You may have first seen Cel Shading in 2013 with the premiere of RWBY, an “American Anime” aimed at both American and Japanese anime fans. Characters are 3D models, like a lot of modern animation, but they look a little different from their Disney-Pixar cousins. In stills, they could fool you into thinking they’re two-dimensional drawings or frames from some traditionally-drawn anime. The character’s skin looks flat and their eyes are large and cartoony. Cel Shading is a technique long used by video games, from the classic Katamari Damacy to the more recent The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but in recent years, animation studios have used it to bring the anime style into the modern era. Netflix Originals in particular use the technique a lot, as seen in shows such as the surreal space drama Knights of Sidonia and Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. Most recently, Netflix worked with the writers of the beloved (traditionally animated) show Avatar: The Last Airbender to create a cel-shaded fantasy adventure, The Dragon Prince.
When Netflix released the first trailer back in July, fans were skeptical about the animation style. Perhaps instinctively making the connection between the show and 3D video games, viewers complained about “lag” and “frame rate.” The Dragon Prince does look a lot like a video game that’s slowing down and “dropping frames,” meaning the characters appear to jump around the screen like a stop-motion animation. Unlike video games, where this phenomenon is a bug, The Dragon Prince‘s animation studio Wonderstorm drops frames intentionally. The idea is that by only showing the once-fluid 3D animation at something close to 12 fps, The Dragon Prince will look more like a 2D, hand-drawn animation, despite being rendered in computer graphics. 2D animation tends to have a lower frame rate than 3D, because the animators have to draw every frame individually instead of relying on software to map out the movements between key poses. Without the chore of redrawing characters over and over, the animation process becomes faster, which is why a lot of studios (especially small ones that partner with Netflix) choose this route. Then why try to work backwards, imitating a less efficient animation method? There must be a reason almost all of the blockbuster animated films today — from Despicable Me to Wreck-it-Ralph — are 3D, right?
2D animation was the standard for decades, and with it comes a lot of nostalgia. The Dragon Prince had to follow in the impossibly large footsteps of The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, some of the most acclaimed animated series of our generation. (Okay, The Last Airbender is one of the most acclaimed, people generally have mixed feelings about the sequel series Korra, but I personally loved it.) The Avatar series has gorgeous art direction and fluid animation, and the Dragon Prince animators wanted to capture this feeling. So they experimented. Everything worked out great: the character designs, background, elves, magic and dragons are all beautiful.
The only problem is the choppiness, the distracting dropped frames that don’t succeed in emulating the magic of 2D animation. Maybe it’s the lack of smears and in-betweens, abstract drawings that connect traditionally drawn frames and help simulate realistic motion. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by painstakingly fluid stop-motion animation like Kubo and the Two Strings, or more successful experiments in blending 2D and 3D like Disney’s 2013 animated short Paperman. Using software Disney developed called Meander, Paperman blends cel shading with hand-drawn frames and auto-generates in-between frames based directly on the animators’ drawings. Disney has used the program many times since its creation, like in animated short Feast and smaller elements in feature film Moana, but other studios haven’t yet caught up.
Not every studio has the seemingly endless budget and resources that Disney has, and so they have to experiment in other ways. The pseudo-anime style seen in The Dragon Prince has come a long way since animators first started using it. RWBY’s visual improvement over the last five seasons spans better lighting, more fluid movement and more detailed crowd scenes, transforming from a small studio’s passion project to a serious contender with its own spin-offs, video games and merchandise. Most likely, these experimenting independent studios will continue to experiment, finding new ways to capture the magic of traditional animation while retaining the versatility that comes with 3D models. I look forward to seeing what they’ll try next; hopefully, they’ll learn from both The Dragon Prince’s shortcomings and its successes.
Olivia Bono is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester