I participated in a FROZEN/Pirate Fairy Press Event which included an in-depth tour of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library – Disney provided transportation and accommodations; all opinions are my own. Read more about the #PirateFairyBlogger event.
The Disney Animation Research Library is a large warehouse building located near LA in a top secret location. So secret, visitors are not allowed to check-in via social media while they’re there and absolutely no photos inside or outside (Disney provided a photographer for the day).
Why so secret? Because the Disney ARL houses a vast collection of original animation artwork that was once scattered all over the Disney Company. Walt Disney himself gave away many priceless pieces of art before he was convinced to save them for future generations.
Animation Research Library formerly known as the Morgue
The original location of the ARL, then simply called the Disney Morgue, was in the basement of the Ink and Paint Building located at Walt Disney Studios. The basement didn’t have any temperature and humidity controls – two things that must be closely monitored to keep these fragile pieces from deteriorating even further – and worse, it had leaky pipes which sadly ruined many pieces.
Walt Disney was convinced that the art needed to be kept so that it could inspire future animators. It turns out it also makes it easy for the company to repurpose and reuse the art for education, reference, and to produce consumer products.
Connect with Disney ARL on Facebook and ARL D23 Fanpage
So what does the Disney ARL house?
From the 1920’s to today, the Walt Disney Animation Research Library has collected over 65 million pieces of animation artwork. The 24 ARL Cast Members are organized in teams: collections, research, design, and image capture. They boast they possess the largest animation art collection in the world, and who can argue with that.
They showed us a small cross-section of their pieces from the original “Peter Pan,” Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and every other Disney classic film plus plenty of pieces of current work piled, shelved, and stored in every inch of space in this sprawling building.
Not every piece of art created is in the vault. Beyond what Walt and other executives gave away as gifts, many times pieces were stored away in closets, desk drawers, or simply lost. But what is there is amazing and I feel so incredibly lucky to have been invited in to take a glimpse.
Who Can Visit the ARL?
The Disney Animation Research Library is not open to the public, except by invitation or special events, but it is open to Disney employees and it’s well-used by filmmakers. In fact, the director, producer, and other crew members from Disney Toons Studios visited to look at the original artwork from both “Peter Pan” and earlier Tinker Bell films as well for inspiration and to make sure that their film continued the look and feel of the original.
ARL – Preserving Disney History
But even the filmmakers can’t touch the artwork. ARL employees handle the pieces with kid gloves, well white gloves anyway. They’re part of their uniform and they are used anytime they prepare art for viewing or display.
We were introduced to some original artwork pieces and though it was tempting, signs reminded that we were not to touch these pieces. After all, these hand drawn pieces are five decades old and irreplaceable.
Even from a distance it’s easy to see the talent those original animators possessed. The colors are still bright and the drawings still sport the hand written notes and scribbling in the margins from the animators. Many of these were working pieces that were done during the creation process while they were figuring out the characters, story and more.
The ARL has several climate controlled vaults where animation is store. Concept art, storyboards, and more are stored in moving stacks, notebooks, and pull-out trays. A single film like “Sleeping Beauty” can take up 2 -3 aisles in the vault as well as additional drawer space.
The rooms are kept at a constant 59 degrees Fahrenheit which is a bit chilly for us, but for the artwork it’s necessary to slow the deterioration process.
The treasures in the vault are protected from fire by an inert gas fire suppression system which lowers the level of oxygen in the vault. The gas is released within 15 seconds of the alarm sounding, so anyone inside the vault has a window of opportunity to get out. After that, it takes the oxygen down the 15% which is survivable. The backup to the Inergen gas is water, and that’s a last ditch effort that would ruin the artwork.[alert-note] Did you Know? Many Disney artists were not allowed to sign their work so the ARL designates unsigned “Disney Studio Artist” for those pieces. [/alert-note]
The ARL Cast Members catalog every piece and create appropriate archival storage for them. They also prepare pieces for display and many of the Disney art that tours the country and world are created here.
They also work with the Walt Disney Museum, the Studio, and the Parks to create presentations to showcase the art. They do everything from creating props and sets, to framing, and more to produce an impressive production from creation to setup and maintenance which highlights a specific film, event, or time in the Disney history.
They also prepare pieces for digital capture making sure that the art is stable and safe during the process.
But the folks at the ARL know that even though they carefully manage the pieces in a building designed to keep them safe, they’re still fighting time. Plus, as we grow into a more digital world, they want to bring the artwork forward with us.
What they’re doing is digitalizing the art so that those interested can view them right from their desktop any hour of the day. Sure, there are those times when seeing the original is a must, but for many needs, the digital versions will do.
The Digitizing Room is a dark studio filled with cameras and monitors. They’re using two different cameras. The first is a large format camera that works a lot like a flatbed scanner. The scanned pictures create a 240 Megapixel file (about ½ gig per photo – yes, that’s huge!). It does color really well with amazing accuracy. They like to shoot the older, disintegrating pics with this camera because it takes 2-1/2 minutes to capture each picture. This slower pace allows them to take more care with the older pieces by preparing the next piece while the current piece is scanning. They’re only able to photograph about 100 photos a day in this format.
Because they have millions of pieces to capture, their second camera is a medium-format 60.5 megapixel (Quick Fact: A megapixel is one million pixels) with instant capture which captures the art in a 30th of a second. With this camera they are able to create 1000 – 1500 images a day but it’s generally used for rough and clean-up animation which is generally pencil on paper.
To assure the quality of the captures and that pieces scanned today look as good as the first day, they run through several tests every morning including a focus, color and exposure test. They also rotate the camera people through each position so that boredom doesn’t set in and the pieces are captured consistently.
Once the pieces are scanned/photographed and uploaded to their server, a quality control inspection is done. First by automated computer checks and finally by hand. A quality control person checks every piece of art via an enormous computer monitor to be sure that every piece stands up to the qualities they set.
In 4-1/2 years they’ve captured 850K pieces. That’s pretty impressive. That’s a petabyte of data storage (Quick Fact: A petabyte is 1015 or 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) and artwork that’s now available online to the studios for instant access, special projects, and more. The scans/pics include any notes on the art which can be viewed as well – information about painting, characters, and more. It’s a great way to look into the thoughts of the artwork’s creator.
It will take several generations to complete the project so the order the pieces are captured in are determined by a simple priority system. That includes looking at the stability and age of the artwork. Delicate pieces and those at the greatest risk of Disintegration are first. Then titles coming out on Blu-ray and DVD are pushed forward as well – a lot of those files end up as bonus features. Iconic scenes are also done, sort of a “greatest hits” that people ask for most often or pieces they would be sorry didn’t get captured if funding were to go away.
ARL – Current Productions
So now that most of the movies are created digitally, what does the ARL archive? They work to save every piece of physical art as well as production work they can get their hands on.
The Disney Animation Research Library is a pretty amazing place and so much wonderful art in one location. I’m thrilled that Disney has put forth the money and effort to keep these pieces safe. For many of us, they’re a piece of our collective history.
Want more? Check out this video create by the Disney ARL in 2012. It’s a look deep inside. Enjoy!