Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Style of Cel Shading

This is one of those things that you already knew, but probably have never seen someone spell out in exact detail. You know what cel shading is, you know it makes games have a different vibe than their gritty HD siblings, and you've hopefully played a few games that employed it well. I decided to write about the basic artistic effect going on based on a few architecture principles. Smooth surfaces = bouncy, light feeling, gritty surfaces = heavy, dark feeling. A few distinctions about what is not cel shading and what actually is, good examples of it being used, and then a part where I ramble about Uncharted 2's effective combination of the two elements.

Art stuff and such.


Rob Zacny said...

Over Christmas break I watched We're No Angels. Have you seen it? It's a Christmas comedy starring Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, and Basil Rathbone. Great, surprisingly dry and sweet comedy. It's set on Devil's Island (the French prison colony) at the turn of the last century. But being a Hollywood studio film, it makes no effort to be convincing about its setting.

No Angels never tries to hide the fact that the backdrops are all mat paintings, and the characters are standing on soundstages and studio backlots. Rather, it sells the illusion because it's shot in Technicolor, and uses so many brilliant painted backdrops to make the entire film have this lovely air of unreality. A lot of Technicolor films did this, most notably the great musicals, but No Angles is a particularly good example.

I bring it up because cel-shading often reminds me of Technicolor, and some games use it more effectively than others. While I fear it is becoming an over-used technique, and is rarely joined with the kind of imaginative modeling and visual design that cel-shading cries out for, at it's best it provides that same airy "otherness" that marks some of the best work from the studio era. Because the game is so honest about its deceptions and concessions to style, the player becomes a participant in the illusion rather than a passive absorber. Cel-shading makes me buy into a game's reality, whatever it may be, very quickly.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Interesting, your point reminds me of Scott McCloud's maxim from 'Understanding Comics'. The more abstract a drawing, the more a person can project onto it. Normally I just thought of the maxim in terms of people's faces and avatars, but maybe the background scenery in No Angles works along the same principles. Rather than worry about depicting a lush island that leaves nothing to the imagination, you can create a far more fulfilling image by creating artificial backdrops that let you work it into your mind.

There aren't quite enough games using cel shading for me to be able to point at one and say, "You shouldn't have used it here". But as it stands now I definitely agree that I'm far more willing to believe in a giant dragon from say Wind Waker than the one depicted in Dragon Age just because it leaves the particulars up to me. Games attempting realistic graphics always end up reminding me of how far they have left to go.