Do You Want to Hear a Secret? Disney’s Animation Research Library

Now that we’ve covered the FROZEN and SAVING MR. BANKS aspects of our Disney press junket (see below for posts), we’re going to take a bit of a bridge to get to THE PIRATE FAIRY fun.  As a special treat, our cell phones were confiscated, we were blindfolded, and driven for hours, turning this way and that, to get to the super-secret location of Disney’s Animation Research Library.  I’m kidding about everything before “super-secret.”  None of those things happened, but we did have to turn off the GPS locators on our devices and promise not to reveal the location of the Animation Research Library, which has a nondescript storefront and a gated parking lot (not a problem for me, because I have no sense of direction and, since we didn’t get there by public transportation, have no way of knowing where we were).  Until you get to the doorway, you wouldn’t even know it’s a Disney property, until you see the mailbox.  It doesn’t say Disney anywhere, though.  Can you guess why I gasped and asked to take a pictures?  Highlight the space next to the asterisk below for the answer.


Have you heard of Disney’s Animation Research Library (“ARL”)?  It is the largest animation collection in the world and contains every artifact that Disney has been able to retain and recover.  ARL, formerly known as the Morgue, is open to Disney employees only, but they let in the occasional press junket.  We weren’t permitted to take pictures beyond the reception area, so this post will be mostly textual, but we do have some pictures taken by an official Disney photographer and the few pictures I was able to take (check the credit to see whose is whose).  We were also required to leave all pens behind and handed pencils for note-taking (ink is permanent and an accidental marking would damage the art).


The Animation Research Library is where the Disney movie makers come to do research.  This is how they were able to remake scenes from MARY POPPINS in SAVING MR. BANKS.  Fox Carney, the manager of research and a great storyteller himself, showed us the room where artwork is prepared for storage, piece by piece.  The purpose of ARL is to celebrate the legacy of Walt Disney animation and they accomplish this goal by preserving every piece of art, even down to torn corners and scraps.

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Museum quality standards are followed and they are in the process of digitizing the collection.  So far, there are over 830,000 images in nearly 1.3 million records.  Disney created an image browser called GEMS to enable researchers to view the images, though the original artwork is often required for detailed personal review.  For a sense of the scope of time, it took nearly 18 months to rehouse just the story sketches for SLEEPING BEAUTY.  Different types of art are conserved in different ways.  Pastels, for example, are protected from rubbing off on the housing by a matte frame.


Warning:  Segue coming.  This is where the animators researched scenes from PETER PAN to make the Tinker Bell movies, including the soon-to-be-released THE PIRATE FAIRY (there it is!).  We were given the opportunity to see some of that early artwork, from concept art to model sheets to story sketches to background paintings, all of which were used to recreate Neverland for the Tinker Bell movies.  If you’re curious about the continuation of the PETER PAN franchise, it’s probably because Walt Disney had a soft spot for PETER PAN.  He’d played the title role in high school (and may even have fallen into the audience as he flew over them) and had seen a touring production starring Maude Adams, who may have been the originator of the “Clap if you believe in fairies” line.  In fact, the cubicle walls were starred like the sky in PETER PAN (no picture – sorry!)  Disney felt that animation was the perfect medium for Peter Pan, because they could fly without wires and Tinker Bell could be seen as a real character, rather than a flash of light bounced off a mirror.  Even Nana and the crocodile (am I the only one who called him Tick-Tock – where did I get that?) could be seen as a dog and a crocodile, rather than someone in an animal costume.




From the collections area, we moved to the vault, where all of the physical art is stored in a climate-controlled room.  The temperature is kept between 59° and 60° with a relative humidity between 46 and 50 percent.  The system is autostabilized, so if either temperature or humidity moves out of the acceptable range, it shuts down until it is back in the safe range.


During the Walt years, the art and animation weren’t kept and, in the case of glass plates, were washed off and reused, so there is no complete collection of all of the art for those movies.  ARL is actively tracking down missing art, but it will oftentimes just appear in the mail – probably when someone clears out their attic or basement or storage unit and sends it back for the archives.  We were shown various pieces, from background landscapes to character cels, including an entire wall of Mary Blair art that was being prepared for the second edition of “The Art and Flair of Mary Blair.”

We also got to see the digitizing lab.  There are several types of scanners and a team of experts who go over each image, color testing, focus testing, catching digitization errors, and, especially, maintaining consistency.


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The Walt Disney Company has invested a lot of money, time, and effort into preserving its archive and the investment clearly pays off.  Disney has a reputation for being detail-oriented and its these archives which allow them to capture the imagination and memories of its fans.  Other animation studios weren’t as far-seeing as Disney and have lost their early art.  Disney has preserved its legacy and its future with this collection and we were very honored to have been shown even the small part of it that we could see, though I would happily devote the years it would take if I could see every piece of art in the collection!

By the way, in case you didn’t catch it, the mailbox in the picture above is from the Banks’ home in MARY POPPINS.


As we posted previously, Adventures by Daddy was invited to Hollywood  for behind-the-scenes access to several Disney films (FROZEN, SAVING MR. BANKS, and THE PIRATE FAIRY).   Our FROZEN posts included the story of FROZEN via the storytellers, our rigging experience, our voice-over experience, and a review of the FROZEN Blu-ray.  We also posted a spoiler-free review of DreamWorks Pictures’ NEED FOR SPEED, which we previewed as part of the trip.  Our SAVING MR. BANKS posts included our review of the SAVING MR. BANKS Blu-ray and an overview of our SAVING MR. BANKS tours of the studio and the archives where we learned about the research that went into the making of the movie.  Next up, our review of THE PIRATE FAIRY.

Disclosure: Disney Home Entertainment invited Adventures by Daddy on an all-expenses paid press trip to Los Angeles, California to tour the Walt Disney Studios and learn about their upcoming home releases.  Disney provided transportation, meals, and lodging, but all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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About George Gensler

George Gensler is a copyrights specialist during the week and a runner on the weekends. She lives in New York City now, but has lived in five countries on three continents. She grew up traveling the world, but her official residence was in Southern California and every visit home included a trip to Disneyland. She has also visited every Disney Park around the world and sailed on board two Disney cruises. She threw in a visit to the Disney Family museum in San Francisco for good measure, and has had the Premier Disney Park Pass since its inception.