Photography in Cel Animation

by Niky Charouzová

Though used rarely today, celluloid animation has brought us many cartoons and animated movie classics, such as the Looney Tunes series by Warner Bros, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Walt Disney Productions, or the first 13 seasons of The Simpsons by 20th Century Fox. The production method of celluloid animation consists of drawings that are made on plastic sheets called cels, which are photographed in sequence in order to provide the illusion of movement. On rare occasions, errors do occur in the photographing of cels; this occurs namely in accidentally taking a photograph of the cel with the camera operator’s fingers in it, reflecting the camera apparatus in the cel so that it is seen in the frame, or improperly placing the cels on top of each other, resulting in colour changes in the frame. Dust and dirt particles can also accumulate on the film, as can the fingerprints of the cameraman. Hannah Frank’s Traces of the World challenges a theory of cinema where it is believed that “the animation camera is only incidental to the cartoon’s production”, rather than being a key part in it (Frank 23). Be it with mistakes or without, celluloid animation is arguably a phenomenon that, per Andrew Wilson’s claim, “reveal[s] traces of the humans and technology that produced them” (Frank 23).

The idea proposed by many critics where, by having “no authorial or legal claim to the images he produced”, the “proletarian of creation” (the camera operator) and his creative force on the camera are negligible in cartoons (Frank 24). It is widely believed that “the camera plays a relatively small role in animation”, which results in a paradox where there is a “complete disavowal of cel animation as photographic cinema” (Frank 24). Stanley Cavell adds to this with his blunt claim that “cartoons are not movies”, yet they still provide us with a view of their own world (Frank 24). Hannah Frank, on the other hand, argues that cartoons can indeed be a view of the world, rather than simply projecting a world of their own; she claims that the mistakes that show up in cartoons and thus that which resides in their individual photographic frames is indicative of the human labour behind it. Although dust and dirt particles, sudden colour changes on film, or fingerprints left behind by the camera operator tend to go unnoticed by viewers, they can often be seen when stopping and focussing on single frames. This way, the actual creation of a cartoon in terms of the photographic and artistic labour that went into it comes to light. By doing an analysis of “one motionless image after another”, one can begin to understand the production process of the cartoon and thus see the connection of the artist to the cartoon in itself (Frank 25).

Chuck Jones’ Hair-Raising Hare is a silly and fun cartoon about Bugs Bunny that has a minor flaw in the use of the cel. 3:26 minutes in, Bugs Bunny’s head disappears while he is shoving a door closed. This was perhaps due to the fact that the cel with his head drawn on it was forgotten in the frame and we are thus left with only his body, but it returns immediately after that single frame:

Similarly, in Frank Tashlin’s Porky Pig’s Feat, there is a moment when the cel portraying Daffy Duck flips and “is placed before the camera with its verso side up”, before being flipped to the recto side (Frank 31). What the audience sees, when paying very close attention, is Daffy quickly being flipped over and facing the wrong direction. This is at minute 3:08:

One other example of what could go wrong in the creation of a cartoon is the maintenance of the same colours on each cel. Because cels are often overlapped, they often result in a darker shade of the given colours, which is especially evident in Broom-Stick Bunny by Chuck Jones, where the witch’s dress slightly varies in colour. The colours on the dress move of their own accord throughout the cartoon, but there are evident changes in it, such as at minute 0:52:

Moreover, there are certain cartoons, such as Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck, where the labour of the artist is conveyed through the plot itself. Daffy Duck is manipulated by the artist, who continuously changes the scenery as well as Daffy’s physical appearance by mimicking the artist’s actual act of drawing and erasing on the cel. This creates a connection between the cartoon and the artist himself, and it forces the viewer to question this. There are also other cartoons that involve celluloid animation as part of the cartoon’s plot, such as the “Lady Bouvier’s Lover” episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart buys an expensive animation cel of Itchy and Scratchy, thus also forcing the audience to look past the triviality of the cartoon and into its production process:

Screen Capture of Bart and Lisa with Cel (Lady Bouvier's Lover - 1F21)

Although it can indeed be argued that there are no traces of the human labour left behind in celluloid animation apart from incidents involving photographing the cameraman’s fingers, how is that different from other animated and non-animated movies? Human labour is rarely seen in any other films, apart from the actual labour of actors on-screen in live-action films. The presence of producers, directors, or other people behind the making of films is also usually not shown in those films themselves. (There are of course exceptions in the rarest of films where the creators find a way to include themselves in the films, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where Stan Lee’s cameos are all included in the films, yet this is by no means common.)

Why, then, is it so crucial for the creative force of the labourer to be seen in an animated film, if in a live-action film much of the credit is being attributed to the actors, rather than the off-screen labourers? Furthermore, taking into consideration the opinions of various critics mentioned in Frank’s article, the camera allegedly does not play a significant role in the making of cel animated films. Although many may agree with that, how does that differ from the work of a camera in a live-action movie? Both celluloid animation and live-action films put before the camera what they want to be filmed. Though the camera can add extra effects in a live-action movie, such as zooming in and out of scenes and focussing specifically on one image, this is enabled by what is put forth in terms of scenery and actors, just as things are being drawn on each cel for specific creative purposes. Arguably, cameras in live-action films only have a larger amount of power over a film than those in cel animated films because of what is laid out before them on set. Therefore, couldn’t the role of the camera in live-action movies essentially be equated to that of a celluloid animated film? And should cartoons be considered films, even though the production process is significantly different from live-action films?

Works Cited:

Frank, Hannah. “Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography.” Animation, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, pp.23-39, DOI: 10.1177/1746847715623689. Accessed 19 November, 2019.

Jones, Chuck, director. Broom-Stick Bunny. Warner Bros. Pictures, 25 February, 1956.

Jones, Chuck, director. Duck Amuck. Warner Bros. Pictures, 28 February, 1953.

Jones, Chuck, director. Hair-Raising Hare. Warner Bros. Pictures, 25 May, 1946.

Tashlin, Frank, director. Porky Pig’s Feat. Warner Bros. Pictures, 17 July, 1943.

“The Simpsons – Animation Cels.” The Simpsons Forever. Accessed November 20, 2019.

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