I tend to collect things.
I always have. It started early with my pin and sticker collections. But it wasn’t just common collections.
I had a box of every card or letter anyone had ever sent me. As you can imagine, this box grew beyond that original white square box that I delicately placed at the very top of my closet shelves. When my mom passed away, those letters, those cards, became everything to me. Priceless.
Priceless. Exactly the word I would use to describe another collection, one that I had the very rare chance to see and tour firsthand just weeks ago – the Disney Animation Research Library.
No, this library isn’t filled with books (though even Belle might find this place on par with the Beast’s library). It’s a repository of all the original art work that was created at Walt Disney Animation Studios from the 1920s to present day.
All. Original. Work.
And I was heading there to visit. Follow along on this once in a lifetime journey to the Disney Animation Research Library, what I call the Disney vault, and what is commonly referred to as the Disney morgue (I’ll explain later).
(Disney invited me to California on an all-expenses paid trip, in exchange for our coverage of events. As always, all opinions are my own.)
NOTE –> For those of you Disney fanatics like me, don’t miss my posts on my Tour of Walt Disney’s Office and Disney Scavenger Hunt at Disney Headquarters!
Disney Animation Research Library
Our group headed off to a nondescript building off the Walt Disney Studios Lot to what is now the new Animation Research Library, or ARL for short. As we approached the building, you wouldn’t have expected this to be holding all of Disney’s treasures. Oh, but it does.
All the contents herein used to be in the basement of the Ink and Paint building on the Studio Lot in Burbank, not far from Walt Disney’s Office. In 1989 it first moved off site, then again in 1999 to its current location.
I’m no expert, but having the ARL offsite I’m sure presents itself as a much safer environment, where things like climate control, fire suppression, and just basic security can be better handled and monitored. It was clear, Disney takes things very seriously.
The Disney Legacy
It’s easy to understand why this place is guarded so well. Animation is Disney’s legacy.
Mary Walsh, managing director of the Disney Animation Research Library explained that the ARL “reinforces how much time, care and attention the Walt Disney company puts into taking care of our legacy, a responsibility to take care of all that art work so it is here for generations to come”.
FUN FACT: In this building alone, it is estimated there are over sixty-five million pieces of art.
While I personally like to call it the Disney Vault, back in the old days the ARL was known as the “Disney Morgue”.
Fox Carney, the Manager of Research at Walt Disney Animation Research Library, shared more about the morgue. It wasn’t a term that meant where old art went to die.
Carney went on to say, “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. I think Walt, being an artist first way back in the day, saw the value in holding onto the artwork. Because everybody within the company can learn from it. They can be inspired by it. And yes, in certain avenues, they can reuse the artwork, straight out.”
Disney’s Secret Weapon
For a long time, the ARL was known as Disney’s Secret Weapon simply because a lot of the other studios didn’t hold onto the old artwork the way the Walt Disney Company did. Because of that, this collection is incredibly special. Think of all the animation that has taken place from the 1920s to present day.
Cinderella. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Lady and the Tramp. Dumbo. Peter Pan.
Beauty and the Beast. The Little Mermaid. The Lion King.
Frozen. Zootopia. Moana.
Not open to the public, not many people outside the Walt Disney company have ventured inside.
So with careful instructions not to lean over any artwork (and be incredibly careful with jewelry or glasses), and strict rules about “NO PENS” (we were relegated to pencils only for notetaking), we prepared to enter the “Disney Morgue.”
An Animator’s Desk – Close Up Look
Before we were led away to discover all things Peter Pan, we were able to take a closer look at items in the lobby.
From a comfortable couch decorated with Disney art-inspired pillows, to a piano in the corner, my eyes were darting everywhere at the details. But there was one thing in particular that caught me eye and drew me closer – an animator’s desk.
Maybe it was because I would often find myself spending hours at Disney’s Animation Academy while in the theme parks, or was giddy with excitement when I had an Olaf drawing lesson during a recent trip promoting Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. All I know is that I adore drawing characters, and have a stack of them in my office waiting to be framed.
This animator’s desk, found in the ARL’s lobby, was extra special. It belonged to a Disney animator by the name of Priscillano “Pres” Antonio Romanillos.
Priscillano “Pres” Antonio Romanillos had passed away in 2010 of Leukemia, and his legacy lives on.
Romanillos was hired in 1989 by Disney Animation and worked his way up the ladder working on many classic films like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and even Beauty and the Beast.
His first big promotion came with the movie Pocahontas, working under lead animator Glen Keane.
Keane described Romanillos as “a man who loved to draw. When he came to the edge of his paper, his pencil didn’t stop; he continued to draw characters onto the wood of his animation desk.”
Here you can see some of what Romanillos taped to his desk. The many movements of Pocahontas herself.
