A Collector’s Look Into the Legacy of Disney Animation Art

by Gemr Matt Sullivan (@Sullivanimation)

Throughout his lifetime, Walt Disney regularly referred to the making of his animated films as “magical”. He described the process with colorful language that romanticized the culture of the studio and the artistic majesty of bringing pencil lines on paper to life. For the longest time, he crafted an incredible mystery and aura surrounding the production of his animated cartoons. This same aura would pave the way for a fascination that generations of animation lovers and collectors would search endlessly to satiate.

OriginalPinocchioRoughAnimationDrawing1940Although Walt would tease viewers during his television specials, occasionally showing animators drawing at a light box, or painters inking a cel, the art form largely remained shrouded in its viewers’ imaginations until long after Walt’s death. Combined with a few other key factors, I believe that this “magical” essence became one of the driving forces that would catapult the interest and value of Disney animation art into the stratosphere.

 One of the most defining attributes of an upward trend in a collecting market, or any market, is simply supply and demand. With reference to animation, an art form that burns through between 12 and 24 drawings per second of footage, you would never expect a shortage of drawings or cels on the market. That being said, a simple lack of foresight allowed that number to dwindle dramatically.  During the golden age of Disney Animation, before the studio management started to see the importance of saving production artwork, there was very little studio input over what artists did with their drawings and paintings once they had run their course. Many artists would take their stacks of roughs or cleanups home and gift them to friends and family. Some would just save them for their own personal records. Having worked at the studio and heard it straight from the veterans themselves, I would cringe as they recounted horror stories of animators skating down the linoleum hallways of the old Disney Animation building with original hand inked and painted cels strapped to the bottoms of their feet. I doubt that they realized at the time that they were skating on piles of five thousand dollar bills, but stories like this are the reason that supply diminished so much throughout the years.

OriginalMarcDavisMaleficentRoughAnimationDrawingFromSleepingBeauty1959Once the preservation of artwork started to become more of a studio mission, many drawings and cels were stored in the basement of the old animation building. It was appropriately nicknamed “The Morgue” by the animators, because they said it was where their drawings would go to die. Unfortunately for the animators AND for their drawings, this metaphorical reference became all too real when the moisture and lack of climate control in “The Morgue” actually started to cause serious damage to the artwork. This was right around the time that the studio began to realize how important the preservation and archiving process would be to keep the legacy of the artwork alive. Shortly after, all of the artwork was moved to the Disney Animation Research Library, which houses more than 65 million pieces of original production artwork. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, the studio became much stricter about their policies pertaining to production drawings after completion. This is one reason it can be tough to acquire drawings from renaissance era films like Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

HandPaintedGetAHorse!CelOne of the unique attributes of animation that fascinates me, is that the finished product (a film) becomes paradoxically intangible in a physical sense, but incredibly tangible in an emotional sense. The thrill of the chase for many animation art collectors as far as I’m concerned, lies somewhere in the hunt for that “life” and “essence” that captivated them while watching the finished film. That exact “life and “essence”, however, is hidden somewhere between the culmination of a whole array of stages in the animation process. This affords animation art collectors the option to focus their interests on any or all of these stages; including design, storyboards, layout, rough animation, cleanup animation, effects, background paintings and final ink & paint.

For me as a collector, there are a specific set of attributes that I tend to look for in a production drawing or cel. I am almost always looking for a “key” pose with a strong, clear silhouette of the character. I’m not usually interested in a transitional pose that is somewhere in between point “A” and point “B”. I like to make sure that the character’s eyes are open, unless the closed eyes are a defining part of the pose. Because I love the process of rough animation, it’s always a plus for me to see timing charts and animation notes in the margins. Creasing in the paper is not usually a deal breaker for me, provided that the creasing is in the the middle to bottom left, middle to bottom right, or middle top of the paper. The reason being is that those would be the areas on the drawing that the animator would be flipping or rolling their roughs, regardless of their dominant hand. if there are obvious folds or creases in other places that don’t match the profile of those caused by the animation process, then they become more of a concern for me. Though its not imperative, and can look nice in different arrangements, I usually want the character to be fairly centered on the page. In short, I’m looking for a drawing that says it all. I want to see the thought process in the characters eyes, I want to see form and line work, as well as the expression, but most of all, I want to feel the life of the character in the drawing. I can never really put my finger on what it is in an animation drawing that pulls me in, but there’s a definite rush of nostalgia that comes with the acquisition of an incredible piece.  It’s this feeling that brings me that much closer to the “aura” and legacy of Disney Animation that will always be revered as a “Magical” time in American art history.