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On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, somewhere deep in the heart of Glendale, California, I found myself entering the semi-secret location of what is arguably the largest collection of art – specifically, animation elements – in the world. With a collection estimated to contain over 65 million unique pieces of artwork, The Walt Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) is “entrusted with the responsibility to conserve and protect the artistic heritage of Walt Disney Animation Studios,” carefully cataloging and maintaining these true artistic treasures.

While Walt Disney himself understood the importance of maintaining a collection for in-house use, few could’ve predicted how important the ARL would become. From a source of inspiration and reference for new productions, to a resource for documentaries and blu-ray bonus features, and the go-to location for classic pieces to note while creating new merchandise, books and advertising, the ARL is currently in the midst of converting the collection for the digital age, utilizing the best equipment possible in making it’s collection available at a few clicks – and in it’s highest resolution. As of February of this year, the ARL team had reached 850,000 pieces into their expanding journey.

Inside the ARL

ARL Lab“We have a ‘Greatest Hits Collection’ of sorts,” says Animation Researcher Doug Engalla, when asked how the team chooses what to digitize next. Big scenes from hit films, including more recent fare such as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LITTLE MERMAID will occasionally get bumped-up in the queue “based on requests,” he adds – and special projects occasionally take precedence. I notice a dry erase board on the wall with 13 weeks blocked out for the 1959 film, SLEEPING BEAUTY. That film required re-visiting for an upcoming Diamond Edition Blu-ray release (coming in October 2014), perfectly-timed to follow the theatrical release of the new Angelina Jolie vehicle, MALEFICENT, which takes a live-action approach to the tale, focusing on the iconic villain.

The care taken to photograph (not scan) each element, and the quality control that goes into making sure that there’s consistency in look and lighting is remarkable, and when a sequence is archived, the ARL team also produces a raw, animated video using those pieces since they’re already opened-up and right there. Many of these pencil-and-paper sequences eventually make it into home video releases.

Original PETER PAN Production Art

Research Manager Fox Carney is a walking encyclopedia of historical knowledge, spinning fascinatingly detailed tales of days long since passed. I’m sure these stories become easier to tell over time, as part of the ARL duties include walking tours with writers like myself several times a year when promotional efforts require it. In this case, I was there to get a good look at original elements from 1953’s PETER PAN, many of which had been pulled as reference for DisneyToon Studios in their creation of the upcoming Tinker Bell film, THE PIRATE FAIRY. While the film is, indeed, a sequel to other recent Disney Fairies productions, it also serves as a direct prequel to PETER PAN, and that required a visit to the past – a journey deep into the archives for inspiration and reference to iconic Never Land locales like Skull Rock, and also detail on the look of Captain James Hook, his ship, and the seas through which these characters would traverse.

Inside the Vault

Most have heard of the infamous “Disney Vault,” and it exists – well, several of them, actually (in various locations) – and I can now say that I’ve been inside one of the climate-controlled, massively-secure locations. The filing system is impressive, all in hopes that everything will remain usable, and that nothing will be lost. And yes, pieces had been lost over the years, while the ARL (sometimes called “The Morgue” back them) was not yet “state-of-the-art,” and the elements took their toll.

Design Shop
Pictured (L-R): Patrick White (Designer) and Leon Ingram (Designer). Photo by Kayvon Esmaili. ©2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

THE PIRATE FAIRY installationWhile archiving and research are a primary function of the ARL, design also has a role here. Throughout the Disney properties – at locations like The Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios – there are elaborate installations of thematic art used as the backdrop for promotional efforts, press tours, junkets, premieres, and documentary filming. These creations (like the one pictured left) are headed up by a team housed deep within the ARL… in a workspace suspiciously not unlike my own. Spending a few moments chatting with designers Patrick White and Leon Ingram, it was impossible for me to avoid noticing – or inquiring about – the large collections of guitars in the shop, along with personal collections of STAR WARS action figures, HOT WHEELS vehicles, and even an extensive – and custom made – HOT WHEELS track and ramp system. “We let them bring in their own collections, and they work on a lot of this stuff,” said Managing Director Mary Walsh. “And you guys have a HOT WHEELS ramp, too?” I add. “We had a day to race the cars. We may use it again,” she says.

As the tour wrapped-up, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride from the ARL team, something rare to find anywhere, but a team that seemed genuine in the love they have for the history that they work so diligently to protect and preserve for generations to come.

The Disney ARL Team
Pictured (L-R): Fox Carney (Manager, Research), Doug Engalla (Researcher). Lella Smith (Creative Director), Mary Walsh (Managing Director), Jackie Vasquez (Researcher), Ann Hansen (Researcher). Photo by Kayvon Esmaili. ©2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Disney’s THE PIRATE FAIRY is out on Blu-ray and DVD on April 1. Order it, and other great titles via (my affiliate) Amazon:

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THE ROCK FATHER was recently a guest of The Walt Disney Company, visiting their facilities as part of a media tour for several projects. All expenses were paid for by Mickey Mouse and Scrooge McDuck.

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