With a cinematic history of animated classics as long and esteemed as Walt Disney Animation Studios, how do you safely, securely, and conveniently store and archive those immense collected works? Where do the sketches, backgrounds, and concept art pieces retire to when the project is complete? In the world of Disney, they head to a nondescript building in southern California, where the Animation Research Library keeps the keys to the kingdom of Disney history in their first-class physical vaults and digital archives.
I was lucky enough to visit the fabled ARL back in 2017 and they do fascinating work there. So, with Cinderella waltzing into the Walt Disney Signature Collection just in time for its 70th anniversary, I jumped at the chance to hop on the phone with ARL Managing Director Mary Walsh. We discussed Cinderella‘s legacy and how the ARL helps with these big anniversary re-releases, how they maintain a 65-million-piece collection, how they work with historians, artists, documentarians, filmmakers and more to provide access and inspiration, how she ended up in such a rarefied field and her advice to anyone looking to follow in her footsteps.
I got the pretty rare opportunity to visit the Animation Research library on a previous press trip and it is a really fascinating resource and operation, so for those who might not know, tell me a bit about the ARL and what you do there.
WALSH: The Animation Research Library is the repository for all the original artwork that was created at Disney Animation. The artwork that was created to produce both the short and feature-length animated films. We have art in our collection from the 1920s all the way up until today. We estimate that we have over 65 million pieces of physical art in the collection. And then as if that wasn’t big enough, we’re also at the early stages of archiving the digital born assets from all of our computer-generated films from the last 10 plus years. The archive just gets bigger and bigger and it’s challenging and fun and inspirational. We get to work with divisions across the Walt Disney Company who need access to this artwork for their projects and stories that they’re telling.
We are not open to the public. We are only open to members of the Walt Disney Company. So getting a chance to talk about a film like Cinderella, not only its upcoming 70th anniversary, but the induction into the national film registry is a way to let the world know about who we are and what we do with the ARL and how we support the filmmaking today at Walt Disney Animation Studio.
It’s so great. I’m a history nerd, so I’m very passionate about archiving as a public service. When you come upon an event or an anniversary like what you’re having with Cinderella right now, what does that mean for you in terms of pulling resources, preservation, keeping it safe? What is asked of you, and what do you deliver?
WALSH: That’s a great question. Because we know when these anniversaries are coming up, or at least we should, we try to work in advance, 18 to 24 months in advance of a significant anniversary, and really go through the collection based on those film titles and do some work in the collection to make sure the type of artwork we believe our partners across the company are going to want, that it’s … rehoused appropriately. It’s organized, it’s cataloged and that it’s been digitally captured. That’s one of the reasons we work so far out.
Cinderella, for example. For this release, the producers for the different types of bonus material came to us, months and months and months and months ago looking for information and imagery and selected a lot of concept artwork and story sketches. Our research and collections team were way in front of that, so when the producers came in and sitting down with the researcher, they can actually pull up so much of that artwork on our internal image browser and really help the producers visually tell the story they want with the artwork that we’ve made accessible to them from a digital means.
How do you display it and even store it in a way that keeps all of it safe and preserved? Art, especially the old stuff is really hard to handle and display safely.
WALSH: Yeah it is. We are really, really fortunate that we have a world-class facility here where that artwork lives. If you went backstage to any a world-class museum that had a collection of works on paper similar to what we have, the way that our vault system is organized would be very much the same way that a museum organizes their artwork.
We are very specific and consistent about the environment in which they art lives in. The vaults are all temperature controlled, both from Fahrenheit temperature and a humidity control. Obviously, we have really high-end fire suppression and security systems in place too. When you think about it, this artwork is the original IP of the Walt Disney Company. So much of what has developed over the Disney company in the last almost 100 years, it all started with animation and everything has sprung from that.
We take our role very seriously about the responsibility we have to safeguard and ensure the longevity of all of that original artwork because we want it to be here for generations to come, and hopefully in a better condition for our next generation of archivists than what we found it in.
When you look at something like Cinderella, one of Disney’s iconic titles, I’m curious from your perspective as someone whose whole career sort of revolves around this, how do you perceive Cinderella‘s legacy?
WALSH: It’s interesting, because obviously we’ve been getting a lot of those questions lately, just given the topic of what we’re dealing with today and the anniversary of the film, which is almost 70 years old. For me, the biggest thing is, and I think about Cinderella as a character, just her perseverance. She is in a very challenging reality. She knows what her reality is, but she doesn’t let the reality of that situation take her to a place where she’s not her natural optimistic self. She has a lot of resiliency, perseverance.
