlay objects. Cel shading is a younger technique that was first implemented in Japanese animation to give characters a three-dimensional (3D) effect.

Cel shading gives the frames (celluloid sheets) volume and shape and helps differentiate elements from one another.

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Red circle: Tomorrow’s Joe in the 1970s is one of the first anime series where cel shading was used as a way to convey shape and volume

Shading refers to the depiction of depth perception in 3D models (3D computer graphics) or illustrations (art) by varying the level of darkness. In art, shading can be done by implementing another color on top of the base color (usually a darker shade of the base color).

In computer graphics, a shader is a computer program that calculates the appropriate levels of light, darkness, and color during the rendering of a 3D object or scene.

Cel Shading And Japanese Animation

While Japanese animation studios used cel shading already in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1988, when the AKIRA movie was published, that cel shading took the anime industry to a new level.

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In AKIRA, the cel shading (volume and shape on top of base colors) is done straight to the celluloid sheet (image source).

After the movie AKIRA, cel shading gained increasing popularity, and more and more Japanese and western animation studios started to use the technique in their animation production.

Cel shading can easily be mixed with toon shading, which is a different technique. Toon shading is made with computer graphics, whereas cel shading uses physical celluloid sheets. While cel shading is the main term used when speaking about anime and cartoon-looking video games, inherently, they are different techniques.

A more proper wording for cel shading in modern media production would be anime shading. Cel shading was popularized by the Japanese animation industry, and as cel shading is often linked to anime, anime shading would make more sense.

History Of Cel Shading In Video Games

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One of the earliest games that had visuals made with cel shading is Goosebumps: Attack of the Mutant. It was developed and produced by DreamWorks Interactive and was released in 1997 for PC. One of the earliest uses of the term “shader” was in 1988 by Pixar and their RenderMan Interface Specification (RISpec).

One of the oldest toon shaders is from Softimage (currently Autodesk Softimage), developed by Michael Arias, which Dreamworks and Studio Ghibli later used in their animation productions.

Cel Shading In Anime And Animation

AKIRA was one of the first anime movies that expanded the use of celluloid sheets and truly brought cel shading to a new level. In AKIRA, the shading was hand drawn on top of the base color, making the characters and objects look three-dimensional (3D).

Cel shading, at present-day, is not done on celluloid sheets anymore. Instead, it’s hand-drawn digitally with art software like Clip Studio Paint or with specialized anime software like Retas Studio by CELSYS Inc. One of the most used drawing tablet brands for digital drawing is Wacom.

Japanese animation studios, like Studio Ghibli, integrated toon shading as part of their animation process. Studio Ghibli used TOONZ (called OpenToonz currently) to create 3D wireframe models to animate certain parts of the film that were too hard to draw by hand.

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Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli. Some of the tatari gami (cursed gods (demon worms in the film)) were animated by Haru Matsuda, and some were made with the aid of 3D wireframe models
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Each AKIRA celluloid sheet was hand drawn and colored. This level of quality and care made the film look and feel exceptional and brought Japanese animation to a spotlight
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Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film from 1988 that combined animation and live-action. This movie could be mixed with cel shading but is more about toon shading.
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Lion King from 1994 is one of the most financially successful films from Disney animation. The film was hand drawn and took two years to complete.
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Some of the effects in One Punch Man anime were created with Adobe After Effects.

While some Japanese animation studios still, to this day, draw key animation frames by hand, most of the animation production is done with computers. In 2002, TOEI animation (the company behind One Piece) quit using cels and moved to do animation production digitally.

While the term cel shading is still used, rarely is there a case where cels are actually used. Instead, modern anime and media production use computers and digital drawing tablets to create animations.

List of some of the best-looking cel shade anime and animations by the world’s best animation studios:

  • Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli
  • One Punch Man by Madhouse
  • Fate/Stay Night series by Ufotable
  • My Hero Academia by Studio Bones
  • Attack On Titan by WIT Studio and MAPPA Studio
  • One Piece movies by TOEI Animation

Cel Shading And Toon Shading In Video Games

While we shouldn’t use the term cel shading in video games or anime anymore, the term cel shading is still used to describe an anime style.

