UltimateDisney.com > A Tour of Disney's Animation Research Library

Touring the Disney Animation Research Library:
A Report From An Undisclosed Location

February 24, 2006

As part of the publicity for the much-anticipated DVD re-release of Disney's Lady and the Tramp, a small select party of online journalists were given the opportunity to tour Disney's esteemed Animation Research Library. Yours truly was given the opportunity to represent UltimateDisney.com in this rare, not-to-be-missed experience.

The "ARL" is the repository for approximately 65 million pieces of animation art produced by the Feature Animation Division of Disney over a period of more than 70 years. The collection features conceptual design work, model sheets, animation, backgrounds, layouts, exposure sheets, maquettes (3-dimensional models), reference photographs, audio and video tapes, and many story and other reference books.
The ARL contains the world's largest archive of animation art. Reportedly, this was an extremely rare event to allow the press to tour the ARL. In fact, in order to tour the library, we had to agree to a few ground rules which were as follows: We could not reveal the address of the facility to anyone; we could not take photos of the exterior of the building; and we could not take any high resolution photos of the artwork shown. And it is no wonder, as this is the repository for ALL their art, a collection that is indeed irreplaceable. Needless to say, we all dutifully agreed to these terms, as it is a small price to pay to get an inside look at what otherwise is only glimpsed by a few Disney employees.

The tour embarked from the "Disney Lot" in two limousine-vans which would take us to the facility. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the library by Lella Smith, our tour guide and Director of the ARL. Lella has a long and distinguished background, having been a registrar of art and museum collections for over 20 years. Staff Librarian Fox Carney provided generous assistance throughout the tour, explaining and handling many of the art pieces with kid gloves (okay, they were cloth gloves, but I just couldn't resist!).

The library staff is divided into three departments. The ARL Research Division assists Disney clients in locating the specific collection objects that will meet their needs. The Exhibits Team develops Disney art displays for in-house Disney as well as for various long-term traveling or special exhibitions. The Collections Team inventories, organizes and is involved in preservation of the collection.

The lobby of the ARL. Maquettes used in "Fantasia", which were found in the basement of old animation building three years ago.
Left: The lobby of the ARL. Right: Maquettes used in Fantasia, which were found in the basement of old animation building three years ago.

Vault reference markers: look at the goodies found in these two rows! Framed artwork from "Peter Pan."
Left: Vault reference markers: look at the goodies found in these two rows! Right: Framed artwork from Peter Pan.

This panoramic scenery in pencil and full color became a background in "Lady and the Tramp", the first animated CinemaScope feature.
This panoramic scenery in pencil and full color became a background in Lady and the Tramp, the first animated CinemaScope feature.

The building is heavily secured and contains a state-of-the-art fire alarm and suppression system. Disney spared no expense in creating a safe environment for its invaluable collection. The building's fire alarm system contains a panel with room sensor lights so one can see immediately which room contains the fire. The art collection is housed in a series of "vaults" which are essentially sealable fireproof rooms. In the event of a fire, the fire alarm triggers the vault doors to automatically close. A series of inert gases then fills the room and extinguishes the fire in a matter of 10 seconds. (One can imagine that in the event of a fire, if fire sprinklers were to turn on and spray the room with water the damage from the water to the artwork quite possibly being worse than any fire.) In preparation for the move to the facility, several fires were deliberately set inside the building to test the integrity of the system! The vaults are also climate-controlled; the collection is kept at between 55 to 65F and approximately 50% humidity. The cool temperatures slow down the natural processes that cause the art to deteriorate. The ARL is at the cutting edge of archival technology and in fact the ARL staff have invented much of their own technology, suited to the unique needs of housing the Disney art collection. For example, a special type of archival folder was developed, which is used to protect each cel-set up or pastel drawing and prevent the chipping of paint or the smudging of pastels. Special chemically inert clear Mylar sleeves are used for the backgrounds and all animation is now housed on acid-free boards.

As for the tour, many of the original pencil drawings from Lady and the Tramp were on display as well as painted background scenes and story sketches. We were told that the Lady and the Tramp collection takes up approximately 450 boxes of space at the library. We were also shown original pencil drawings of Snow White, priceless glass painted background scenes from Bambi, original models of the characters in The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as many other pieces of artwork, too numerous to mention. In addition, we observed a series of maquettes of musicians that were only recently discovered three years ago in the basement of "the old Animation building." These maquettes were used in the creation of Fantasia. Another discovery in the basement was a marionette of Pinocchio, likely used to provide live action reference for the animators.

With a theatrical aspect ratio of 2.55:1, <i>Lady and the Tramp" demanded wide scenery like this.
With a theatrical aspect ratio of 2.55:1, Lady and the Tramp demanded wide scenery like this.

My favorite part of the tour was "the ice cream container story." The story, which I had read about last year, highlights inventive techniques developed to respond to unique conservation demands. Over the years in the interest of preserving space, several thousand backgrounds created between the 1920's through 1960's had been placed inside empty (cleaned) ice cream containers. The backgrounds were peeled from chipboard backings and rolled. Over time, with temperature and humidity fluctuations, the paper fibers settled stiffly into a rolled shape and most of these long background pans had become too fragile to view. However, after consultation with experts at LACMA, the National Archives, and outside experts including the Getty Research Institute, ARL began a rescue and conservation effort. Using a custom-made humidity chamber, moisture is added back to the paper to relax the curves. One dedicated person, Diane Pullano, is in charge of this project, which began about eight years ago. At a rate of approximately 1,000 backgrounds a year, she has to date restored approximately 8,500 backgrounds. The process takes about 24 hours for a background to completely unroll. Due to the space available, only about 10-20 backgrounds can be worked on simultaneously. ARL estimates there are approximately 5,000 (five years) more images to go, although the exact count is unknown since several backgrounds have often been found rolled together as one. Some of these image backgrounds have not been seen in over 60 years.

