Animation cels are drawings done in parts on a thin, transparent celluloid acetate or “cel”, used in the production of cartoons.
As computer-generated animation replaces artists painting by hand, cels have become a collectible.
Some collectors got into the genre long ago when Disney and the other studios were digging ditches and buying them by the thousands because their insurance companies told them they were a fire hazard.
In the 1950s and 1960s, studio workers could take home what they wanted. Animation cels were considered garbage. We had one client who used to bring them home for his youngsters to color on. From the 60s forward, cels were sold at theme parks but it wasn’t until that first auction in 1990 at Sotheby’s that animation cels became known worldwide and were truly treated as an art form.
Disney offered one-of-a-kind “Little Mermaid” production cels (the last Disney movie to use cels before going digital) with original backgrounds. Disney reaped the rewards of a mad frenzy for the cels with the highest price paid for a single cel was $25,300. It was of Ariel, the title character, combing her hair with a fork to the bewilderment of Prince Eric and his tutor, Grimsby, which was five times its estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. Another set up with Ariel, Sebastian, Scuttle and Flounder also sold for the same. In that same time period Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s first real appearance, sold for more than $400,000.
Disney has remained the leader in marketing its animation cels, but all the Studios got on board. The best known independent gallery chain outside a theme park was the Disney Preferred Galleries, furthering their brand. Most of those galleries are phased out now as Disney shifted its marketing plan and pulled back the best animation to its Parks.
In an effort to make cels affordable and reach as many collectors as possible, several different types of cels were produced. However, there was not always a clear definition of what was being purchased which is still the case today. Frequently, buyers went away thinking they had purchased the same type of cel as the original Little Mermaid production pieces. Not all cels are created equal. The most expensive cels are original production cels from a major animated motion picture. A production cel from Saturday Morning Cartoons or other Studios like Nelvana that produced Care Bears have never gotten the same attention in the market as Disney and within Disney the cel has to come from a block buster hit rather than the ones that did not bring in the revenue like The Rescurers or The Sword in the Stone.
With all that said there are levels of desirability depending on how complete the image appears and how many characters are involved. It takes millions of cels to produce a movie. Disney produces the “Cadillac” of all animated films. It makes movies with 24 cels per second. It is the time it takes for a person to blink. This gives the characters full range of motion. On the other end of the spectrum, The Simpsons uses just 12 cels per second. The choppiness of motion is written into the characters and makes the resulting production half the cost of a Disney film.
Hanna Barbara Studios uses 16 cels per second for the Flintstones. With that said any major scene of any Disney film only has about 25 good cels because animators don’t reproduce the entire character every time. This is standard in the Industry. They paint body parts to show movement which furthers the storyline.
After original production cels, there are limited editions, some with original production backgrounds, but most have laser colored copies. These editions are of perfect desirable images from the movie. Examples are the Blue Fairy touching Pinocchio from Pinocchio or the famous Lady and the Tramp scene where they are both eating the same strand of spaghetti. These limited editions are hand painted to give the appearance of an original production cel and are usually no more than 500 in an edition.
The most affordable cels are the sericels. These are reproductions printed on thin sheets of plastic by machine and are done in very large edition sizes like 5000 or 7500.
The art market has changed a lot since the 90s. The internet is a large part of that reflecting the availability to a worldwide audience. All animation is done digitally now. There are no cels unless a Studio wants to make a limited edition. When Beauty and the Beast went to auction, there were original production background at auction but each cel was painted specifically for the auction. The market for animation cels is coming back as Millennials have the discretionary income to capture a piece of their childhood. Prices are at the whims of demand. For instance when the remake of Mary Poppins came out, it produced interest in the original film which had only a short episode of animation and as such prices went up. It does not help the market when Disney/Pixar decide to not produce limited editions or sericels for films like Brave or Frozen. The marketing department would rather produce unlimited lithos or 3D laser prints or even reproductions of concept art. As former owners of a Disney Preferred Gallery, our company still treasures the animation cel as an art form and are amazed at some of the collections out there. Animation cels are an adored class of collectible that have always made us smile.