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Friday, September 14, 2012

Day 3 – Part 2: Destination D: 75 Years of Feature Animation

So, after spending a wonderful morning touring the Roy E. Disney Feature Animation Building, we load back up on our buses and took the short trip over to the executive entrance to the Walt Disney Studios.  First order of business was lunch, which is good because it was lunchtime and, even with the snacks from earlier in the morning, my stomach was beginning to grumble and rumble.  Lunch was set up for us in Legends Plaza on what turned out to be one of the hotter days in Burbank, but, with some umbrellas it was passable.  Nothing against D23, they can’t control the weather.  But, the food was delicious.  I have been the victim of many a buffet line, where you’ll find a myriad dry over cooked chicken, tasteless fish, and tough beef dishes.  Not today!  We had chicken dish that was moist and succulent, and a marinated beef skirt steak that was amazingly tender and tasty.  And, the sorbet served for dessert was more of a slushy, but that was to be expected given the heat.  All in all, I was very impressed with the meal.

While lunch was being served, several D23 staffers circulated among the tables giving out different colored wristbands.  Yup, we were being assigned to different tour groups again, but, with 100 people it’s not surprising, on the three Studio tours I been on, the tour group range between 15 and 25.  After lunch, before the tours began, each group assembled in front of the northern door of the old Animation Building for a group photo, and then it was off to explore the studio.  My group’s first stop was the Ink & Paint Department.  In Walt’s day, this was where all the cells that made up a cartoon short or animated feature were created before going to the camera department for shooting.  The paints of the day were toxic and took a very long time to dry – as much as 8 hours.  Since the paint could only be applied one color at a time, it could take several days to complete one cell, and a proficient paint girl could work on 8 to 10 cells per day.  As the actual rooms in the Ink & Paint Department are rather small, our group was temporarily split in two.  The first going in while the second was entertained with a Q&A by one of the tour guides in the hallway.  In the first room, in reality the middle room has walls of shelves with bottle upon bottle of colorful paint.  But, we were first headed to the little room on the left, the walls covered in hundreds of small paint chips.  This is where we learned that the Ink & Paint Department is still active today, though today the studio no longer uses hand inked and painted cells to do animation.  Today these very talented artists use the tremendous skills to produce most all of the commemorative and limit edition cells available in the parks and special piece upon request.  In this first office, an original drawing can be called up from the archive to be reproduced.  These drawing have all the artist’s original notations for color specs, and here is where the paint chips are pulled.  In the paints room we learn that today paints are an acrylics based paint which now dries in 5 to 10 minutes, making the production of their pieces today much quicker, though they can still only apply one color at a time.  We got an explanation of how all the colors we see on the walls are produced from a few base colors they receive from and outside vendor.  There are no real formulas for mixed these colors, someone mixes and compared paints to sample until an acceptable match is achieved, at which time the bottle is marked CE for close enough.  In the final room we meet to artists, one who is demonstrating the inking, which is transferring the lines of a drawing onto a cell (celluloid sheet).  It is a skill that requires a very steady hand.  Once the inking is complete and dry, and painter takes over applying each color one at a time.  The paint is applied on the back of cell from front colors to back, and it is flowed on to the cell, not painted or brushed on so as to not leave brush marks or minute blemishes in the paint.  It was actually quite impressive that Disney puts that much effort in keeping the Ink & Paint craft alive to this day.

We’re now off to the old Animation Building on the lot, and up to the third floor theater next to Walt’s old office.  Those of you who remember, this is my second visit to this theater.  I was here two years ago during the D23 Disney & Dickens event with my wife, where we were treated to a few of Disney’s holiday shorts and a featurette.  Today, we were introduced to some of Disney’s film preservation efforts by one their Archivists (sorry remembering names is not my strong suit) involved in the effort.  He started out by telling us that Disney is the only studio that has not lost any film, whether it be the original film or a copy produced somewhere along the way.  That by itself is a pretty impressive fact, at least to me.  Next he told us about the types of film and the problems with preserving them.  Before 1952 all movies were created on celluloid nitrite, a very volatile substance not prone to stability and long term storage.  As a matter of fact, a couple other studios had incidents of film vaults having an auto-ignite event.  The Walt Disney Studio still has vaults on the lot that were used at one time to storage nitrate film.  We saw slides of film canisters and the film slowly decaying inside them, and were told of the challenges in transferring some of these films to digital.  The recapture to digital is only one part of the process.  After the transfer, these films need to be restored to the quality when first screened.  Actually, because of today’s other digital improvements, these films have to be restored to better than original quality to be marketable.  We got to see some clip from 1941’s Bambi before and after the restoration process.  The difference is really quite remarkable.  We were told that the plan is to eventually digitize and restore Disney’s complete film library, but, that they were restoring in reverse order with the most popular features and short being done first.  I don’t know, because I didn’t think of it at the time, but I would suspect that this preservation process is neither quick nor inexpensive.  If I ever get another chance, I’ll have to ask those questions.

