Echoes of Early Animation

The Wonderful World of Disney
by Jonathan Wright

From pencil drawings to hand-painted celluloids, a collection of vintage Disney art illustrates a bygone era.

“This is actually Donald Duck’s living room,” explains Steve Spain. “These are the backgrounds, the settings, where the characters live.” Just above the framed watercolor—a scene from the 1940 animated short, Mr. Duck Steps Out—is another painted background from Officer Duck (1939), and beneath it, three colored-pencil storyboards from Hawaiian Holiday (1937), starring Donald’s close friend and sometime rival, Mickey Mouse.

Further along the same wall in the basement of Spain’s Peoria home, a scene from Beach Picnic (1939) comes alive, with two animation cels (short for celluloid) of Mickey placed over the top of the corresponding background. “In this scene, Mickey is swimming to that rock,” says Spain. “As he swims, the background moves along, showing motion. It takes about two seconds for him to get to the rock. At 24 frames per second, that’s 48 images of Mickey. So just to get those two seconds of film, there were 48 hand-painted cels taken from 48 hand-drawn images, on top of a background that took several days to create… It was a tremendously time-consuming process.”

Spain directs my attention to another piece from his remarkable collection: an animation cel of Cinderella placed over a background from the classic film—framed and signed by Walt Disney himself. “It’s one of my favorite pieces because it’s iconic: Cinderella in the ball gown. If you see the movie, there are only a couple of minutes when she’s in the gown… And this is an original—very rare. All of these are originals.”

Growing Up Disney
Like most of his fellow Baby Boomers, Steve Spain, long-time owner of The Costume Trunk, grew up on Disney. “When I was a kid and a Disney movie came out, it was a big deal—it was like the circus coming to town. If you missed it, it would be seven years [before you could see it again],” he recalls. “There was no Blu-ray, Hulu or anything like that—you had to catch it then. You’d get dressed up and go to these downtown movie palaces… It was a whole different time.”

While a student at Illinois State University in the mid-‘70s, Spain apprenticed for a local theater projectionist, working in many of Peoria’s historic, now-defunct theaters: the Rialto, the Varsity, the Beverly, the Fox. “I’m watching these [Disney] movies over and over, thinking, ‘Gee, this is really beautiful work… Any of these frames would make a nice painting to hang on the wall. I didn’t really know how animation worked at the time... but I began to pay attention to the credits at the end of these films.

“Fast forward another 10 years,” he continues. “I’m at the Peoria Public Library… and saw this big coffee-table book called Treasures of Disney Animation Art… I’m looking through the book, and in the back it says: ‘sources for original Disney art.’ I thought, ‘You can buy this stuff?’… I was curious.”

After placing a few calls, Spain hit it off with Stu Reisbord, a Pennsylvania-based dealer and owner of one of the world’s largest collections of animation art. “He would send me a package with Xeroxes and Polaroids of pieces I might be interested in… It was right before the market started to heat up, so I was able to get in pretty early and buy some neat pieces that I probably couldn’t afford today. That’s how I got into it.”

The Value of Detail
In the early days, no one at Disney anticipated those pieces would someday be worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars on the collectors’ market. “These cels were meant to last two weeks at the most,” says Spain. After the image was captured and the film complete, most of the animation cels, storyboards and concept art were thrown out or destroyed; what did survive was presented to VIPs, or taken home by employees as mementos. But over time, this work has gained great value, not only for its scarcity, but also for its consistently high quality.

“Walt used to say, ‘We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies,’” Spain notes. “He was very invested in his art form, but he was also very down-to-earth. He said, ‘I don’t know whether this is art or not—I leave that for the critics.’ He wanted to make films for families to enjoy. And if that was mainstream, if that was corny, then so be it.”

A walking encyclopedia of Disney lore, Spain can affirm the legendary animator’s meticulous attention to detail via any number of anecdotes. Unhappy with the original renderings of Snow White, he says, Walt pressed his Ink and Paint Department until it began to painstakingly apply real make-up to the cels, adding realistic color to her cheeks. You can still see a light dusting of rouge in Spain’s own collection, in an original scene from Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Citing another example, he describes the composition of a scene from Cinderella, which also hangs on his wall. “It’s when the royal servant is delivering messages to the ball. There are three layers of cels over this background—the character himself on one layer, and another with the door, which is about to open. The third cel is just the door handle, which moves down a bit when the door opens.

“Not one person in a hundred would notice that—or they could have made a round doorknob and no one would have noticed any motion. But Walt Disney knew that that’s how it would have been done correctly—the door handle would move. Even though it’s only on the screen for a second, the richness of the film is dependent on these things.”

All Things Must Pass
To ask Spain for his favorite Disney film is akin to asking a parent to select a favorite child. “I like the music and the story of Cinderella. The artwork in Pinocchio… a lot of animation experts think Pinocchio is really Walt’s masterpiece. It was the only film in which he had a virtually unlimited budget, because of the success of Snow White. But they’re all good,” he declares.

Spain’s collection of Disney art spans the studio’s “golden age”—roughly, the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s—during which it cranked out classic after classic, from Snow White (1937) and Bambi (1942) to Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), Disney’s last hand-inked film. “Sleeping Beauty was Walt’s final, classic fairy tale,” Spain says, pointing to another scene from his collection. “Technically, the film is superb: the artwork, the ink lines on the cels, all the details, the special effects… it was a spectacular film visually, but never came close to breaking even, so it was kind of a last hurrah.”

After the box office disappointment of Sleeping Beauty, the future of Disney’s animation department was uncertain; there was even talk of shutting it down, as the animation process had become so expensive. But the development of a new technique—the use of Xerox photography to transfer drawings directly to the animation cels, thus eliminating the step of hand-inking—saved a great deal of time and money, and Disney’s next animated feature, 101 Dalmations (1961), took full advantage of it… for better and worse. Though it reportedly cut the cost of animation in half, the difference in quality was apparent, and Walt Disney himself was unhappy with the film’s artistic look. By then, however, the golden age of Disney animation had come to a close, as the studio diversified into television, theme parks and other ventures, and Walt grew less involved in the films. He would succumb to lung cancer just five years later.

Faith in the Vision
Walking into a room full of these beloved characters in various stages of development is a fascinating experience, especially when accompanied by someone as informed as Spain. “I think I’ve read every biography there is on Walt Disney,” he says. “His rags-to-riches story, to me, is as interesting as Cinderella itself—he literally had nothing. He was a great storyteller—that was his real strength. He was an untrained artist… His standards were higher than his own abilities. But he was able to get the very best artists and train them in animation.”

And Spain can tell you about each of them, by name, at length. During its golden age, Disney’s core team of animators was famously known as the “Nine Old Men,” and Spain was able to meet four of the nine before they passed on. “So even though I never met Walt Disney,” he says, “talking with several guys who worked with him for 30-plus years was pretty cool.”

Over the years, exhibitions of Disney art have been well-received across the country, and someday, Spain hopes to share his own collection with the general public. It promises a unique look into the inner workings of this cultural giant, whose legacy casts a towering shadow across the cultural landscape of the last century. And has there ever been a contemporary figure with more universal appeal?

And yet, the magic of Walt Disney might never have come to light had the man himself not held so tightly to his artistic vision, despite being publicly mocked for it. Spain points to an easel containing an original, framed scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “This was Walt’s first feature. He mortgaged everything—the studio, his home, his car, life insurance—everything on this one film. If it had flopped, we’d have never heard of Walt Disney.” a&s