In 2009, Kristin McCormick noticed a problem. As the art collections and exhibition manager at the Disney Animation Research Library, she noticed the animation cels from their classic films were slowly degrading. Animation cels, short for celluloid, are transparent sheets that serve as the background for traditional, hand-drawn animation.
Earlier this year, McCormick and the library teamed up with scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute to restore animation cels from Disney’s most iconic films, ranging from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) to "The Little Mermaid" (1989).
McCormick oversees more than 65 million pieces of animation art — millions of which are painted on cels. After 80 years of Disney films, even the most cared for items are showing their age.
“We started to see the cels were buckling, sort of a rippling effect occurring, some were yellowing,” says McCormick, “and some of the paints were starting to delaminate — kind of flaking off the plastic substrate.”
A detail of an animation cel from the Disney film, "Pinocchio" (1940). The cel displays buckling, another problem affecting some cels in the studio's collection. Photo: © Disney Enterprises, Inc.
That’s when McCormick enlisted the help of Getty Conservation scientist Michael Schilling. He’s worked on ancient grottoes in China and Egyptian tombs. Now he’s working on "Snow White." While he’s enjoyed working on such monumental projects, he cherishes this partnership not only because they’re beautiful, but they’re an art form unique to our era and our backyard.
Currently, Schilling and his team are figuring out how to reattach flaking paints of the animation art back to the plastic cels. But even dealing with these cels is hard considering how they were made in the first place.
“There’s a drawing on one side and paint on the opposite side," Schilling says. "So you can’t lay the cell onto anything safely, because whatever you lay it onto is going to stick to either the paint or the drawing.”
Animation cel of Disney's "The Jungle Book" (courtesy of the Disney Animation Research Library).
This creates challenges when trying to store the cels. The cels can easily stick together, so Schilling and his staff have to use tiny spatulas to flip from one sheet to the next. And they wear white gloves -- though not quite as big as Mickey’s -- to avoid getting fingerprint oils onto the cels.
Once they figure out how to treat the paints, they’ll study how the art ages and how the plastic chemically and physically changes over time, researching how to perfectly store the cels at any temperature. It’s a lot of work considering it takes 24 cels to produce just one second of film, so there’s a lot of raw material. However, what’s surprised Schilling most is how well preserved the cels truly are.
“The Disney artists did a lot of research into paint formulations," Schilling says. "And so we’re looking at paints made in the '30s, '40s, '50s, with very unique formulations that would be different from what would have been used from artists from the same time period.”
Animation cel from Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" (courtesy of the Disney Animation Research Library).
It was Walt Disney who had this foresight. Not only did he and his animators create the perfect paint combinations, but he made sure the films were stored meticulously in what was called the "morgue" — a dark, climate-controlled storage facility under the ink-and-painting room at the original Disney studios. In 1989, the archives moved to Disney’s current studios in Glendale. Artists at the animation studios continually look at these older cels for inspiration and study how those older techniques were employed.
The contract between the Getty Institute and Disney extends through 2019. That’s enough time for Schilling and his team to conduct all of the research and repairs to the cels. But if Schilling had it his way, we wouldn’t even know he and his team were part of the project.
“The highest compliment you can pay to a conservator of works of art is that you can’t tell they’ve done anything," Schilling says. "So that’s what we’re hoping — that for all of the effort that goes into it, that no one will be able to tell we acted on them.”
Just like magic.