For our next stop, after a short trip out to Glendale, was what turned out to be, at least for me, by itself worth the extra cost of the ticket.  Our bus pulled up outside a nondescript mustard colored building not far from another of Glendale’s more famous Disney operations – WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering).  The building showed no windows from the outside and bore none of what would be considered normal Disney frills.  The building’s parking lot stood behind a chain-link fence with a card key access gate.  At the gate was a plain white sign with red lettering, and there the only external acknowledgement of the building owner or the contents there in – Disney’s Animation Research Library.   At mid-building and set back about 20 feet was the entrance and only glass, color or landscaping of this facility and it wasn’t even visible from the street.  Once inside, we were instructed on the do and don’t while in the facility, and the purpose for the Animation Research library.  The ARL houses 65 million pieces of Disney animation art, from maquettes (small scale models) of characters to cells, matte, and sketches for a myriad of Disney shorts and features.  Unfortunately, many early cells are unavailable, as it was a practice in frugality then to wash and reuse cells as many times as possible.  Laid out for use to view where several cell, background mattes, and sketches, and a couple of vaults were open for us.  In one vault alone could be found, shelf upon shelf behind glass, character maquettes from dozens of Disney films.  In another were several rows of large document storage cabinets, were a couple of cells were on display with an archivist present to answer questions, and I assume protect the art on display.  As I walk out of one of the vaults, the facility manager looked at me and asked if I was okay.  All I could say is that I was in total awe!  All he could say was that he pretty much felt that way every day.  In the back of the building was a design and layout room where archivists and designer work together to build out the various exhibits Disney displays, like the Treasures of Archives currently on display at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, and there was a mock up of the WDFM Special Exhibition with the designs for the upcoming Snow White exhibit.  The last room on the ARL tour was the digital lab, where artists, photographers, and technicians work to digitize and catalog in a database all of the art housed in the facility.  Here we were shown three different high resolution cameras, which if memory serves have a combination cost of nearly a half a million dollars.  Whether it is individual drawings or collections of drawing known as flipbooks, these drawings are being digitized so that current artists at the studio can pull the talents and techniques of their predecessors while still protecting the long term integrity of the original art.  At one station in the lab, a young technician was showing us a digital flipbook that had been recently created on a monitor that any computer geek would relish; it had to be at least a 40 inch screen.  Upon leaving the ARL I was truly in a state of awe and wonder.  What I would give to be able to spend a week, a month, or a year there just exploring.

Upon arriving back at the Studio lot, our last visit of the day was to the Archives, and a visit with Dave Smith – Founder and now Director Emeritus of the Walt Disney Archives.  Dave retired last year, after building the Archive for 41 years, yet he is still a regular fixture on most tours.  This visit made my 4th to the Archive over the last few years, the most recent visit before this being in June of this year, when I finally got to take my youngest daughter on a Studio Tour.  This visit was a little different as a few of the items Dave normally shows are now on display at the Treasures of the Archive exhibit in Simi Valley.  So, on this occasion, we were treated to the first ticket book from Walt Disney World, along one of the Olympic torches designed by Disney Legend John Hench for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.  So I know that Walt got at least two of these torches because one of them is on permanent display at the Walt Disney Family Museum.  Also on the table in front of us were several Mary Blair originals, which I had to fight hard not to try and sneak out of the building.  Not that I would have gotten away with it.  And finally, a print of the Chernabog, the devilish character from Fantasia.  After his presentation, I got to spend a few minutes with Dave and ask him if he was getting tired of seeing my ugly mug around, and his kind response, “of course not.”

After a long day of visiting new places and learning so much more about the animation process, and some of the real treasures of The Walt Disney Company, it was time for a little shopping, and a nice evening reception with D23’s leader Steven Clark, Archives Director Becky Cline, and our tour guides.  Since it was only a short time back that I had been in the Company Store, there wasn’t much in the way of shopping that was needed. As we were waiting for the reception to start I met up with my friends, and shortly thereafter, the caterers had the hors d’oeuvre line set up and we were invited to begin.  As with the lunch earlier in the day, the hors d’oeuvres were very good.  We had a choice of a grilled shrimp on a skewer, a gazpacho shooter, a small salad like spoon, and egg rolls, along with soft drinks.  As good as they were I, of course, had several pieces of all that was served, it was good.  As we all enjoy the snacks and a cool drink – remember, it was a hot day in the burb, Burbank that is – we talked about our experiences of the day.  General consensus, it was pretty damn awesome!!!  Earlier in the weekend, my volunteer friend from the Museum had express some concern as to whether the cost of the Diamond ticket would end up being worth it?  As the weekend moved along she was become less and less concerned.  But, as we talked at the reception, I asked her if the event(s) had met her expectations from the cost perspective.  Expectations met and exceeded, for me as well.  If the Diamond Level experience had been just for the events of Saturday and Sunday, I probably would have forgone the extra expense, but, my anticipation was for Monday, and I was not disappointed.  As the reception came to a finale, Steven made a little speech thanking us for being part the day’s events, and then Becky had us come up by group to receive a copy of the picture taken after lunch, and a Disney Fairytales Art Book.  Then we loaded back onto the buses for the long commute back to the Disneyland Hotel.

Of all the events that D23 has put on, and that I have had the opportunity to attend, this was by far the best.  One of the things I noticed throughout our jaunt around the lot was the number of different service carts and trucks on the streets of the Studio.  It was apparently a very busy production day at the Studio, and we still got on the lot to witness it.  It really was cool!  I’d like to give my sincerest thanks to all the D23 staff and volunteers, and all the other Disney Employees, who made this a positively wonderful day.  And… a SPECIAL THANKS!!! to Laura, for her tireless effort to make this such great event.

I’d also like to thank my companions for both the weekend and Monday, you all help add to the magic of the event.


Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

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