Not many people know this but Disney has a hidden treasure in the Los Angeles area. The Animation Research Library, known as the ARL, is in a secluded warehouse that holds the history of Disney. It’s hidden way amongst homes and you’d never know it was there unless you were told. Entrance to the building is behind gates and it is not open to the public. A tour there is very rare so it was beyond fascinating to get a private tour during my post recent partnership with Disney.
The walking tour of the library was led by Fox Carney, the manager of research at the Disney ARL. Fox is known for his work on The Princess and the Frog (2009), Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Cinderella (1950) through his time at the library. He was incredibly informative and gave the most amazing tour!
Before we arrived, the researchers had pulled an incredible amount of artwork from Peter Pan for us to enjoy, including pieces from some of the best animators Mark Davis and Frank Thomas. This was great since we where there to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Peter Pan! You can find out even more about that through my private tour of Walt Disney’s office and Peter Pan scavenger hunt!
As we made our way through the doors, Walt himself gives us a nod in a special photo that was taken in the original morgue as he was hosting an episode of the Disneyland television show.
Preserving a Legacy
The ARL is the repository of all the original art work that was created at Walt Disney Animation Studios from the 1920s to present day. In that building alone, they estimate to have over sixty-five million pieces of art. During the tour we learned how the art is stored and cared for by staff at the library. It shows just how much time, care and attention the Walt Disney company puts into taking care of their legacy.
Back in the old days the ARL was actually known as the morgue but wasn’t meant to be where old art went to die. The morgue was used in the old days in reference to newspapers, where they would keep used but still reusable materials, like clippings and photographs and things like that. When you think about the artwork in their collection it is still the same way, what is used during production but it is still usable today. So, they celebrate the legacy of Disney Animation by preserving the artwork so that future generations 0f Disney artists and staff can always build up in that legacy.
The art work from the animated films and the animated films themselves is what set this company up. Without that, nothing else would exist. “Star Wars” wouldn’t exist within the Disney Universe. The theme parks wouldn’t exist. They are very proud of that legacy and they have the responsibility to take care of all that art work so it is here for generations to come. To enjoy, not only from a visual experience, but inspiration education and a continued resource and a continuation of those stories with those characters and worlds.
Since Walt Disney was an artist first way back in the day, he saw the value of holding onto the artwork. Everybody within the company can learn from it. They can be inspired by it. They are working on and actually being able to gain access to our current and ongoing productions. So, think about how many digital files can be created in an animated feature today. Think about how many more tens of thousands and tens of millions of pieces of artwork that means for the ARL.
Preserving the Art
At the ARL they try to preserve the art as best as possible. They are always there so everybody can always access it. It makes no sense if they just put it in archival boxes somewhere. This is an actual living facility. Anybody within the Walt Disney company can actually come in and reference art work in their collection and digital files thereof so they can work with them on their project as either reference or physically use them in their projects. Imagineering, publishing, consumer projects and home entertainment can access the work from the ARL collection.
For a long time, this was known as Disney’s Secret Weapon. Because a lot of the other studios didn’t hold onto the old artwork the way the Walt Disney Company did, so it is a very special collection. People from outside the company are normally never let inside the facility since it’s not open to the public. We got an extra special treat being able to take a tour!
All day, every day the collections team preserves the art whether it be animation drawings, concept art, story-sketches, background paintings or layout drawings. They have to identify, organize and house them properly. The team even use gloves so they can best preserve the art. Everything the ARL digitizes can be accessed by the animation building on the Walt Disney Studios lot. It allows the animators to learn from, be inspired by or study the history of the art.
Peter Pan Original Artwork
Laid carefully on a large rectangular black table was original pieces of artwork from the production of Peter Pan which was released in 1953. The researchers had selected a lot of different types of art for us to see because there are a lot of different processes in making an animated feature. They shared parts of the story process, animation process, background painting, layouts and concept art for us to view.
For the Bluray release of Peter Pan there is a Special Feature with the voices of Kathryn Beaumont, voice of Wendy Darling, and Paul Collins, voice of John Darling. The two of them were captured together when having a conversation for the movie so the researchers shared the model sheets and artwork. Model sheets are the pieces of artwork that would often be photographed and then printed on photo paper and given out to the crews of each individual character. And so, when you have multiple people drawing the same character, how do you keep them consistent, how do you keep them on model? Thus, they would use the model sheet for various poses to keep the same body proportions. Same with the comparative size sheet.
There is also a lot of concept art. One of Walt’s favorite artists, Mary Blair, started working on Peter Pan in the late 1930’s before World War II. Artist David Hall painted a lot of paintings for Peter Pan that we got to view. Each of his paintings were actually story-sketch-panels, that they actually would photograph and create film-strip type presentations that were known as Lycia-reels. So, they would get an idea of the pacing for the story and whether or not it would work.
The project of Peter Pan was shelved until after the war. When the war ended, Mary Blair was very crucial in the look of the film. If you compare her work to David Hall’s you’ll see that his are very rendered, they almost look like children’s book illustrations of the time.
Included in the research laid out for us to view were animation drawings, including those of Tinkerbell and Captain Hook. The animation drawings are what the animators actually draw out to show what the characters are doing. The inkers would trace every drawing on a piece of acetate that would lay on top of the drawings. From there each piece would go on to the painters. The painters would flip each piece over and paint the backs of the cells. Those cells would be reassembled to go on to the camera person. The camera person would shoot the cells on the top and the back-ground frame by frame by frame by frame.
Mark Davis, one of the amazing animators of the time, was the supervisor animator for Tinkerbell. He would create a rough animation drawing to figure out the emotion and action of the character. The assistant animator would then take it and do a fine line draw over so the inker would have nice, clean drawings. There are so many steps to animation, especially years ago. About 24 sketches equals 1 second in animation!
During our tour we visited two of the ARL’s eleven climate controlled vaults. These vaults house the artwork collections. One of the vaults we visited contained 40 years of artwork including works of art from Snow White and Winnie the Pooh. One of Walt Disney’s favorite movie scenes was the transformation of Snow White’s dress. A lot of care has been taken into maintaining the vaults with every movie organized chronologically. You’ll find most of the artwork is stored in bar-coded binders and boxes.
Everything in the ARL is 17” wide x 12” long or less allowing them to be consistent and not have to constantly move equipment. Up to 1,000 pieces of art is digitized daily at the ARL. A lot goes into preserving the art of Disney history!
The ARL currently has a project at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines to make the ICU more enjoyable for kids.
The 65th anniversary of Peter Pan is now available on digital and available on Blu-ray June 5th!