The Care and Handling of Animation Cels
Great -- I've Got One, Now What?

Copyrighted © October 13, 1992 by Curtis Hoffmann
Converted to HTML (with permission) May 27, 2003 by Rob Kelk

Permission is granted to cross-post this file in whole to other computer networks (in fact, I'd be very happy if someone would crosspost this to Fido.) This file may be re-printed in a fanzine or newsletter as long as I'm notified, in exchange for a copy of the issue this article appears in. This article can not be altered, or re-printed in a for-profit magazine, without permission.

A glossary of terms can be found at the end of this article.

Additional suggestions provided by Robert Woodhead. [RW]

    With the increased interest in anime artwork, more people on R.A.A. are suddenly finding themselves the (more or less) proud owners of anime cels. But, the question now being asked is "How do I take care of these things?" and "What do I do with it?"
    They are simple questions. I'll ask one simple question myself.
    What do you want to do with your cel?

    A little bit of background.
    When the director is laying down the framework of a film, two things are done at once -- the writers create the storyboard, and the director draws the model sheets to circulate amongst all of the animators. The animators use the model sheets to ensure that no matter who is drawing what character, any given character will look the same from one scene to the next. The pencil roughs are shot as a pencil test, and then when the director approves the pencil test, the roughs will be passed on to the assistant animators for clean-up, and then to the in-betweeners so that they can draw the pictures that the animators skipped. The final pencil drawings may be filmed for another pencil test, after which the pencils will be xeroxed onto the clear plastic cels. While this is happening, the background artists will be painting the artwork for all of the different scenes, and the special effects animators will start work on things like rain, and missile attacks.
    It is much easier for the animator to draw the action for one character at a time for each scene, so if two or more characters appear in a scene, each character will be placed on a separate cel (the combination is called a cel set-up.) Unless, two characters are in physical contact (ie. -- holding hands,) in which case they'll be drawn on the same cel.
    The pencil drawings will have written notes on them to tell the paint department which colors to use in painting each part of a character, for each cel. When the paint department is done with a given scene, it will be placed under the camera to create the master film.
    At the same time, the voice actors may be laying down the dialog tracks. When the animation has been filmed, the sound effects are recorded, and mixed in with the voices. If this is a movie, or OAV, the required number of copies will be struck from the master.
    You now have a finished film. (There will be some exceptions to the above steps, depending on the director, studio, and budget.)

    So what?
    Well, in western animation circles, you can buy finished pencil drawings, production cels, backgrounds, model sheets, storyboards, lithographs, and seriagraphs. Each has its own merits, rules for handling and storage, and rules for judging its value. The same holds true for anime cels.


    In general, the less you handle any form of artwork, the longer it will last. Make sure that your hands are clean. If they are greasy (ie. -- your natural body oils have built up a little,) wash them throughly with soap, and make sure your hands are completely dry. Hold the art work by the corners, or edges. If you are holding the artwork flat, support it in the middle with your hand, and be careful to not get it dirty or greasy.
    If you have obtained your cel and the matching pencil drawing at the same time, the cel may have been placed directly on top of the pencil drawing. This may be a problem, because the paint from the cel may have attached itself to the paper, and if you try to pull the paper free, you could possibly damage the cel, or cause the paint to peel off the cel in flakes. And, the longer you wait to separate the pencil drawing from the cel, the worse the problem will become. If you don't want to risk damaging the cel, take it to an animation gallery and ask an expert to remove the pencil drawing for you.
    "Cels can be separated from the pencil-test by gentle peeling. Bend the paper, not the cel, and work around the edges of the stuck bit. I've yet to have any paint stick to the paper." [RW]


