One of the best things for otaku is to have a favorite anime series or movie on VHS tape or laserdisc so that they can view it whenever they feel like it. It's also fun to buy the posters, apparel, and toys based on anime, but there is one form of merchandise unique from all others that gives you a perspective on anime like nothing else. It can also be speculated in, like a commodity or stock, to make money. This wonder-merchandise is the cel.
The animation process starts with a well-paid storyboard artist who breaks down the story into panels, kind of like a comic strip. This artist is important because he decides the point of view, angle, lighting, and pacing of every scene (with direction from the director, of course). From there, the storyboard goes to animators, who are usually talented but low-paid artists whose love for animation won't let them search for another job. An animator makes pencil sketches with slight progressions in action in each succeeding sketch. When these sketches are flipped in the correct sequential order, a coherent movement of the subject will appear. Each sketch is then individually traced or photocopied onto a transparent sheet of celluloid. This is what is known as a cel. But the process isn't finished yet. Cel painters apply paint to the underside of the cels, supervised by color checkers. Finally, somebody with very fast hands flashes the cels in front of a VHS camcorder set on "record". Ha ha, no, actually each cel is overlaid onto the background, and a camera takes a picture of the cel onto film.
Obviously, each cel is unique -- there isn't another one exactly like it. So it's kind of like a work of art, only funner (shaddap editor, I know "funner" isn't a word). Sometimes, cels are washed clean after the anime has been completed so that the celluloid sheet can be re-used. But if the studio decides that they can make money selling them, then they go to market in Japan. Prices for anime cels in the US can range from $5 to the high hundreds of dollars. The all-time most expensive cel is from The Little Mermaid -- it fetched $12,000 at an auction. More typically, expect to shell out $30 to $150. Of course, each series will have different prices. Escaflowne cels can often top $150, whereas Marmalade Boy rarely breaks $100. (Say, just who is the Marmalade Boy anyway? I've been waiting for a whole semester, hoping he'll show up and open a big can of whupass on this series. Or maybe one of the current characters will become the Marmalade Boy and, I dunno, do kinky stuff with jelly or something.)
The price of any particular cel is dependent on many factors. Cel quality is one such factor. For example, you would pay less for a dull, crudely-drawn Gundam (1st series) cel than a crisp and highly-detailed Ninja Scroll cel.
The age of the cel affects supply, which determines the price. Ranma ½ was made in the late '80s, and today, most cels have already found their way into collectors' homes. Currently, Ranma ½ cels are hard to find, driving the price up.
The length of a series is directly related to the supply, and hence, the price. Nuku Nuku and Super Atragon are both relatively short, and so there are far fewer specimens from these series than of, say, that gawd-awful, too-long, put-us-out-of-our-misery-already melodrama, City Hunter. (Hmm, it's a good thing that I'm not a real journalist and don't have to worry about things like fairness or equal time.)
The popularity of the character on the cel is a very important determinant in the price. People are simply not interested in generic bad-guy minions put there to be shot or minor scrub characters like those bandits at the beginning of Slayers. On the other hand, Belldandy (from Ah! My Goddess) commands a hefty price because fans just snatch those up; most likely due to the fact that most otaku are guys.
A cel can also come with its accessories, such as the pencil sketch from which it was traced or the background it was on. The pencil sketch is fairly common, but the background will cost something in the neighborhood of... one of your body parts.
The "ideal" pose for a cel is the character facing forward, with no body parts cropped off, eyes open, and filling up most of the space. Other cool poses or special scenes are desirable too, like that scene from Escaflowne where Dornkirk kills Van with the Spear of Destiny. [Huh!? -Ed.]
If someone offers to sell you an Evangelion cel, just walk away, unless you want to be a sucker or a crimey. Gainax is still keeping all of the Eva cels; so current Eva cels on the market are either fake or stolen.
By the way, for those of you who thought, "What the f#%k?!? $100 for a cel? I can draw my own damn..." You actually can draw your own. UCI sells unpainted kits; but of course, these were never used in an anime series, which is the fun part. And that's why we're into anime in the first place, isn't it -- for the fun?