Disney’s Animation Research Library: Peek into the Disney Vaults

The Disney vaults are something of legend. A legend himself, Ray Bradbury (author of Fahrenheit 451), echoed our ongoing fascination with the vaults, even back when Walt Disney was around:  After consulting for Walt Disney on various projects, ultimately helping to design the iconic Spaceship Earth sphere of Epcot, Walt asked Bradbury how he could repay him. Ray’s response? “Open up your vaults!”

Today, the “Disney vaults” are known as the Animation Research Library or ARL. Located… somewhere we can’t reveal, they are a place of wonder and magic captured in a historical bottle. Easily the highlight of my time with the Disney Company, I reveled in the opportunity to visit the Animation Research Library recently in celebration of the rerelease of The Little Mermaid on DVD and (for the first time) BluRay.

Ready to take a peek into part of their world?

(sound of bubbles as we dive under the sea to the archives… though not really because, wow, are they serious about not getting their stuff wet…)


  • Welcome to the vaults of Walt Disney Animation Studios 1 of 15

    The Animation Research Library is a repository with just about all the animation art that Disney has created, including shorts and features from the 1920s all the way to current film. They currently preserve approximately 64- 65 million pieces of artwork from those productions.

  • Cinderella storyboard in the hallway of the ARL 2 of 15

    Concept art, story sketches and animation drawings.  Layout drawings, background paintings.  Anything that went into the production of the shows and features. The Animation Research Library celebrates the history of Disney animation by preserving the artwork as best as possible, ensuring that future generations of artists and company personnel can always refer to it.


    photo credit Disney

  • A digital blindfold to protect and preserve 3 of 15

    As mentioned, the location of the ARL is kept confidential, therefore our press group needed to deactivate geolocation features for all photos and devices and were only permitted to take photos in the lobby, as you see here. All photos in this piece of the vaults and work spaces themselves are courtesy of Disney.


    No checking in on Foursquare. No tagging photos on Instagram. A nondescript building, there are virtually no clues as to the treasures behind the plain exterior of the Vault. The point? Protection and preservation.

  • The ARL is designed to inspire future generations of animators 4 of 15

    Fox Carney, Manager of Research at the ARL, described the role of the library in both preservation and inspiration,

    "Our job is to take care of it as best as possible, but still keep it accessible to people within the Walt Disney common. It makes no sense if you just put it in boxes and store them in a mine somewhere, where nobody can get access. So we are constantly trying to balance that equation. We've established museum quality handling standards to better preserve the art, and we've conquered that, we're actually digitizing major portions of the [collection] so that we can maintain that accessibility."  

  • Inspiration fills the ARL lobby 5 of 15

    The reading rooms directly off of the lobby are full of not only plentiful space to spread out for a bit of brainstorming, but also books detailing generations of animators and wide-ranging animation styles. An old drafting table here (complete with quirky gouges in the wood of bits of faces and quotes), vintage porcelain Disney characters there, the reading rooms are full of inspiration.

  • ARL Image Capture Room 6 of 15

    Our first stop beyond the lobby was the Image Capture Room. Behind the image review station you see above were three or four curtained spaces holding large format field cameras used for capturing incredibly detailed images for archival purposes.


    As described by our Image Capture Room guide, "These cameras are giants in terms of resolution.  It's 240 mega pixels per file. Right now your iPhone is about 5, just to give you an idea of the difference. One of the reasons for that is because we can capture the color channels independently of each other. We'll tend to shoot a lot of our visual development and a lot of our story sketches on these guys."


    Unfortunately, "it takes about two minutes to take a picture. So, um, we have sixty-five million pieces of art. It's constantly growing. This isn't necessarily the best camera if we wanted to photograph a lot of art. But it's really nice if artwork is really, really old and it's starting to disintegrate."


    "And even though all the artwork in the building is related to animated features, a lot of times we talk about animation artwork.  It's the actual pencil on paper drawings that are sequential, when flipped the motion is created. So we use instant capture cameras that are only 60 mega pixels, which is a little bit of humor.  Because 60 mega pixels is still a gigantic image file. And so on these cameras on a good day you could capture over a thousand images on these cameras, which might just be three boxes of artwork."


    "We've been going full speed in this room for over three and a half years now. In that time we've captured over 800,000 images in here."


    Now back to the image above:


    "When you do anything 800,000 times, no matter how good you think you are, you're probably going to make a mistake or two.  So that's why we always have quality control staff before the images get archived digitally."


    The quality control staff will look at every single image to check for discrepancies or mistakes, as you see above. Every single image. The result is unparalleled archival preservation.


    The image above illustrates a quick scroll through a series of sketches from a scene in The Little Mermaid where Ariel is in the grotto and the animators were testing how her hair could fall around her shoulders as she sank to the floor in thought.


    photo credit Disney

  • Design Department of the ARL 7 of 15

    Moving from the Image Capture Room, we entered the Design Department, described by Tamara,


    "We get to be the messy fun side of the building.  You'll see the other side of the building is going to be very nice and precise, because they keep a lot of the original artwork. We get a chance to put our hands on a lot of different projects over a lot of different business units, which is very exciting. We have an opportunity not only to work with our own division, Feature Animation, to do theme park displays and things to help promote our upcoming films, but we also have an opportunity to do book projects with Disney Publishing.