Romanillos was finally given a lead role on Disney’s Mulan, one of my favorite movies. He created the character, or Disney villain, Shan-Yu, the leader of the Hun army.
It was this next item, taped near the top of his desk, that fascinated me.
- “Animation (any ART) is not primarily about doing beautiful drawings. It is about strong ideas.”
- “Strong Ideas make great drawings.”
Just as I have things I love and statements to remind me of certain truths on my desk, so did this Disney Animator.
Inside Disney’s Morgue
This day was incredibly special, as we had been celebrating the 65th anniversary of Peter Pan. So in honor of that, the Disney Animation Research Library team actually pulled out pieces from Peter Pan.
Mary Walsh said, “I don’t think we have ever pulled that many pieces at one time before.” What a privilege to see original art from animation greats like Marc Davis and Frank Thomas, two of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men (his famed core set of animators).
At this point of the tour, our group was divided in half to help things along. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as my group would be led by Fox Carney himself. I recognized him instantly, having seen him on television before.
Preserving the Disney Collection
We quickly learned that the collections team preserves the art, whether it be animation drawings, concept art, story-sketches, background paintings or layout drawings. They then preserve them, make sure to identify the art, organize, and house it properly so it will last as long as possible.
In the old days when Fox Carney first started, there wasn’t as much care of the collection as there is now. It’s clear to see that Disney has upped the preservation game with a quick glance around the rooms. I spied several members of the team using gloves along with spatulas to “flip” pages. This reduces the risk of damage to the artwork.
The Big Black Table – Magic Happens Here
The ARL calls this big black table because it’s where a lot of the collections magic happens. On this table at any given time, they may be working on multiple projects. Carney said, “Jamie maybe working on sketches from “Snow Queen”. Bethany may be working on some animation from “Pinocchio”.”
Spread out on the big black table for us on this day were original pieces of artwork from the production of “Peter Pan” which was released in 1953.
A lot of different types of art were selected because there are so many different processes in making an animated feature. I stood inches away from the nuts and bolts that created the animated movie I have loved since childhood. There are certain characters, certain scenes that mean so much to me for different reasons – this was unbelievable.
Looking at the Peter Pan artwork in person vs. looking at it digitally below.
Peter Pan Original Art
We learned from Carney the different types of art based on the stages and processes – the story process, the animation process,the back-ground painting, layouts and concept art, etc.
Model Sheets – These 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. This was all about consistency.
When you have multiple people drawing the same character, how do you keep them consistent, how do you keep them on model? They would use the model sheet. You can look at the various poses to keep this shape of the face this way or the body proportions this way. Same with the comparative size sheet.
Above we see a Captain Hook and Peter Pan model sheet. Do you see the notes about keeping the teeth and eyes clear?
What is Peter Pan without Captain Hook? As Carney reminded us, “You always have to have a good villain and Hook was one of the most amazing villains in the animation history of the time – it’s supervising animator is Frank Thomas.” Carney told us something interesting, “It is not often that we see two main characters together like this in artwork unless they are in points of contact. Because often times one character will be drawn on one sheet of paper and the other character will be on another sheet of paper and then they would be a direct only when they were touching.”
Fun Fact: Carney told us that Disney’s Nine Old Men were often competitive with each other. One of the men, by the name of Milt Kahl (known as the God of Animation), was always envious of Frank Thomas because Frank supervised the animation on Hook.
We weren’t allowed to have our phones to take photographs (though we had a photographer taking photos of us the entire time), so I took copious notes. I spent time looking at a favorite character to me, Tinker Bell (yes, did you know it’s two words?). Marc Davis, one of Walt Disney’s original Nine Old Men, was Tinker Bell’s animator. There were notes on the Tinker Bell artwork saying “Hair, Dress + Shoes – Mustard 5” – so now we know the color used for her!
Concept Art Process – This is the process where you have an entire series of artists who are trying to understand what the film would look like. They create thousands and thousands of story sketches which would have been pinned up on boards and pitched to Walt Disney himself.
Can you imagine pitching to Walt Disney?
Peter Pan was actually released after World War II, having been shelved until after the war. In the 1930s before the war began, an artist by the name of David Hall (see above concept art) had started to work on the characters, the style of the film. It’s different of course than the Peter Pan we have grown up with, and very “rendered”, almost looking like book illustrations.
Once the war ended, one of Walt’s favorite artists, Mary Blair, took over for Hall, who had only worked for the studio for 13 months. It was Blair’s visual style that was very crucial in the look of Peter Pan, with the use of the colors and simple shapes, making it a completely different look.
Rough Drawings – The animating supervisor would make a rough animation drawing. He would roughly try to figure out the emotion and the action of the character. The assistant animator would go off and then create a fine line draw over it, so the inker would have nice, clean drawings for the inker.
