“No pens allowed.” I stood with a group of reporters eager to tour the Disney Animation Research Library, puzzled by the mandate—what am I without a pen, after all—but only for a moment. We were going to be viewing original art from Pinocchio during our visit, and no one wants to see a nearly 80-year-old piece of visual development ruined by a wayward ballpoint. I stored my potentially dangerous writing instrument and borrowed a pencil for notes before the tour began.
The Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) is housed in a nondescript building in the vicinity of Disney‘s Los Angeles studios. Inside its doors and temperature controlled vaults is a treasure trove of animation history. If an idea for a Disney animated film or short was sketched, designed, or put on paper (or even napkins) in any form, it’s inside the ARL.
Yeah, it’s hard to wrap your head around.
The ARL isn’t accessible to the public, but they opened their doors to reporters to celebrate the January 31 home release of Pinocchio. The film from 1940 about a puppet who longed to be a real boy was Disney’s second foray into animated features. As we stopped by various departments within the library, we got close looks at pieces of Pinocchio’s past—art that was created before 1940, preserved and in front of our eyes. We learned about the ARL’s purpose and processes as we walked through the past.
What’s at ARL?
The ARL is primarily about preservation. Their collection includes 65 million pieces in 11 vaults. Drawings, concept art, cels, backgrounds, and even maquettes and puppets from films like The Nightmare Before Christmas are included in the number. They have items dating back to Oswald and stretching to Disney’s newest release, Moana.
Back in the day, studios often threw out items after a movie was in the can. Not Walt Disney. He saved the work of his artists from the beginning in what he called a morgue. He wanted to keep the art safe for decades to come and archive it for illustrators to reference in the future. To that end, white gloves aren’t a fashion choice at the ARL; they’re worn by anyone handling the art in order to keep it safe.
Our first stop on the tour was Walt’s Vault. The secure room contains material associated with films and shorts made while Walt was alive, up through The Jungle Book. The method of storage for items depends on the medium of the illustration; For example, anything done in pastels is kept in a special tray so as not to smudge the art when it’s stacked. Binders lining the shelves are filled with story sketches in plastic sleeves. Large cabinets are home to vertically stored backgrounds.
My gaze leaped from label to label seeing titles of films that have been a part of my childhood and life. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. Animation history was close enough for me to touch (don’t worry, I didn’t!)
Digitizing the Collection
As I mentioned, the vaults are temperature controlled and monitored to ensure the art is in the best and safest possible environment. But to increase accessibility, they’re hard at work digitizing the collection. This has the added bonus of meaning the art will be handled less frequently.
Photographing or scanning the art and then going over the results for quality control isn’t the speediest of actions. We met the group responsible for capturing the collection for computers, and they said they’ve tackled about one million pieces in seven years. And it’s important to note: they don’t doctor or clean up any of the images unless the art is going out for media requests, etc. In those cases, they’ll remove any extraneous things from the pictures, like cigarette burns.
Who Uses the ARL?
The ARL isn’t a place anyone can visit (unfortunately—I know). It would make one heck of a museum, but that’s not why it exists. The collection is a resource for film historians, researchers, and animators. Disney’s animators can visit in person or access the ever-growing digital database. A frame-by-frame look at a particular sequence or a study of any and all pieces related to characters dancing (it’s possible since every item in the digital database is tagged and searchable) might be just the spark of inspiration or reference an artist needs.
Pieces from the ARL are also pulled out for various events and exhibits.
The Little Touches
ARL’s connection to Disney history is apparent in the lobby, which—by the way—is the only place personal photos are allowed. Those lamps? They’re not from IKEA. They’re preserved from the Caffeine Patch, a place to get you guessed it, caffeine, at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Over in the corner you can spot a piano. It’s been played by the likes of Alan Menken and Richard Sherman.
He etched the characters he worked on into the desk, which you can see in the above photo.
You don’t only have to go by my words about the ARL. Take a tour with ARL manager of research Fox Carney in this video from Disney:
The word magical most definitely applies.
Images: Disney and Amy Ratcliffe