Monday, June 4, 2012

Case Study No. 0359: Lella Smith

Once Upon a Time Walt Disney/Lella Smith
Much of the artwork seen at the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit comes courtesy of the Disney Animation Research Library, which is under the direction of Lella Smith. This audio from my interview with her is overlaid by a slideshow of some of the Library's artwork that's on display at the exhibit.

For more on the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit, visit our website at
Tags: disney events exhibitions interview lella smith animation history
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EMRU: This is Emru Townsend, and this is our third podcast from last week's opening of the "Once Upon a Time" Walt Disney exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Lella Smith is the director of the Disney Animation Research Library, the division of Disney that provided most of the material on display at the "Once Upon a Time" Walt Disney exhibit. This was the first time I'd ever heard the Research Library mentioned by name. For years, I knew only of the Disney Archives, and the collection that Disney himself referred to as "The Morgue." When I caught up with Lella Smith, I needed a little reminder as to her department's official title.
LELLA: It's the Disney Animation Research Library, and it's a repository for all the art that went to create the animated shorts, feature films, featurettes, some even commercials that were animated during the 1950s, and it's all about animation.
EMRU: Now, this is meant to be a resource for people working within Disney, for reference?
LELLA: That's correct. Occasionally, we participate with books, occasionally on exhibits, but it's primarily there for the Disney family, as both inspiration and reference for the projects that are being worked on.
EMRU: Now most of the artwork, as you mentioned earlier, is quite old, which is why it's only gonna be in two cities, this exhibition, because ... well, you don't want it to disintegrate en route. But, with the exception of the books accompanying this, will we be seeing any other, y'know, either printed or rather forms of exhibition of the artwork?
LELLA: There actually is a show travelling around Japan right now ...
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: And that show is designed to complement a show that Walt Disney sent to Japan in 1960.
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: And we have a smaller show that we participated in in Seattle, with the Experience Music Project, which is designed to show the influence of Disney music on popular culture. But we don't have any large travelling shows planned for the close future.
EMRU: Right, right. But in terms of, say, reproductions of the artwork in books or anything along those lines, any collections?
LELLA: Y'know, we do a lot, quite a bit of that. Because, if anyone needs images for their books, they will come to us.
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: So we do participate in that. In fact, in the bookstore here, you will see four books by Pierre Lambert.
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: And Pierre came to us for the images, as well as some other private collectors, but yes. We try to participate in any books that will present the Disney art in a good light.
EMRU: Right. Let's go back a little bit towards the past, how was the Animation Research Library started? I mean, I know the Disney archived stuff better than most people of his day, but even then, compared to what we now consider archiving, was a bit more slipshod. When did the organization formally say, we must have an animation research, you know, an archive for people to look at?
LELLA: Well, we were actually part of the Disney Archives until fairly recently, I think about 15 years ago or so. The art was pulled out of Archives and put into a state of the art facility, because it was in need of archiving and to keep it from deteriorating. And so, we became a formal library at that point, but until that time we were part of Disney Archives. It was just so big, that we needed our own facility.
EMRU: So what's the distinction between the two, between the Archives and--
LELLA: Disney Archives is history of Walt, history of the Walt Disney Company. Toys, ephemera. If you want, for example, a program from the first Snow White showing--
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: You'll go to Archives. If you want a poster from the first Snow White showing, you'll go to Disney Archives. If you want the art that was used to created the film, you'll come to the Animation Research Library.
EMRU: Interesting. So, since your department is essentially open to animators who are currently working, to be able to do research, how much traffic do you actually get?
LELLA: We get a lot of traffic. And it depends on the film that's being made. Right now, there's a wonderfully funny short, a Goofy short, being made ...
EMRU: Mm hmm.
LELLA: And so, artists have been there looking at the art from the Goofy shorts. They've referenced the animation and the concept art and the backgrounds. They've actually wanted to see the backgrounds, so that this film can appear to be in the style of the Goofy films that were made so many years ago.
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: So there's an enormous amount of reference. If you saw "Lillo and Stitch," the artists came to look at watercolor backgrounds ...
EMRU: Right, yes.
LELLA: Because they wanted to do the exhibit in the watercolor way, instead of gouache, which would probably be the way it's done today, or on the computer as it's often done today.
EMRU: That was a question I was gonna ask next, is with more digital animation ... I mean, Disney's only done one fully-CG film, "Chicken Little." Uh, "Dinsosaurs" pretty close, and many of the other films were rendered directly to film through the cap system, how does that impact archives? Obviously, you can still hang onto pre-production work, and storyboards, and so on--
LELLA: Exactly.
EMRU: But actual film images, especially for the all-CGI films, that's a bit trickier.
LELLA: It does change it, and ... there will be traditional films made again at Disney.
EMRU: Yes.
LELLA: But I think the way in which they're made will probably change. I think, probably, artists will work on tablets or syntax to create their drawings, so it'll be in a digital format.
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: And, of course, I would much rather have it on paper.
EMRU: Right.
LELLA: But a lot of it will be digital, but there are people who can create those films, create those frames for people to see. It's just not quite the same as having a painting on board, or drawing on paper.
EMRU: Disney Animation Research Library director, Lella Smith.



