By Zoe Chevat
Thursday morning found our traveling band of Oscar short animation nominees and AWN staff trekking eastward for a morning at the Animation Resource Library (ARL). The definitive, company-owned archive for all Disney production materials, ARL is something of an in-house secret, appropriately hidden from prying eyes in a low-slung concrete building surrounded by warehouses.
Inside is a different story. The unassuming exterior plays host to over 60 million pieces of original production artwork, from clean-up drawings to rare painted-glass backgrounds used on the (now-defunct) massive multi-plane setup. The collection covers everything surviving from Disney's early days, up through present shows, with sketches from the "Alice" shorts of the 1920s holding the title of oldest artifact.
Our guides, including coordinator for our visit, Mary Walsh, and staff librarian Fox Carney, did a tremendous honor by allowing us a peak at some of the treasures in their vaults. As per a dream request list from the visiting nominees, a long table of original artwork was the first stop on our tour. The pulls included gouache backgrounds from The Jungle Book; rough pencils of character animation from the same, (a rarity, as we shall explain); background art from Sleeping Beauty, as well as original 'storyboard' panels arranged in a binder; concept sketches and backgrounds from Alice in Wonderland; and a special request fulfilled, clean-up animation from the Skeleton Dance, from Silly Symphony. Original art and quality reproductions are everywhere in the ARL, not just on the tables. Turning from the long table, one came face-to-face with a layout sketch from Steamboat Willy, with tiny, scribbled notes explaining the preferred graduation of light to dark to the background painters. In cases such as this layout drawing, Fox explained, it's difficult, if not impossible to determine authorship of drawings. It was neither practice, nor particularly encouraged in the early days, for artists to lay claim to specific works. Thankfully for the archivists, and for animation historians and fans, this is no longer the case.
As we loomed around a white-gloved young woman who was cataloging clean-up animation from Alice in Wonderland, our guide briefly described the division of labor within the ARL. The caretakers of this vast trove of screen history work in three departments; Collections, which concerns itself with the preservation and maintenance of the ARL’s holdings; Research, which facilitates the use of artwork by Disney clients for exterior book publications and DVD Special Features, and Design/Exhibitions, which organizes displays of art both decoration within Disney’s offices, and for traveling exhibitions, such as the recent Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales. The multi-department structure is not just a tool of efficiency, but a testament to the continued and diverse use of the 80+ years of material at their disposal.
From the main archiving floor, the group moved on to a dazzling favorite, the production maquette vault. Greeting us were rows of temperature-controlled, glass-faced cabinets containing all of the sculpted bases and bodies of production models that the ARL possesses, from Pinocchio through 2010’s Tangled. The collection includes multiple casts of each sculpture in most cases, copied for the character supervisors to help maintain model consistency. There are unique items as well, like the recently discovered marionette of Pinocchio, found in a cabinet in a boiler room in Disney’s main building, or camera puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas, stored standing on their production armatures to prevent crushing. This room, like the one after it, and all of the ARL’s vaults, was stuffed with memorable artifacts. Hidden nearby, behind a light-blocking black screen, were Eyvind Earle’s original concept paintings from Sleeping Beauty. Earle, though not a sculptor, is all over this room. Gleefully, Fox told us the story of being called by renovators at Disney who had found a stack of what they called ‘glass plates’. As he revealed by pulling open a flat file, those ‘glass plates’ were painted background pieces, made for use on the old, beautiful multiplane system. Such plates are rare, as it was common practice for animators to scrape the top layer off the plates and re-use them for later productions.
Background and foreground plates are not the only rarity in the ARL vaults. Little rough animation survives from any production, and almost no painted cels. Known to animators as “residue”, cels were thrown out by the dumpster-load, under the assumption that there would be no use for them after a film wrapped. What does survive, however, is nearly all the cleanup animation. Housed in museum-standard boxes in the vault next door to the maquette room are all surviving clean line art, and story sketches, from all classic films. Yes, Fox slyly admitted, they even have pieces from Song of the South. Like its neighbors, this room is multi-purpose. Spread out on top of a flat file for the nominees to see was concept art from Pinocchio, and just behind another screen was a wall of Mary Blair paintings, whose color palettes and distinctive shapes determined the look of Disney favorites like Peter Pan.
Though we could have easily lingered an entire day in the vaults, we were pressed to move on. Our detailed, near-overwhelming tour concluded with a look into the high-tech scanning and conservation process used by ARL. Each item of artwork is photographed at 600 dpi, 48-bit color depth, recording priceless works for Disney’s database. It is thanks to such advents of digital archiving that the back-catalogue is accessible to current animators and visual designers at Disney, through a private, searchable network. When the nominees were shown the photography bays, an archivist rapidly clicked through a just-photographed pencil sequence of the Tramp from Lady and the Tramp walking under a stream of water, and shaking his fur out. The magic of seeing what is so clearly a series of drawings contain such vivid life was almost more precious to the visitors than the fully rendered film that so many know and love. Seeing such familiar images in their raw form can bring forth a wave of emotion and nostalgia, as A Morning Stroll producer Sue Goffe commented upon seeing the sequence. If it was not apparent before, this moment between the nominated animators and what is, for us, classic art, clearly demonstrates the essential importance of ARL’s work. Through their in-house catalogue, and through publications such as their extensive Archives series, they are not only preserving the Disney brand, but protecting a significant part of the legacy of American animation.
Speaking of the Mouse House at large, the time came all-too-soon for us to say our thank yous and move on to Disney Animation Studios.