About Collecting Animation Art

ThunderCats cels

What is the allure of Animation Art, and why does the very sight of it seem to spark an uncontrollable urge for some people to own and caress cels, to stare at pencil sketches and admire the minor details that went into the creation of a single frame of cartoon history? Why is it that I, and people like me, are so fascinated with the production process that created our favourite cartoons, and what possesses us to fork over large sums of money to buy cels from TV shows from the 80s?.

It’s partly a hobby, but more of an obsession really. Something about seeing first hand, the original pieces of art that were made over twenty years ago that led to me laying in the classic kid watching TV pose, namely, me on my living room carpet belly down, head first facing the TV, about four feet away from the screen, head resting between my hands supported by my elbows placed directly in front of me with a pillow between them, legs bent and feet swaying slowly from side to side as Lion-O leapt away from Mumm-Ra’s energy beam, and Cheetara raced across the screen, legs blurring faster than the Road Runner…

I loved ThunderCats then, and I love ThunderCats now. I loved watching the show then, but I LOVE owning pieces of the show now. I love holding a frame of ThunderCats history in my hands and knowing that I have a one of kind, rare, hand drawn, hand painted piece of the show. This to me, is better than owning a rare toy or a hard to find comic. As a fan of cartoons and of comic books, I love owning original artworks, and its even more special that I can own art from my favourite childhood shows.

Not many people know very much about how cartoons are put together, and the more you learn, the more you can appreciate the hard work and creativity that goes into it. This amazing art has been available since the first cartoon movies and shows were made, Disney and other studios have been selling artwork sine the 1930’s, but it hasn’t really become a mainstream collecting habit for the public until recently. What is ironic about that is now that it’s a popular hobby, the new shows that are mostly digital won’t be creating and “real” animation art for fans to collect. The hand drawn process has been replaced with digital software that creates cartoon shows, meaning that cels are no longer used as part of the animation process. This makes owning cels an expensive proposition, and means that only older shows will have produced any art worthy of collecting.

Many studios will put out promotional cels, which are nothing much more than mass produced cels created by machines, and sometimes handpainted by “artists”. These are often called sericels, giclees, limited edition cels. They’re usually of classic moments from the show and capture the main characters in an often seen pose. New shows create these, often with a production of hundreds or thousands of the exact same cel. Personally I don’t care for these kinds of cels, I think they’re mass produced and therefore they lose their unique appeal.

What’s great about ThunderCats cels is that they are all original, one-of-a-kind pieces, actually used to create the cartoon show. They are always far more impressive to see in person than what you see on the TV screen. In comparing screencaps with cel scans, you’ll soon see that much of the detail is lost in the translation from cel to cartoon frame. The colours in the cels are more vibrant, the detail is greater and there is more to see on the cel than what finally makes it to the screen. Often the parts of the cel are shot offscreen, meaning that not all of the cel or background makes it onto the show. Often a background is created before the cel, and you don’t even get to see whole sections of the background in the show because the cel covers the details. When you own the setup yourself, and you can peel back the cel, amazing things often become visible to you. For an example of such an experience, take a look at this cel setup.

I’ll share a glossary of collecting jargon with you, and will then leave you with a few tips on collecting. I hope that you will join the forums to discuss animation art, and if you are a collector, I’d love for you to share pictures of your cels with me. I am always happy to showcase some of the better ThunderCat cels out there.

ThunderCats cels

Cel – short for celluloid, named for the overhead slide material that is used for painting. A cel is a single instant or frame on the show. Often, hundreds of cels are filmed and then played back in very close succession to make up a few short seconds of screen time. Each cel is created by transferring a hand drawn pencil onto a celluloid sheet. Ink lines are traced from the drawings onto the front of the cel and paint is applied to the back. The cel is then laid over a background painting and photographed to create a frame of the cartoon. Cels for ThunderCats are fairly small compared to most North American cartoon cels, they measure 10.5 inches across by 9 inches high. To see an example of a cel, click here.

Pencils and Layouts – These were the original hand drawn pencils that became the basis for the cels. The artist would use storyboards and pencil rough drawings (often called genga) to draw a scene by pencil. The pencil artist would include colour codes on the pencils so that the paint artists knew what sections to paint in certain colours. Occassionaly errors would slip in, which makes collecting the art even more interesting. You can see an example of a mistake made in translating the colour specifications from a pencil sketch into a cel, which actually made its way into the show by clicking here.

