The Truth About Cel Collection

Hi folks, The Butcher here.

Lemme set you straight on something. A lot of you are buying "animation cels" for their collectable value, or because of fondness for a certain animated character or film. And I'm sure a lot of you know exactly what you're doing, but I'm equally sure that a lot of you don't. It's the later half of this crowd that I want to address, so listen up and remember that The Butcher cares.

Many people seem to think that by buying a cel, you are getting a piece of the film - a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork. Some of you are, but a lot of you aren't. Digital techniques have, in most cases, replaced the ink-and-paint process. Disney hasn't used cels since before "
The Rescuers Down Under
" , which was their first film to be done all digitally. If you've bought cels from "
The Rescuers Down Under
" or any Disney feature made afterward thinking that you had purchased a piece of the film itself, you got screwed. There were no cels for that movie or any made afterwards. What you bought was a "Limited Edition" cel, which is for all appearances an "animation cel", but was made exclusively for the purpose of selling as artwork. These are also sometimes referred to by the sickening and pretentious euphemism, "a cericel" (pronounced like sara-sell).

Cel collection and the market it serves are a fairly recent phenomenon. When I was a Little Butcher, I remember going to Disneyland and seeing cels from old Disney shorts and features being sold for a few bucks. People just didn't realize that they were getting a piece of the film - indeed, a piece of animation history - for a few clams. These were gooooood cels, too: Black-and-white "
Steamboat Willie
" cels, Mickey in his sorcerer's apprentice outfit, Donald, the Goof, Chip and Dale....these things are worth thousands of bucks now. What happened? Well, someone must have realized that there were selling a piece of the film - indeed, a piece of animation history - for a few clams. Also, someone figured out that cels were an endangered species, as digital ink-and-paint lurked just over the horizon.

Thus the value of cels went up. Rightly so, I suppose. But then, something else happened. Someone figured out that if cels were an endangered species, that they would run out of product to sell. What to do? Make more! We could even make them better! Pose the characters as if they were publicity shots! Make them in limited runs to increase their value!

Who is the
that I refer to? Is it Disney? Probably, but I don't have any proof. Don't get me wrong - business is business and it was a pretty smart move. However, they also played on the public's general ignorance about cels and digital production to make sure the product kept selling. That's where I get a bit irritated. The companies selling these things did the bare minimum of disclosure to cover their asses legally, but you'll notice that the difference between cericels and actual production cels is kept quiet.

There are even some unscrupulous characters who revel in this ignorance. Your friend The Butcher almost got the shit kicked out of him at the last San Diego ComicCon by an enraged cell dealer. I normally mind my own business, but I overheard a conversation between a cel dealer and a prospective sucker. The sucker was interested in a "cel" of the ballroom scene in Disney's "
Beauty and the Beast
" and was about to shell out almost 1,000 bucks for this meaningless piece of cellulose triacetate. I wasn't going to intervene until I heard the sucker ask for the dealers assurance that this was, "an actual production cel used in the movie".

"Oh it certainly is," assured the dealer.

"Oh it certainly is not," I interrupted.

Both the dealer and the sucker looked at me as if I were some kind of freak (which is considerable given most of the crowd at the ComicCon), and I explained to the sucker that "Beauty and the Beast" had been inked-and-painted digitally and that the closest that this "cel" had come to being on film was when the truck that brought it here passed a Fotomat. The sucker stopped in mid checkwriting and asked the dealer if I was correct. The dealer said, "Well, who are you gonna believe - an art dealer or some guy?"

The sucker looked at me for some kind of signal, and I said, "Well, believe who you want, but I don't see you writing me a check."

The cel went unpurchased, and the dealer went for my throat. Luckily, I managed to quickly disappear into the crowd of Furries, Trekkies, and sloppy comic book store clerks.

At this point, let me explain a few things. First, I certainly don't want to single out Disney for the cericel phenomenon. Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros, and about a half dozen television production companies are all participating. Also, the example of the dealer at the ComicCon was an extreme negative example. Not everyone that tries to sell you a "Limited Edition" cel is a crook. I doubt that the teenage clerks at The Warner Bros Studio Store know a cericel from a Sara Lee coffee cake. I'm also damn sure that the management has made no effort to explain the difference to them. As the old adage goes, buyer beware. Here's a few tips to help you tell cericels from actual production cels.

1. Production cels often have a lot of information (usually written with a Sharpie) around the edges of the cel, particularly down near the peg holes. Most of this info is scene and frame numbers.

2. Another dead giveaway that a cel was actually used in production is if you see that the lower inch of the cel, containing the peg holes, has been cut off and taped back onto the rest of the cel with tape. This is called "re-pegging" and is used to correct previously unnoticed registration problems.

3. Look at the characters. Do they look like they're posing for a vacation snapshot, mugging for the camera? Are they looking directly at the camera, smiling for no apparent reason? Betcha that's a cericel.

4. Actual production cels, especially for television cartoons, will often have a partial character - just the head, or body, or arms, or mouth. This is an artifact of "limited animation". In this process, if a character is just standing there talking, only the mouth is animated while the rest of the character (the head, body, arms and legs) are just held still. In this case, a separate "mouth level" of cels is created, and perhaps a single cel of the character's body is used for several frames. "Limited animation" is mostly used in TV production. In some cases, an entire set-up is offered for sale, where all of the character's levels have been framed in registration to each other. These can be pretty expensive, but they are actual production cels.

5. Finally, most cels that are offered for sale from studios will have some kind of stamp or embossed logo in one corner. Most of the time, this stamp or logo will identify whether the cel is an actual production cel, a "limited edition", or a cericel. Learn the lingo, and if in doubt, find out if there were cels used on that particular production before you buy.

I'm not trying to tell you that cericels are a rip-off. If you want to collect cericels, then do so by all means. Hell, there are people that collect thimbles! But do so knowing exactly what you are getting, otherwise The Butcher will lay awake nights worrying about you and your money. That's it for now - happy collecting!

The Butcher