    If you just want to keep your artwork in storage (either as an investment, or because you don't want to display it any more,) do not stack lots of cels on top of each other. The ideal is to have a special shelf cabinet with thin sliding shelves spaced an inch apart: this way you can store maybe 2 or 3 cels in a stack per shelf.
    Do not place heavy objects on top of the cel. This stresses the paint, may cause it to crack sooner, and may also cause the paint to adhere to whatever is touching it. If you don't have a cel shelf, buy some semi-glossy paper, some animation paper, or even animation cels, and use same to protect the paint on the back side when you put the cel in storage (otherwise, the different cels may stick to each other.) Tissue paper is also good. Then, store the cels as you would record albums -- in a vertical position, with something stiff (like heavy cardboard, or a thin sheet of wood or metal) to act as a support to prevent the cels from sagging or curling. If you have the matching background painting, store it together with its cel(s).
    Pencil drawings, model sheets, and storyboards can be stored just like any other paper records that you want to have kept in good condition. Placing them in a folder and stored vertically is just fine, but they can also be kept in a stack.
    As a general rule, any artwork placed in direct sunlight will fade and age more quickly.
    For storage conditions, keep in mind that temperature and humidity extremes that make you feel uncomfortable will probably also have an adverse effect on your artwork. So, try to keep the temperature between 50 and 90 degrees, and the humidity fairly low.
    If your artwork has been framed, feel free to stack the frames on top of each other, with some kind of padding in the middle to prevent scratches to the frames themselves.
    If your artwork has been matted, wrap the mattes in tissue paper, and either place them on storage shelves, or placed vertically in a box with enough support to keep the mattes from sagging or bending under their own weight (but not so tightly packed as to squeeze the mattes and cels.)


    In general, storyboards are fine on their own.

    Model sheets can either be matted or framed (but it's just as good to carefully place them in a special notebook or folder ala a photo album.)

    Backgrounds should be kept with their matching cels, if you have them.

    Lithographs and seriagraphs are intended to be framed -- either in a matte, or under glass like any other picture or cel.

    Cels can be either matted, or framed under glass. (If you have a multi-cel set-up, and/or the background painting, just line up the registration holes, and place the cels over the background as necessary.) If you can afford it, take your artwork to an animation gallery, and pay them to do this for you. One of the advantages for this is the gallery can help you select the type of matteboard or frame to use. If you are going to do the work yourself, get some mounting tape from an art supply shop, and the matte board or frames you want.
    Presentation of the cels is really just a matter of personal taste. So, look over the selection of matte boards and frames to see which one will work best with your given character and/or scene. Remember, you don't need to use a square opening -- a thin rectangle, diamond, oval, or circular opening around your character may look better. Choice of color and the number of layers of the matte (2 or 3 layers, in a step-like effect) are up to you. If you don't have the original background art, feel free to use colored construction paper, or something else. Otherwise, the cel will be sitting on a white backing board, which may look very boring. The main guidelines to follow are: try to keep the image area centered in the frame, and do not cut the cel up to make it easier to center.
    Attach the tape only to the top corners of the cel. If you apply the tape to the full edge of the cel, the cel will warp as it stretches and expands with time. (Cels change their size with age and temperature.) Then, just let the cel hang free at the bottom -- it'll be ok this way. When you tape the cel to the matte, or frame, position the artwork to be as centered, and visible, as possible.
    If you are framing your cels, keep in mind that as a cel ages, it emits a gas that will build up inside the frame. So, every 6 months to a year, you should open up the frame to let the artwork air. Otherwise, the cel and/or paper will become discolored. I don't think that there are any hard-and-fast rules for how long the artwork should air -- an hour may be enough. At the same time, you should replace the tape, to eliminate any sagging that may have developed.
    "When mounting and framing cels, make sure that the matte, backing paper and tape are all 100% acid free." [RW] This is a good point, because acid-based mattes will accellerate the aging process of the cel.
    "UV-resistant plexiglass is a better choice than glass for a frame, as it protects the cel from sunlight better, and will not break and scratch the cel if you drop it." [RW]

    Do not frame your pencil drawings underneath your cels. Store the pencils as you would the model sheet.