Clean Up Drawings – Often times they may take a clean piece of paper and lay it over the rough drawing, and the assistant editor might do that fine-line. Or, sometimes what they would do is they would do touch ups, where they would use the rough and they would draw over on that rough to find that fine line and sometimes they would do rub-downs, where they do that fine line and erase all the rough. Note: that made a lot of rough animators bite their knuckles!
Animation Drawings – These are what the animators have actually drawn out as what are their characters doing, once they have figured out their actions. Then it would be these drawings that at this time, the inkers and painters would actually trace.
The inker would actually trace on a piece of acetate that would be on top of the drawing. Then it was off to the painters, where the scene would be flipped over and the painters would paint the backs of the cells. Those cells would then be reassembled so that the camera person, once it goes through a scene check and a final check, would shoot the cells on the top and the back-ground frame by frame by frame by frame.
The last step of course in taking the story sketches to the final look of the movie would be using the multiplane camera, a motion-picture camera used in the traditional animation process years ago that moves several pieces of artwork past the camera at various speeds and distances from one another. I’ve had the privilege of seeing one firsthand in passing while on the Walt Disney Studios lot.
One prime example of the brilliant use of the multiplane camera is in the famous scene where Peter Pan is flying over London, with the city down below. You hear a “Here we go” and then the characters launch of the clock tower (Big Ben). You can see how the camera would tilt, rotate and pan across until they are flying over London.
It’s one of the best animated scenes ever with Fox Carney describing that shot, of flying off to Neverland with London beneath you, as one that no other film has ever matched.
I don’t know about you, but right now I’m humming the song…
When there’s a smile in your heart
There’s no better time to start
Think of all the joy you’ll find
When you leave the world behind
And bid your cares goodbye.
You can fly. You can fly. You can fly.
Today, because of the Disney Animation Research Library, employees from different backgrounds (imagineering, animation, live action, consumer products, etc) can learn from the legacy Disney has left behind. They can study the art. They can be inspired by it.
While seeing original artwork on the computer digitally is incredible and something they are continually in the process of making available to those in the company, there’s nothing like seeing a piece of art with your own eyes.
Snow White’s background scene (cottage) with edges where you can see just how they layered the paint.
Watching Cinderella’s transformation in small squares.
Looking into Captain Hook’s eyes in a pastel drawing.
A day I’ll never forget.
Why the Peter Pan theme? We were celebrating the 65th anniversary of PETER PAN (available on Digital 5/29 and Blu-ray 6/5) and the in-home release of the Walt Disney Signature Collection Edition of the film by exploring the place it was made!
Take a look at this classic…
More Peter Pan 65th Anniversary Fun:
Coming Soon: We had the chance to see original Peter Pan artwork at the Animation Research Library!
More Disney SOLO Trip Posts:
- Tour of Walt Disney’s Office
- Disney Scavenger Hunt at Disney Headquarters
- General Hospital set visit
- SOLO premiere – you’ve got to see my red carpet dress!
- SOLO movie review – NO SPOILERS
- Alden Ehrenreich interview
- Emilia Clarke interview
- Paul Bettany interview
- Who plays Chewbacca – interview with Joonas Suotamo
- L3-37 Droid – interview with actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge
- Woody Harrelson interview
Kristen Proulx says
Hello! I came account your article while trying to help my son find a mentor in the animation field. My son is in 6th grade and is taking an independent studies class at his middle school and has decided to do his year long research on the history of animation. I’m desperately trying to find a way to contact the Disney animation research library to see if there is anyone there that may be willing to talk to him about his project and/or would be willing to be a mentor on his project. Would you be able to send me a contact for this facility so he can contact them? Or if you know anyone else that may be able to help?!
Thank you in advance!
Thank you Kristen for visiting. Unfortunately, the library is in a secret location so I can’t divulge too much information. I would recommend you reach out to them on social media and see if they can help your son. Sounds exciting. Here is their Twitter account – https://twitter.com/DisneyARL.
Bernie Wallace says
I would love to go to the Disney Morgue. I am a huge fan of animation and it looks like it would be alot of fun.
Sara Phillips says
Oh my goodness – I can only imagine how incredible the Disney Morgue could be! I don’t think it’d be easy to leave that place, especially not with SO MANY pieces of art.
Oh Sara, it was hard to leave!
Amazing!!! What an incredible experience you were so lucky to have. Thanks for sharing this – it was SUCH an interesting read.
I am a Disney fanatic and especially love all the history – so magical!
Thanks so much Kristin. Sounds like we have a lot in common – I LOVED all the Disney history and could have stayed there all day if they would have let me!