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Insider Report: D23’s Destination D Tour of Disney Animation Studios–PART 2

by Cara Richards

In my last post, I covered the Diamond Ticket Destination D experience for the morning of Monday August 13th, when I had the opportunity to tour the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.

By the time we left the studio, we were all getting hungry, so after boarding our busses, we were driven across the road to the ORIGINAL animation building – the one where Walt and his team of talented animators worked back in the studio’s original heyday.  A short walk from the studio entrance took us to the Disney Legends plaza where a delicious hot buffet lunch had been laid out for us between the plaques and hand-prints of Disney celebrities past and present.  We had plenty of time to enjoy the food and wander around the plaza.  We could take photos and admire the fantastic Team Disney building which appears to be held up by none other than the seven dwarfs.  One thing I loved about this part of the Studios was that we could get up close to The Partners statue of Walt and Mickey.  In the parks, this iconic piece is surrounded by fences and landscaping.  Here, it was completely open for us to go up and stand next to Walt for photographs.  It gave us the opportunity to see up-close the wonderful detail in Blaine Gibson’s work.

After lunch, we were split once again in to smaller groups and our section was taken over to the original Animation Building.  We were taken in to Walt’s screening room and given a fascinating presentation about how the old animated features are being restored and cleaned for release on to DVD and Blu-Ray.  We were shown slides and footage allowing us to see the difference in quality between the original films and their new enhanced versions.  The difference was stunning and I was impressed by now much work goes in to cleaning up scratches and dirt marks from the originals’ negatives.  We also saw some shocking photos of what eventually happens to the old nitrate film that was used by the studios decades ago and how sadly much of this has already started to deteriorate.  When nitrate film begins to decompose, it turns in to a hazardous flammable substance and must be destroyed.  Until that time, Disney takes exhaustive measures to securely store the film, in an attempt to prolong the condition of the originals for as long as possible.  Now, movies are shot on safety film, which as the name suggests, does not possess the hazardous qualities that the old style used to.

Our next stop was at the Animation Research Library (ARL).  We boarded our busses again and were driven about 10 minutes down the road to a non-descript building on Flower Street.  Hidden amongst a housing estate, the ARL stands to preserve and archive the millions of pieces of art produced by the Disney company since its inception in the 1920s.  My impression before arriving at the ARL was that we would be stood listening to the employees there talk about some of the art they had and perhaps show us a few pieces to whet our appetites.  What we actually had, was a chance to walk around a number of rooms and vaults in the ARL and see hundreds and hundreds of sketches, cels, glass plates, macquettes and paintings.  And everything was original.  I thought I’d died and gone to Disney heaven!  Amongst some of the gems we got to see up close were original drawings from Steamboat Willie, paintings by Eyvind Earle, glass plates from Peter Pan and references models from every Disney movie you could think of.  The staff on hand were so friendly and gracious enough to answer every question we had to throw at them.  It was such a privilege to be stood so close to some of the most precious artwork I’ve ever seen and I think I could easily have spent the entire weekend exploring the ARL’s many filing cabinet, archive boxes and display cases.

Back on the busses, we headed back to the studios and were taken in to the Frank G Wells building which is home to the Disney Archives.  The main room of the archives is very small and intimate and we had the pleasure of Dave Smith’s company during our time inside.  He spent around 20 minutes talking us through some select pieces of Disneyana, including the original photos and IDs of Walt and his team featured in the documentary Walt and El Grupo, a first day press pass for the opening day of Disneyland, an Oscar which Walt received for one of his True Life Adventure movies, some original art-work and cels amongst other things.  After Dave’s presentation, we had the opportunity to look around the Archives in our own time and admire the wonderful collection of memorabilia on Display.  We could have our pictures taken with the Oscar (heavy!) and admire the enormous collection of books on display.  As somebody who collects pretty much any Disney publication I can get my hands on, this was a real treat.

After the Archives tour, we had around 20 minutes to relax on the couches in the lobby and take a look at the multi-plane camera which is housed in the building.  There were also several other archive displays behind glass, one of which was themed on Disney miniatures (which I believe Armchair Archivist Josh Turchetta did a D23 video for just a few weeks ago).

The final part of our studio tour was at the Ink and Paint department, just across the way from the animation building.  In the original Disney animation process, cels were hand inked and painted by a large team of cast-members who bought the animator’s drawings to life in glorious colour.  Now, a team of just five people work in this part of the studio, inking and painting cels which are sold as collectibles as that done traditionally during Walt’s day  It was fascinating to see the work being done up close.  The artist begins by inking the outlines of the drawing on to a cel and then, when dry, flips it over and colours in with specialized paints.  During Walt’s era, the paint would take 8 hours to dry, so a new formula was developed which would quicken up the drying time and therefore increase productivity on movies.  On the day we visited, the artists were working on cels of Cinderella and the mice.  This one piece (which was relatively simple) would take around 90 minutes to paint by one person and there were 270 cels to be made in the series.  If there is even the tiniest mark or scratch, the entire cel is shredded, destroyed and the piece must be started over.

Our time at the Ink and Paint building was over and so concluded our tour of the studios.  Our D23 escort walked us to the Studio Store (via Pluto’s corner where you can find the famous Dopey Drive/Mickey Avenue sign post, from the Reluctant Dragon).  We were given some time to shop and buy some exclusive merchandise that couldn’t be purchased in any other Disney Store.  For me, that included some pins and a Director Mickey vinylmation to add to my collection back home.

As one final surprise, D23 had arranged for a farewell buffet on the lawn outside the store, where we had an opportunity to chat to fellow members and swap stories from our day at the lot.  Becky Cline and Steven Clarke were on hand to wrap things up and we were given a parting gift of a souvenir photo and a copy of ‘Dreams Comes True’, which is a book featuring fairy tale art from the Walt Disney Studio.

It was a fantastic day and one I will not forget.  To have the opportunity to explore and see up close the workings of animation (past and present) was amazing and as a huge Disney fan, it was a dream come true.

The entire weekend was so well organized and our tour on the Monday was the icing on the cake.  Everybody I spoke to agreed that it was worth every penny and if you ever get a chance to attend anything like this in the future, I highly recommend you take the opportunity!

Cara lives in Portsmouth in the UK and has had a passion for all things Disney ever since she first saw “The Rescuers” when she was about 7 years old.  Her obsession started with Walt’s classic animated features, but expanded in to the theme parks when she spent her honeymoon in Walt Disney World in 2004.  Since then, she has had many trips to Orlando, Anaheim and Paris, and is a proud charter-day member of D23, doing her best to attend fan events as often as her wallet (and husband!) will let her.