    If you are like Hitoshi Doi, you want to keep the cels in good condition but don't want to hang them on your walls. If this is the case, find a notebook or similar-style folder, and place the cels inside ala a photo album, keeping the pencil drawings in a separate folder. Place sheets of tissue paper between the combined cel set-ups if necessary to keep each set-up from sticking to the next. (It is not necessary to put tissue paper between each cel of a given set-up. In fact, most cel dealers will staple the cels together for a set-up, and then mount the set-up with the staples in place.) Then, store the folders in a vertical position.
    Since you may get your cels stapled together for a set-up, I suggest removing the staples before mounting and/or storage. Because the cels will expand and contract at different rates, the staples may actually cause the cels to warp with time.

What To Look For In A Good Cel:

    If you are buying a cel as an investment, there are certain guidelines that animation collectors follow that you should be aware of. The generally accepted attitude holds that the best cels are ones where a character is positioned in the middle of the cel, facing the camera, with the eyes open, in a full-length pose, with the matching background art. If the feet are cut off, the eyes are partially closed, or the character is too far to any edge of the frame, that cel is considered to be inferior. However, close-ups of the face and shoulders are also considered to be good for a full-on, or 3/4 profile, with the eyes fully open, and mouth closed. Of course, if the character(s) is in an interesting pose, or is in the middle of an unusual action, this is also considered to be desirable.
    If you can get the original background, do so. Otherwise, feel free to present your cel with any home-made background (or colored paper) as you see fit. Also try to get the pencil drawings, if available.
    Any scratches directly on the cel, folds, creases, smears, or cuts will devalue the cel. Also, if the cel has paint stuck on it, or ink that doesn't belong, this should be removed by a professional before mounting or storage (keep in mind that this will cost money, and doing it yourself may cause more damage to the cel than not, so this cost should be figured as part of the actual purchase price.) Check, too, for places where the paint has flaked off.
    Another problem that I have seen lately are jagged-looking xerox lines. Originally, the outlines of a character were carefully hand-inked by humans, but now they're just transferred to the cel via xerox. The result is a line that has rough edges, and is broken rather than continuous. Many of the anime cels I've been looking at have xerox lines that look so bad as to detract from the rest of the picture. (This probably means that the xerox machine used was either very cheap, or needs a cleaning.) It's best to have a crisp, thin black ink line, or even better -- outlines inked in using shades of color matching the neighboring patches of paint.

    If you simply want to buy a cel of your favorite character, you're probably going to ignore the above guidelines, and will just purchase whatever you can find and afford. Keep in mind that if you decide to sell your artwork at a later time, you may be doing so at a loss.
    However, you're the one that has the final word on matters of taste, so go ahead and get whatever appeals to you, regardless of what other people might like, or suggest.

Artwork As An Investment:

    Caveat: As with anything, animation artwork has a value as long as the series, movie, or director remains popular. And while at least one person wants to buy your artwork for more than you payed for it. When the popularity fades, the value will decrease. Further, while demand exceeds supply, you can dictate your own terms. Therefore, if the market is flooded with cels for one show, or there are simply too many shows in the market compared to the number of investors, the value of a cel will drop to nothing. Which means, animation is one of the riskier forms of investment. Especially since tastes change, and what you think is valuable may turn out to be completely worthless at a later date.
    In the traditional world of American animation collecting, seriagraphs and lithographs are an artificial market. Any company that printed up a limited number of copies of a given lithograph, may choose to print up a second run and thereby destroy the resale value of the first edition. Also, the only reason a given litho increases in value is that other people want to buy one at the higher cost. If the market loses interest in a given litho, you may not be able to sell it at any price. Personally, I won't touch a litho or seriagraph, but other people buy them because of the unique poses and/or settings, and because the initial purchase price may be lower than that of an original production cel.

