Cel Animation and Novelty

by Emil Sohlberg

As studios ramped up the production of live-action features, hand-drawn animation underwent a similar revolution with the invention of cel animation. Cel animation was defined by the division of an animated shot onto different transparent celluloids, which could then be overlaid. With this technique, a background, which previously would have been redrawn for every frame, could be reused for a scene, while just the cels that contained the movements of characters would be updated. Even moving characters could be split into different cels; after all, if the only moving part of a character was their face, then their body could be reused if on a separate sheet of celluloid. While inherently cost- and labor-saving, cel animation also allowed for a natural specialization in the animation process, where different animators could work on the same scene simultaneously by splitting that scene’s cels, with some working on backgrounds, or on character poses, and so on.

Cel animation was a game-changer for animated features, but the medium was relegated largely to comedic productions geared towards children. Thompson argues that much like live-action films, the initial draw of animated films were their novelty. Based off various animated productions throughout the 20th century, it would appear that this reliance took some time to dissipate. Novelty, coming from interesting uses of perspective and animation techniques, were the selling points of these films. Beyond that, they consist mainly of slapstick humor and unsubstantial storylines.

The first film I will address is Little Nemo (1911). Although it does not feature cel animation, it is useful for comparison as its key feature is novelty. Its animation technique is sophisticated for its time. Still, it appears only at the end of the feature; the first eight minutes serve only to build anticipation of the animated segment, as an artist promises to his friends that he will make his drawings move. The use of the stretch and squash technique is impressive, but mostly because viewers know it will become a staple of animation over the following decades; in the context of the feature, nothing happens besides the three characters onscreen bobbing up and down, which is a spectacle only if one has never seen it before.


Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! (1931) came out twenty years later, and through the use of cel animation, it is much more visually impressive than its predecessors. We have backgrounds, squash and stretch, up to five characters on screen at once, and a dozen camera perspectives. The story follows a moving tram car, treating the audience to shots of tracks entering and disappearing from the other end of the frame. Thanks to cel shading, the style is smooth and consistent, and fixed backgrounds give the characters a real presence in their world. However, in terms of significance, the short leaves little for an audience to reflect on once it is over. The plot is essentially nonexistent, as characters sing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” on a tram car, before it falls off a cliff and all is revealed to have been a dream. The humor in the short is comprised of slapstick cartoon violence (that, granted, was probably not a standard trope ninety years ago), and not one but two characters losing their clothes over its seven minute runtime–a bit that is not nearly so funny as to warrant its appearing twice. The short, like Little Nemo, relies heavily on novelty; the only difference being that it stems from this higher quality of animation, and not the simple existence of animation itself.



Draftee Daffy (1945) displays a variety of animation techniques, with an arsenal solely dedicated to depicting Daffy’s speed. Although it has more of a narrative than the prior two features, it can still be summarized easily: Daffy runs to avoid the man from the draft office. While building a barricade, he appears in multiple places at once. While running, his legs become a circular blur. Eventually, he becomes a multi-colored streak of paint, and later he transforms into a dazzling lightning bolt, shooting down a staircase. Once again, there’s not much substance, even for a comedic short. There are only a couple of gags, and one of these, a door slammed into the draft office man’s face, is reused. It feels less that these animation techniques are enhancing the story, and more that the story provides an excuse to show off these new animation techniques. Novelty, rather than narrative development, is intended to sell this short.




Although the simplicity of these shorts can be attributed to their intention for children, they rely on novel techniques to carry their otherwise lackluster plotlines. Another animated feature, Mickey’s Trailer (1938), uses similar techniques, but does not focus entirely on them. With a similar runtime as Draftee Daffy, the two shorts are starkly different experiences in terms of viewer satisfaction. Mickey’s Trailer wastes no time and reuses no jokes. Everything on screen builds on what’s been established in interesting ways: we see a lovely house and yard get packed away into a trailer to leave nothing behind but a city dump, introducing us to how fancy the trailer is. We see Donald eaten by the walls of the trailer as it switches from bathroom to dining room, before seeing him dispensed, angry, but dressed for breakfast. When the trailer starts to roll away, we see Mickey and Donald bouncing around as their dining room folds up again beneath them. There are a lot of fun uses of perspective, especially in shots of the trailer while it rolls down the mountain, and one shot where Mickey looks out the window as it does so. We have stretch and squash, but applied to both characters and inanimate objects, giving the whole world a feeling of bouncy elasticity. Though Mickey’s Trailer is a sum of the parts seen in other shorts, it stands out in how well it all comes together. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the novelty of these techniques, but rather the techniques contribute to the experience.



(above images taken from Technicolor redistribution)

Thompson claims that up until the fifties, that both audiences and filmmakers and audiences held this assumption: “animation could do things live-action could not, and hence it came to be assumed that it should do only these things” (Thompson, 110). As a natural result, animation, in the very slapstick, exaggerated style I have demonstrated, was used primarily for comedic features directed towards children, since children are not so bothered by familiar gags and lack of narrative so long as what they are watching is visually pleasing. I describe this relegation negatively, almost like it is a waste of the medium, however I do so only because of shorts like Mickey’s Trailer. Though the style granted by cel shading is used by features that often feel unsophisticated and unsubstantial, there is no doubt that the techniques and effects used are impressive in their own right. It is just that these techniques and the animation itself are mostly used to coast by on with mediocre features.


Little Nemo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8qow7jTyoM

Smile, Darn Ya Smile!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jigTcqWj_OA

Mickey’s Trailer: https://video.disney.com/watch/mickey-s-trailer-4bb39f2def7e8a8833003b15

Thompson, Kristin – Implications of the Cel Animation Technique

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