Lighting in animation: a dive into the hand-drawn

Since the first animated film rolled onto our screens in the early 1900s, animation quickly became an integral part of our viewing pleasure—evolving from jumpy stick figures in Fantasmagorie to high-detailed motion pictures like Toy Story 4, with lighting and cinematography playing a key part in its evolution. 

Lighting in animation has become an art form in itself, not bound by physics or reality in the same way traditional filmmaking is. Although the basis of the lighting derives predominantly from traditional filmmaking, it offers complete stylistic freedom with where and how the lights are used, enhancing the cinematography of animatic films and TV shows. 

Unfortunately, animation has always been restricted by technology and budget. While technology today is advancing at a more rapid pace, this was not always the case—especially when it comes to 2D animation. 

A hand-drawn masterpiece

Traditionally, 2D animations were hand-drawn, frame-by-frame, and then put together to create a moving image. It’s for this reason that 2D animation doesn’t share the same lighting and shading techniques as 3D animation—you can’t light 2D in the same way you can with 3D. Instead, 2D animations focus on silhouettes and composition.  

Take this early example of one of Disney’s first animations, Steamboat Willie. There is no light or shade seen in the animation, and none of the characters are lit either. This is because the characters were drawn on cels, and then superimposed onto a fixed background. The background image does appear to offer some variation in the light and shade, but this is likely due to it being filmed over a form of tonal variation board and not necessarily deliberate. 

Later on, it became standard practice to use painted backgrounds for 2D animations, intricately painted with the finest details—the beloved children’s classic Bambi is a good example of this. 

Its background is beautifully and cinematically painted. It has strong lighting queues and uses color to emphasize mood or direct the viewers’ attention. But, none of the animal characters in the film are lit. Instead, if any of them are in the light, they are painted lighter—or darker if they are in shadows. While this attempts to give the illusion that they are being lit, it consequently means that all the cinematography of the film is driven by the painted background, and not by any form of light. 

Jumping forward to the Fleischer brothers’ Superman cartoons, it’s clear that there is specific usage of light and shadow in their animation, with shadows being painted on when certain light is used. While it may seem crude to some, the Superman cartoons were some of the first animations to add this sense of light and shadow to their characters. 

What’s more, the animations were heavily influenced by the period in which they’re set, with the Superman character almost being a Film Noir version of himself. These Noir elements are interlaced with science fiction and art deco—which was a popular style in the 1940s—to create visually beautiful cartoons in both tone and mood. 

The use of moody pools of light, silhouetted figures and shadows all derived from Film Noir and add to more serious undertones of the animation. This is contrasted with the deep color palette the animations use, instead of opting for the more traditional black and white that

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