    Storyboards can easily be xeroxed, so be careful of paying too much for a copy. If you can find the original pencil version, you probably won't be able to afford more than 5 or 10 pages out of the 200 to 300 pages used for a standard movie. This is again a matter of personal taste, but the one rule to follow is: make sure that the pencils aren't smeared, and the paper is in good condition. Because there's only one original storyboard per movie or TV episode, they can be very expensive, and are a good investment as long as the given show or movie remains popular. (And, the storyboards get handled a lot when the story is being developed and altered, so the paper will eventually get roughed up.)

    Model sheets are more valuable than pencil drawings, as long as the model sheet can be autheticated (after all, it is one of several copies, and what can be copied once, can be copied any number of times,) and they are in good condition.

    Pencil drawings normally have no real value. Unless, they are drawings of very popular characters from very popular shows, where the cels are no longer available. (A pencil drawing of Ayukawa from KOR could be sold for upwards of $600, if it were a good pose, and you could find the right buyer.)

    Backgrounds are valuable only when paired up with the matching cels. However, in many cases, the background may be nothing more than some speed lines, and can easily be replaced with a photo of the men's room in the JFK Airport.

    Production cels can range wildly in value, depending on: whether the pose is bad; the character is too small; it's not a popular character; it's not a popular show; you have the matching background; etc. A boring cel isn't worth $5. A cel of the Dirty Pair could be worth more than $500. And as time passes, the number of available cels will drop for each show -- either because of mishandling, destruction, or simple demand. The result being that if a show is no longer being made, the supply will naturally drop independent of demand.


    Animation art is very easy to forge. And it's a real problem when you realize that a Disney Little Mermaid cel can go for $7000, and can be forged at a probable cost of $100. While no one is going to forge a cel of Mary Bell, there is a greater possibility for making a profit from an Orange Road, City Hunter, or Totoro imitation.
    Keep this in mind when someone has priced an amazing find ridiculously low, or they have a cel that is absolutely impossible to find anywhere else. If it's too good to be true, it's probably a fake.
    It's easier to spot a forged Bambi cel (the paints used in the fake may be too clear and vibrant, the cel may not be aged and discolored enough, or the registration holes may not have been in use at the time the film was made.) Faked anime cels are much harder to spot, and most anime studios do not stamp their cels for authenticity.
    Maybe they should start.
    So, just be careful.


    Animation art is animation art, regardless of whether it's a cel of Scooby Doo, Hammmerman, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, or your favorite giant robot. The guidelines for handling, storage, and presentation are the same. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in Rec.Arts.Animation, or go to the nearest animation art gallery and ask for advice there. But, using simple common sense won't hurt (ie. -- "will letting my little sister, who's covered in jam and dog hair, play with the cel be a problem?"
    On the other hand, most western animation art galleries won't handle anime cels (either because of a lack of interest, or the preconception that there's no money in that market,) so they are not necessarily the best places to go for re-selling your art, or for getting them assessed. For that, you're better off finding someone who collects anime cels, or try to re-sell your artwork at a convention. (Which may cost you more money than you'd like.)
    In any case, treat your cel like the work of art, and slice of anime history that it is, and it'll last for a long time. As long as you enjoy what you've purchased (or were given) it will have a value completely independant of what other people think.

    If you have any other questions, or want to learn more about the process of creating animation, or in handling your cels, there are several books that will help. Disney's The Illusion of Life is good. For other titles, ask in Rec.Arts.Animation, or just go to your nearest library, big bookstore, or art supply shop and start looking on your own (which is a great way to learn more about the history of western animation, as well.)