A Discussion with Lella Smith, Doug Engalla, and Vivian Procopio of the Animation Research Library (ARL)

KM: Why did the Animation Research Library start?

Lella Smith: The company was looking for a vehicle whereby any division of Disney could come in and get images for their projects whether it be Art Classics, Walt Disney Imagineering, or Disney Cruise Lines. They come to the ARL and that image can be provided to them as reference.

It is easily the largest animation library in the world and a pretty valuable asset to the company. Not only because of its value, but because [the material is] used and re-used.

Vivian Procopio: Mainly, the artwork here is geared to help the upcoming artist to learn how animation was done in the past and for inspiration and ideas. Other projects include the books that are published on animation. [Authors] usually come here for reference to put in their books.

Doug Engalla: Walt Disney Art Classics tend to turn to the animation art to stay as faithful to the original as possible. It's such a sophisticated audience out there, they will still step through a video and look and see how close it is. It's a very savvy audience.

LS: Plus, the Disney company likes the product to be on-model. It's our hope that they will come to us and get the actual image and the result will really look like Mulan.

VP: As precise to the character--design, color, and all the different elements--as possible.

LS: Even TV animation, if they have a spin-off, wants to make certain that the characters are true to the original film, so they come here.

KM: So an animator could go back and study exactly how the prince kissed Snow White and model their newer animation on that?

LS: Yes. It's here for the animators to use. We're actually under Feature Animation so we have a real love and dedication to them. They'll come here and they'll flip drawings. It's really interesting to watch because even artists who feel that they are really, really advanced in animation will come and look at a Milt Kahl or a Marc Davis and say, "Whoa. I gotta go practice drawing again."

DE: Recently, we had background and layout artists from a current project look at art from Lady and the Tramp. Subject-wise it doesn't look like it relates at all to what they're doing, but technique-wise it was very helpful for them.

LS: One thing they were trying to do was evening scenes, which are really hard to do, so Doug pulled several of the night scenes.

KM: How is the art preserved?

LS: We had a whole line of materials developed for animation. There are all kinds of archival companies that focus on supplies for museum collections, but we had very different needs, different sizes. We found a polyethylene that goes between the layers of the cels so that the paint doesn't stick. We have a sleeve that we can slip the paper backgrounds into because the backgrounds are often just a long piece of paper and if you touch them you can not only get oil on them but it damages the paper. We also developed a cel mat holder that would allow the weight to be around the edges of the cardboard folder so that you could hold it and not press the cels on top of each other. There's a lot more known about the damage of rubber bands and paper clips and staples and we're doing our damnedest to get all that out. So we've been working hard to find ways to protect the art better.

KM: How do you go about preserving animation art in an era of digital ink and paint and computer animation?

LS: We are getting more of the collection digitally and that's a challenge for us because we have to continue to learn as we go. But we're able to work very closely with CAPS [Computer Animation and Production System which unites Scene Planning, Scanning, Color Model, Ink and Paint, and Compositing]. Some of the images may simply be stored on-line and we'll pull from those. Now we can look into the Fame system, which tells where everything is moving and how many layers were on top of a background. It's not as straightforward as it was before because you'd go and pull a cel and put in over a background and you'd have a cel set-up. But we're working very closely with the technology division. Since the color is created on the computer, we find ourselves working more with the computer folks.

DE: Luckily though, we're still very traditionally-based as far as animation is concerned. There will always be a desire, even in the digital age, to see the foundation. Even if currently we're unable to provide a color image for somebody on the outside, we still have character designs and pre-production art that is very important to any feature project.

LS: But the exciting thing for us is we're trying to keep up with technology. Technology is not necessarily a bad thing for us. Where previously we were only able to provide a color copy, now we can scan the art and give a digital file in any format people need so they can go right to press, and that's a good thing.

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