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Oscar® Tour SoCal Day 2: Disney's ARL - Animation Research Library

Day two in LA continues at Disney's immense Animation Research Library - the ARL.

(From left to right) Ron Diamond, ARL expert guide Fox Carney, Tim Reckart, Fonhdla Cronin O'Reilly and me.

By Dan Sarto

We met up Tuesday morning at Disney’s Animation Research Library, known as the ARL.  Located in a non-descript building that housed Disney Feature Animation until unit moved to the current Burbank studio space, the ARL houses over 65 million pieces of original production artwork, from pencil sketches on napkins to painted glass panels used in the giant two-story multi-plane cameras. Everything animation art-related that can be found is brought here for cataloging, digitizing, databasing, storing and in some cases, restoring.  Our host, Mary Walsh quickly turned us over to Fox Carney, resident historian, archivist and librarian, who took us through the facility, sharing stories and history on some of Disney’s oldest, dearest and most amazing work.

Our first stop was a long table playing host to a selection of works Fox pulled on behalf of Tim and Fondhla.  This included watercolors, pencil drawn character designs, storyboards, rough animation drawings, and concept art from films like Snow White, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Lady and the Tramp.  I was particularly taken with two background paintings, one from Sleeping Beauty, one from Peter Pan, as well as some concept art sketches of Scar from The Lion King. It must be nice to have talent.  Sadly, I’ll never know.

Watching our group get up close and personal with such priceless Disney art made me think of one of the seven dwarfs in particular - Sneezy.

As we continued through the archive, Fox described many of the techniques employed to store such varied artwork created with pencils, watercolors, gouache, pastels, plasticine, wood, plaster, Masonite, etc.  The list is quite extensive when you consider the archives also house 3D models, puppets, armatures and other similar materials used in films such as Nightmare Before Christmas.  Noticeably missing are animation cels.  As Fox explains, very little rough animation or painted cels survive from any productions.  His brow furrows as he describes how such materials were referred to as “residue” by the animators and either thrown out or, in some cases, cleaned up and reused. 

Stops on the tour included several climate controlled vaults housing everything from background paintings to maquettes to various works of art dating back to the Alice shorts of the 1920s. We also got a chance to see the various photographic scanning stations used to-date to digitize over 750,000 pieces of artwork, at 600 dpi, 48-bit color, as well as the in-house database system used by the entire Disney organization to access that ever-growing digital library.

A cabinet filled with some of the few remaining painted glass slides used on the multi-plane cameras.

Fox shows Tim and Fondhla some of the Nightmare Before Christmas puppet collection.

Tim and Fondhla peruse one of the shelves stuffed with

boxes of artwork.

Fox displaying a piece of painted background art from Sleeping Beauty.

The ARL is also responsible for supporting the company’s various art exhibition a nd art gallery reproduction operations.  As explained, for example, Mary oversees an ink and paint department that handles cell setup reproductions for traveling museum shows.  Fox described how the artists will recreate the original layers, making everything 2-3% larger to capture the original feeling of cell depth.

An entire internal art department supports the need for reproductions and other recreated visual reference materials.

It makes your head ache to think so much of our industry’s history (you can induce an embolism thinking about the history of film and TV as well) is forever lost, having been tossed in the garbage or otherwise allowed to decay. It’s easy to judge the past through the eyes of the present. Still, it’s hard to believe very few if any animation studio managers or artists had the foresight to see the inherent value in the preservation of such materials. 

Our time at the ARL unfortunately comes to an end.  We bid our hosts adieu and head over to Disney Feature Animation.