She knows the world in which she’s in right now is that the most ideal situation. She’s got challenges to deal with, but she doesn’t allow that to have anybody take away her dreams or what it is that she wants to accomplish. I just think that optimism is something that resonates really well today. I think we all need a little bit of that in our life, and I think Cinderella as a character personifies that. And I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s just endured for so long.
And then just the beautiful artistry and craftsmanship of the filmmaking itself. Released in 1950 and you see it again today and it still holds up from a visual point of view is really, really remarkable.
It’s a really special one to me, it was one of my favorites growing up — I’m also, I’m a huge fan of the remake that Disney did a few years ago — and I think why they both for me, the purity of the character, it’s too rare that a story rewards kindness above all else.
WALSH: Yeah, if you think about it, no matter what, how she’s being treated by the people around her, she’s always responding with kindness and respect. I think that’s a big part of that, her character. I think that’s a great role model for anybody.
I’m curious, what are some of the touchstones for you, on a personal level, what Disney films did you grow up watching and what are the ones that you returned to most as an adult?
WALSH: That’s a really hard question since we, me and the whole team that I get to work with, we deal with in work and this art and these films all the time. For me it goes back … it depends on A, sometimes what kind of mood I’m in. What I’m reflecting back on in my life. A really good example, I was thinking about it a lot just because of, it’s the 25th anniversary this past week of the original release of The Lion King. I started at Disney Animation Studios a month after Lion King was released. When I think of Lion King, I have from a very nostalgic point of view, it always makes me feel happy and so appreciative because it’s just the career that I’ve had here.
That film is the one bookend for me. And then being here, given the creativity and how we tell stories now, but still going back to the essence of what a true Disney film is and how it needs to resonate with the audience and the fact that the filmmakers today still believe that to their core. They’re using different tools in different technologies and telling in sometimes you know, wider stories. But I think that essence is really important. And so for me, those are the kind of films that resonate for me.
Mulan is one of my favorite films too, made when I was here as well. From the older classics, I still am so in awe when I look at films like Snow White and Fantasia and Pinocchio because those films are made the late 30s, early 1940, and when you think about it the process of creating a feature-length animated film was truly in its infancy at that point in film production. And just what they were able to accomplish without a whole lot of role models, besides what they’re doing in the studio, just makes me sit there with my mouth open and in awe of what they were able to accomplish and that it is still so appreciated and watchable today. It’s amazing.
You mentioned The Lion King, and of course, everyone is excited for that live-action style/animated remake coming up. I have to imagine you guys are a pretty popular destination for the filmmakers taking on these live action remakes?
WALSH: You know, we have been. Giving credit to the senior leadership of the Walt Disney Company is those filmmakers have complete access to this art in this collection if they need it, if want it, but they’re not mandated to it. They want to approach it in a lot of ways with their own take on it, and I’m sure they all know the films really well. Some of the filmmakers have come here and looked at the art, and some of them are like, “Thanks, we got it,” and it’s okay, but just the fact that it’s here for their reference I think is really important.
And allowing those filmmakers their space to interpret that film and the story in a way that they want to do it. I think it’s really great for the filmgoer to look at what the live action version of Lion King is compared to what the animated version was, and have filmgoers really make that decision for themselves and how it strikes them emotionally. I’m really looking forward to seeing it.
Yeah, I am too. Jon Favreau is such a fun filmmaker. I can’t wait.
WALSH: Yeah, and like you, I was a fan of the live-action Cinderella version too, that Kenneth Branagh did.
Oh, it’s so lovely. I think they knocked that one straight out of the park, and it really keeps the spirit of Cinderella alive.
WALSH: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more.
I’m sure that your personal time on the job doesn’t allow you a ton of time to be in the archives, hands-on with the art, but through the Cinderella process, did you have the opportunity to learn anything new about that production or the artists there that you hadn’t known before?
WALSH: I’ve been around this for such a long time that there wasn’t really anything new, but it’s always fun when the producers are here and they work with our research team and I get to see some of the works that they’re pulling for them.
There are definitely sketches and things I hadn’t seen before, but it was just like going back and revisiting an old friend. It’s just fun and lovely and heartwarming. I’m just so proud of the fact that we have this artwork that’s still accessible and still being used and it still is a source of inspiration for current storytellers.