Towards the end of the tour, we were greeted by David Jessen, Vice President of DVD Production, who is in charge of developing the bonus material for Disney's DVD releases. He works closely with ARL to uncover never-before-seen artwork. For Lady and the Tramp, ARL staff discovered the original 1943 story pitch for the movie. He noted that most of the public would never see many of the items housed at the ARL if it weren't for the DVD projects and the need to include bonus materials.

ARL Director Lella Smith shows us some old ink from the Ink and Paint Studio. ARL Staff Librarian Fox Carney holds up early line drawings of Snow White.
Left: ARL Director Lella Smith shows us some old ink from the Ink and Paint Studio. Right: ARL Staff Librarian Fox Carney holds up early line drawings of Snow White.

Maquettes from various Disney films over the years can be found in the vaults. More maquettes from the vaults.
Left: Maquettes from various Disney films over the years can be found in the vaults. Right: More maquettes from the vaults.

The individual elements and final version of this classic "Lady and the Tramp" scene.
The individual elements and final version of this classic "Lady and the Tramp" scene.

Other tidbits that UD readers might want to know:

The library does not house the animated films themselves such as Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or
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Pinocchio. The staff did not know the storage location of these "original" films, and I would suspect it is a closely guarded secret. But I was told that the Library of Congress has a copy of many of the classics, and when it came time to restore Bambi, Disney utilized the copy held by the Library of Congress. The ARL's main role in these restoration projects is to have the original artwork available for review, provide high-resolution scans of the artwork for reference purposes, as well as locate any artwork that might be of use for bonus material.

Lady and the Tramp was set in 1910; Mary Poppins is the other Disney film also set in 1910.

Artists may spend months or even years preparing to create a feature animation film. As many UD readers know, Lady & the Tramp was many years in the making, beginning with early story sketches done in 1936.

The Library staff has NO idea if or when Disney will re-release Song of the South, but they do contain original reference material from the movie in the vaults and they also have the Japanese laserdisc available for viewing.

What is the future of the ARL in light of the transition at Disney Studios to computer generated (CGI) animation? The library is in the process of digitizing much of the existing 2D collection; this process began about 8 years ago, and they expect to warehouse any tangible artifacts from the newer CGI movies as well as computer art files. Efforts are also underway to develop databases in order to quickly locate stored digital artwork.

Lady and the Tramp will be released this upcoming Tuesday, February 28th 2006. It was an unimaginable treat for me to see many of the original story sketches and hand-drawn artwork used in the making of this timeless Disney classic. However, you too can see many of these images in the bonus material on the Platinum Edition DVD. Thanks to the staff of the ARL for being such kind and gracious hosts and thanks to UltimateDisney.com for allowing me to be their representative on this rare public tour of the ARL.

Pluto Region1
UltimateDisney Reporter at Large

More Photographs from the Tour

This Pinocchio marionette puppet was likely used in the making of Disney's 1940 film. It was uncovered three years ago. This is the best painted background on glass shot that I got. We were told that many times animators would
Left: Uncovered just three years ago, this Pinocchio marionette puppet was likely used in the making of Disney's 1940 film. Right: This is the best painted background on glass shot that I got. Animators would often "erase" glass backgrounds and reuse the glass!

One of several flattened recovered backgrounds, this one comes from the 1958 educational anthology episode called "Magic Highway U.S.A." Another table full of "Lady and the Tramp" art. Vice President of DVD Production David Jessen appears on the far left.
Left: One of several flattened recovered backgrounds, this one comes from the 1958 educational anthology episode called "Magic Highway U.S.A." Right: Another table full of Lady and the Tramp art. Vice President of DVD Production David Jessen appears on the far left.

Concept art of Lady and a background of Toy's Restaurant. Don't worry, Tramp isn't smoking. This simply is his part of the famous spaghetti scene.
Left: Concept art of Lady and a background of Toy's Restaurant. Right: Don't worry, Tramp isn't smoking. This simply is his part of the famous spaghetti scene.

Fox Carney shows one of the vertically-stored backgrounds. Backgrounds are now stored vertically instead of flat on top of one another. This prevents damage. This box holds rolled backgrounds which have yet to be identified. This can't occur until the backgrounds have been "unrolled."
Fox Carney shows one of the vertically-stored backgrounds. Backgrounds are now stored vertically instead of flat on top of one another. This prevents damage. Right: This box holds rolled backgrounds which have yet to be identified. This can't occur until the backgrounds have been "unrolled."

Early concept sketches of Tramp and Lady. Another pencil-to-final image, this one of the Dog Pound.
Two final pieces of Lady and the Tramp artwork. Left: Early concept sketches of Tramp and Lady. Right: Another pencil-to-final image, this one of the Dog Pound.


Preorder Lady and the Tramp: Platinum Edition on DVD (35% off) from Amazon.com

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Lady and the Tramp: Platinum Edition DVD Review
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UD's Report on Hollywood's Herbie: Fully Loaded Car Wash (10/26/05) UD's Report on NY's World Premiere of Cinderella (10/2/05)
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October 9, 2001 October 8, 2002 October 7, 2003 October 5, 2004 March 1, 2005 October 4, 2005 February 28, 2006 October 3, 2006
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Beauty and the Beast The Lion King Aladdin Bambi Cinderella Lady and the Tramp The Little Mermaid
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Posted February 26, 2006.