A bunch of sheets of paper with little panels that contain the basic action of the film, suggestions for character positioning and action, and accompanying dialog. If you can get your hands on the original pencil copy of the storyboards, you'll have a one-of-a-kind original. It's very easy to xerox these, so xeroxes aren't worth much.
Model sheets:
Sheets of paper that contain standardized drawings of each character in a variety of poses. Each animator will get a batch of xerox copies, so it's not likely that you'll find the pencil originals. But there will probably be a studio stamp on the sheet to authenticate it.
Pencils: AKA Pencil Drawings:
These are the products of the animators, who are drawing on stacks of large, thin sheets of animation paper. Most pencils are very crude, sketchy drawings that are intended primarily as guides for the action.
Pencil tests:
The pencils are placed under the camera (originally for film, but more increasingly, for video tape,) and shot to ensure that the basic action is what the director wants, and that there aren't any drawings that are seriously misaligned from the rest of the batch.
Scene and sequence numbers:
These are the little codes written in one corner (usually the upper right,) used to indicate the order of the pencils and cels. Each studio may have a different way of identifying its scenes (and the different elements, called sequences, that make up each scene.) But, if the cels were to all fall into a pile on the floor, they could be put back into order by using the codes just like you would page numbers.
Finished pencils: AKA Cleaned up pencils:
Once the pencils have been approved, they are passed on to the assistant animators to be cleaned up, and drawn to comply with the model sheets. A second pencil test may be shot at this stage. Also, the animator, or assistant director, will write in the color schemes for the painters to follow, as well as special directions for the inbetweeners (such as "a slow pull-out", where the character is changing in size, but the camera holds its position.)
These are just more cleaned-up pencils, but the difference is that the animators only draw 1/4 to 1/8 of the actual images, (which are called "Extreme poses") and the rest are drawn by the "inbetweeners" by a process of interpolation (following the orders of the animators,) such as the above-mentioned "slow pull-out."
Cel: AKA Production cel:
A clear piece of plastic, on which the paint is applied. Also refers to the finished piece of artwork. Normally, one character will be placed on one cel each, with moving objects and vehicles being painted on separate cels. There are two universal standard sizes of cels in use: "12-field," and "15-field." You'll usually find 12-field cels for TV shows, while 15-field cels are used to show more detail for a given shot, generally for movies if necessary. (As a guide, a 12-field cel is about 12" by 9". A 15-field cel is 15" x 13". More or less.)
Multi-cel set-ups:
A fancy phrase meaning that more than one cel was used for a given shot. If a scene includes three people walking in different directions, each character will be on a different cel. Also, in the character is talking, his face may be on one cel, and his eyes and mouth on another (This way, the animator only needs to draw the face once, and the mouth only 3 or 5 times.) As a general guide, the more cels used for a scene, the darker the bottom cel will appear, therefore few set-ups will have more than 5 cels: because of the darkening effect, complexity, and work involved.
While the characters and moving objects are on different cels, the background picture will generally be a water-color, or oil-based, painting on thick construction paper. Background paintings can be of any size desired, and may be very large to allow for long, unbroken camera pans. Because one scene may have many cels, but only one background, these complete cel set-ups with background paintings tend to be worth a lot more than the other set-ups by themselves.
Multi-plane Camera:
This is a device first used by Disney in The Mill, to give the illusion of depth to a scene. As a character walks across the screen, objects in the far distance will move at a slower rate than scenery closer to the audience. To create this illusion, different layers of scenery and backgrounds will be mounted on sheets of glass at varying distances from the film camera, and shifted at the appropriate speeds during the actual shooting of the final film.
Special effects:
Rain, fire, smoke, and missiles are all considered to be classes of animation separate from that of humans or animals. Therefore, a character animator will be used to draw a human or animal, and a special effects animator will concentrate on the rain, or smoke, or whatever. Which means that the special effects will be on separate cels, too.
Seriagraphs and Lithographs:
These are just ways of making copies of artwork almost looks like a cel, but aren't. These are copies, and not original artwork. They have an artifical value, and are worth less than original cels.
Publicity cels: AKA Promotional cels.
Basically, these are just ways for a studio to get money out of suckers. This is artwork that was not used to make the film, or episode, and has no real value -- just like a seriagraph.
Title cards:
Cels or paintings that have the episode's titles on them. These also tend to be rare (one per show) and therefore more valuable.

-- Curtis H. Hoffmann
October 13, 1992

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