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Difference between normal shading and toon shading. Demo from Unreal Engine 5 by Evans Bohl.

When it comes to video games that look like cel-shaded anime, it’s thanks to toon shaders available in different game engines like Unreal Engine, Blender, and Unity.

Softimage and its toon shader were one of the first software that could be used to produce cartoon-like results for video games. Later on, games like Jet Set Radio (launched in June of 2000) and Legend Of Zelda Wind Waker (launched in 2002) fully used toon shaders to create a visual experience that looked like cartoon movies of sorts.

Breakthrough In Toon Shaders And Cel-Shaded Games

GuiltyGearXrd’s Art Style: The X Factor Between 2D and 3D

It was Guilty Gear Xrd that brought cel-shaded games to a whole new level with the use of Unreal Engine in combination with Autodesk Softimage. UE is currently one of the most used game engines to create some of the best-looking anime games in the world, and Arc System Works can be seen as one of the pioneers in the cel-shaded game industry.

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The goal of Guilty Gear Xrd by Arc System Works was to create a 3D model that looked 2D as much as possible

After the launch of Guilty Gear Xrd, the gaming scene saw more cel-shaded games like Dragon Ball Fighter Z, Granblue Fantasy Versus, and DNF Duel. Arc System Works has been behind some of the most beautiful anime-looking games today, and the release of Guilty Gear Strive only took the scene even further.

List of popular cel-shade stylized games:

  • Jet Set Radio
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and later Zelda games like Breath of the Wild
  • Guilty Gear Xrd and later Guilty Gear games like Strive
  • Viewtiful Joe
  • Asura’s Wrath
  • Ni No Kuni games
  • Naruto: Clash of Ninja
  • Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
  • Granblue Fantasy Versus
  • DNF Duel
  • Dragon Ball Fighter Z
  • Dragon Quest VIII and IX
  • No More Heroes and its sequels
  • Killer7
  • Hades

Games that are confused about being cel-shaded (while it’s not the case):

Cel Shading In Art

While artists use lot of the term cel shading to describe their artwork style, probably a more suitable word would be anime shading. Cel-shaded art is often understood as anime art. However, the art of Hades (by Supergiant Games) by the incredible art director Jen Zee shows that the cel-shaded style can be implemented in non-anime characters as well.

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Artwork by art director Jen Zee. Artwork of Hades by Supergiant Games

Cel shading is often overlooked in the art industry as something of a simple way to draw or paint. The fact is that mastering cel shade technique and style is actually pretty hard. Yes, you can color your characters easily with cel shade style, but when you want to expand the style, then it becomes trickier.

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Artwork showcasing how cel-shade style can be expanded

In physical or digital art, artists don’t use celluloid sheets anymore but rather pens, markers, and paper or a drawing tablet when creating digital art.

In physical art, an artist adds base colors to the drawing and then, in most cases, applies a darker shade of the base color on top of the base color to give the object or character volume and shape.

The shading color can also have a tint, which signifies how solid or transparent an element is. Usually, the tint color is a cold color hue (blue, violet, etc.).

In digital art, base colors and shading colors are usually drawn to different layers. The shade color layer usually also has some kind of blending mode enabled, like multiply or screen, to make the shade or lighting color blend better with the base color.

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Cel shading showcased in a drawing. The base consists of line art and base color, and on top of the base color is added the shading color in a cel shade style.

Conclusion

Cel shading is often misspelled as cell shading and also mixed with toon shading. The term cel came from the celluloid sheets used in the animation industry. In modern media production, cels are not used anymore. Instead, cel shade style and look are achieved by keeping the shadows/shades sharp and clean.

Toon shading would be the correct term to be used when implementing a cel-shaded look into a video game or animation. Anime shading would better describe the cel-shaded style, as cels are not used anymore.

However, as cel shading has a long and beautiful history, it’s quite fine to use cel shading as a term to imply something looks anime or has handmade cartoon-looking visuals even when done digitally.

It’s the history that cel shading has that makes it precious among visual artists of all kinds, and in that regard, cel shading should stay with us as a term to remind us where the style originated in the first place.

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Okuha

Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

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