Saturday, May 31, 2014

Preserving Animation Cels

Alice in Wonderland cel preservation
Detailed "Alice in Wonderland" cel showing early signs of delamination of the paint.
Here's a short primer on what Disney does with old films. If you truly want to understand more about the films you love and what has happened to them over time, read on. This is all about preserving animation cels.

Ever wonder what happens to the original animation cels to classic films such as "Cinderella" and "Pinocchio"? Well, if you do, you're very rare. Most folks probably think they get stuck in a museum somewhere, or maybe a numbered vault underneath Disneyland.

Actually, that latter idea is pretty close to what actually used to happen. Until 1990, nobody really thought much about what happened to old animation cels. Each cel from the old days was hand-painted and inked. Outlines of the character were meticulously and painstakingly drawn in ink on the front of the sheet, and paint was added to the reverse side. This is what the "paint and ink" girls did, and they did it very well.

Walt Disney did want to keep the original materials around - who can blame him, they cost an awful lot of money to prepare - but his intent was simply to keep them in storage somewhere, not do anything special to preserve them. So, Disney set aside what everybody called "the Morgue," a basement beneath the studio where the old films went to die and lay in rest forever, or at least until a reissue was called for. This "morgue," which aside from being a basement was nothing special, remained the resting ground of the classics until 1990 when a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled research facility called the Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) was built. It now houses some 65 million pieces of Disney art, from the 1920s onward.

Pinocchio cel preservation
Original "Pinocchio" cel shows signs of buckling of the film.
Back in Walt's day, even film pros didn't reckon on film deteriorating. The film was considered permanent and presumably would endure for centuries like papyrus or something. Turns out that is not the case at all - the paint and ink on the film cracks and flakes off, and the film itself corrodes. Extreme (or simply less than ideal) temperatures hasten both of these processes. The ideal temperature for film preservation is from 62°F and 65°F and at 50 percent relative humidity, depending on the film stock, and that is how the originals now being stored.

Preservation is complicated by the fact that the studio used different types of film through the years and even different types of film stock for the same motion picture. The best temperature and other conditions for preserving one type of film stock aren't necessarily the best for preserving another. Only by closely studying the film itself with advanced techniques such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry can the ARL staff know how to store the film so that it lasts for another generation.

For instance, cellulose nitrate was used from the 1920s to 1942, while cellulose diacetate use began in 1929. The early films sometimes used both kinds. Cellulose diacetate then gave way to cellulose triacetate between "The Fox and the Hound" in 1981 and "Mickey's Christmas Carol" in 1983. There also was some polyester film thrown in along the way for good measure. Clearly, the studio would run through its old stocks of the previous generation of the film before moving on to the new generation. All of these types of film age different, deteriorate at different rates and require different preservation conditions.

Those with an interest in film history likely have heard that the films of old Hollywood were made on cellulose nitrate, which was combustible and degraded quickly. Many classic films were lost forever because of this, either because they started fires that burned through entire collections, or they simply degraded - in fact, only a tiny fraction of 1920s films survive at all. Even major blockbusters have been lost. The switch to cellulose acetate was thought to end these problems, but in fact, cellulose acetate also degrades overtime via hydrolysis (and which makes large collections of aging film smell like vinegar). Cellulose acetate film will lose its color due to the degradation of the plastics used in its manufacture. All of these problems are now behind us because of digital film, but anything made during the last century is subject to these conditions.

Thus, there is a lot going on behind the scenes at Disney to keep the original films and related materials in existence, so that new media (Blu-ray and so forth) versions can be created from the earliest and best sources. This is why it requires a massive effort to bring out something that fans think is easy to do, such as a new Diamond Edition of their favorite classic. Knowing all this helps us to appreciate that animation films really are true art, and unlike all other films.


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