Background – Generally paintings, on ThunderCats they are almost exclusively watercolours on a cardboard sheet. They are usually 14.5 inches by 10 inches in dimension, and most backgrounds include numbering to indicate what episode they are for, and what scene or “cut” they are for. Backgrounds are usually rarer than cels, because for every 200-500 cels you will often only have one background used in the same scene. ThunderCats backgrounds are unusually beautiful compared to other cartoon shows. A lot of detailed care went into painting fantastic backgrounds. The artwork is visually stunning. To see an example of a background click here.

Concept art – Generally drawings, pastels or watercolours designed to set the look, “feel” or atmosphere of a show. Sometimes concept art is done for particular characters. This kind of art is done before the show is produced, and is often the first art done for the show. It takes concepts that are written in a show “bible” and tries to illustrate them. Explanations on  places, characters,clothing, weapons, homes, backstories etc. are notes on the art sheets.

Model sheet – Character design sheets that often feature multiple poses and facial expressions. These act as a reference chart for the animators working on the show so that they would draw the characters consistently. They often include size comparisons against other characters in the show (called a lineup). For ThunderCats, many of the model sheets were done in black and white copies that were shared with the various animators, there are some known colour copies that probably originated in the US and were sent to Japan. Model sheets never appear on screen, and are also part of pre-production art.

Storyboard – When concept art is completed and an episode script is completed, the animation department would dissect the scenes and put up a storyboard. Indiviual key points in the story are drawn rather roughly and built into the storyboard with explanations written in for the animators. This is where the animation first starts to take shape and the rest of the art has to fit between the key points sketched out in the storyboard. It is great reading these as you can often see where changes were made to the storyboards vs. the final product and some fun insights can be gained.

Complete setup – This is a fairly rare occasion when a collector has been able to get all of the artwork used to create a frame in a ThunderCats episode. Often it means that all the cel layers (including special effects layers) are present and matching, and that the original matching background is included. Complete setups are hard to find for the ThunderCats show because so little of the artwork has been salvaged. Click here to see a complete setup, including the layout sheet.

ThunderCats cels

Pencil sketches stuck to the cels: When you’re buying ThunderCats cels, you should always ask whether the pencil sketch paper has stuck to the cel. This happens frequently with older cels that have not been stored well. Damage can occur to the cel and pencil sketch if you try to separate them. It is common with ThunderCats cels given their age.

Always find out where the art comes from: In order to avoid being sold fan art (non original ThunderCats production art) you should always ask the seller to tell you where they got their art.

Know who you are dealing with: When you’re buying directly, make sure you know a bit about the person that you are buying from, there are people out there who are less than honest, so try and find out if they are reputable sellers. Most dealers with busy websites and a good trade are knowledgeable about their art and will take good care of you. Step carefully when dealing with unknown people. Dealing on Ebay can be hard sometimes, make sure you’re buying from somebody who has a good feedback score, and look into the using Paypal for the insurance coverage they offer. Don’t send payment by Western Union!

Fan Cels: A few years ago a few fan cels made their way onto ebay. You can usually tell that it is a fancel if you can’t find a frame in the cartoon show that matches the cel. There are exceptions, such as when somebody is selling artwork that was cut or edited from the episode. Fan cels are usually of lower quality, or unusual colouring. If you are looking at a cel in person, you can tell if the cel is new by the tinge of the cel itself. Older cels go a very slight yellow shade, new celluloid is much whiter. Also look for the distinctive punch marks on ThunderCats cels. There are very few people who will try to pass off a fan cel as original art, but you should be aware that every once in a while, somebody tries this gambit. Use the rule of, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Certificates of Authenticity: These are usually provided by dealers who put their own stamp on a piece of paper and warrant that the art you have bought from them is original art. That is all well and good, but the certificate is only as good as the reputation of the dealer or the gallery. Remember that it is easier to fake a certificate than it is to fake a cel, so don’t put too much value in these certificates, they don’t necessary mean much at all.

Ask ThunderCatsLair.org for advice: If you’re considering buying T-Cats animation art, but have doubts, you can always ask me at grizzlor@thundercatslair.org for an opinion.