    "We get to work on theme park projects with Imagineering, we've done projects that are interactive and online and I mean, you name it.  And it's very fun, 'cause we have an opportunity to see sort of what's going on in the entire company. How our assets get used to help generate profit and excitement for films and products."


     photo credit Disney

  • ARL Design Department exhibits 8 of 15

    The walls of the Design Department were covered in bits and pieces from both ongoing projects and traveling original artwork periodically out on loan to various museums. In the middle of the room was a mockup of an exhibit curated by the Design Department that is traveling around called "Dreams Come True." It opened in the New Orleans Museum of Art shortly after Hurricane Katrina, celebrating Princess and the Frog and centered around fairy tales.


    An active project they were working on the day we were there was "a project with our friends at Disney Character Voices who have a long hallway by their recording studio when the talent comes in. They like to get their autographs." To aid in this project, the Design Department was curating favorite images of Disney characters to match with their voice talent's head-shots, later to be signed for display.


    photo credit Disney

  • Vault 3: Where history begins 9 of 15

    Disney's Animation Research Library has 11 vaults, of which we now enter Vault 3. Doug Engalla greeted us with white gloves and a warmth cultivated by more than two decades with Disney and not diminished one bit by the cool environment of the temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults.


    "In this Vault is the Features Vault. This begins with holding 40 years worth of Animation Art History starting with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to the many adventures of "Winnie the Pooh." It's really kind of a special Vault because most of the Feature Films that were under Walt's supervision are housed in this Vault. With 60 to 65 million pieces of Art, it's a pretty heady responsibility.


    "9 of the Vaults are maintained for our Flat Art. When a Production is completed, the Art work is shipped over in boxes usually. We then have a team of Collection Specialists, who unpack everything. They will start to sort the whole Film out, from all their elements, from Visual Development Art, to Story Sketches, Background Paintings, Layout Drawings, which are the precursor to the Background Paintings. It is unpacked [and moved] into acid-free materials."


    Where history begins


    "And what's really interesting is we've had Animators come and visit us after they've--  And they've take a look at some of the Art of their own Movies. But we've asked them to put on gloves. And they're a little weirded out by that. 'Why? This was at my desk. I had a Coffee over here. I had a Pizza over there.'  


    "And some of the old Art pieces of Art used to have Coffee rings on it. Well they still do. They have Coffee rings on them and you know, there's even some pieces of Art I've noticed from the old days in which an Artist actually wrote a note to one of the woman in the Ink and Paint Department and gave them their number."



    "The Animators are taken aback at the idea of wearing gloves and we tell them, when you're working with it out there at the Studio, it's Production Art.  When it comes to the doors of this building, they all become history."


    photo credit Disney

  • Vault 5: Maquettes 10 of 15

    Vault 5 was my favorite room at the Animation Research Library: the maquettes room. This was the only time during our visit that I thought I might lose my composure and more than just tear up. Even reviewing the transcriptions now, I get chills.


    The Manager of Research describes maquettes and (as you see above) the background paintings on planes of glass stored in the vault, 


    "Here we house maquettes, which are studying models of the various characters that the animation teams would use to keep their characters on model. We also house much of what the company possesses of multi-pane glass plates [for use with the] multi-plane camera. And we also house most, if not all, of what the studio possesses of A Nightmare Before Christmas puppets."


    Maquettes are small scale models, sometimes painted, sometimes not, that are 3D versions of the animated characters you eventually see on screen. He goes on to show us one set of maquettes, in particular,


    "These are from Fantasia which was released in 1940.  These are sculptures of the interstitial orchestra members.  And we only got these about eight or nine years ago.


    "They were in homemade plywood cabinets that were built in the basement of the old animation building. And probably about nine years ago somebody was given the job of cleaning out the cabinets because we didn't want stuff just gathering and getting in the way. They found these sculptures along with a lot of other stuff. And we don't have an exact knowledge of what they are but we do believe that these were used for camera lighting and shadow tests for the interstitial orchestra set."


    How are maquettes used?

    "So it was a lot cheaper to have somebody [sculpt] and carve these sculptures and paintings than to hire a bunch of people to sit around with full-size instrument on a full-size soundstage and a full-size camera lighting equipment and a full-size crew to maintain. So here is somebody would say, 'Hey, let's put the heart next to the [INAUDIBLE] and see what the shadows look like..." They could just move a model and see what those shadows look like. It's a way of pre-visualizing what would be an expensive live-action shot."

    It was at this point that I spotted the maquettes from Meet the Robinsons and honestly did get choked up a little. I wish I had photos to show you because it was a glimpse of magic.

    What is in that drawer in the photo?

    "Another event probably about 13, 14 years ago we'd gotten calls from a couple different departments in the studio archives and I think even the draperies department, if you can believe it.  They said, 'We have these cabinets or crates of wood and they've got these paintings on glass.  Is this something you want?'  We go, yes, because they're actually the last paintings that were used in the levels of the multi-plane camera.

    "So we had somebody from the LA County Museum of Art spend about a year part time making sure that the dust was off, things like that. We took them out of those cabinets and put them into these specially designed and made cabinets so that each pane of glass could be in its own shelf.  So this is almost the embodiment of our mission statement.  We're preserving it better so that you don't even have to touch it to look at it."

    (motions to the glass pane you see above) "This is from Bambi.  This is the first shot from the spring sequence [with the bluebird in the bath]. 

    "The camera would be on this very large frame and it was filmed through all these paintings on glass so that you could paint certain areas and you could see through the clear areas to see the levels beneath.  And then you could shoot it frame by frame by frame and with each level independently so that it felt like you were walking through space in a two-dimensional medium.  So it was one of the major breakthroughs that really gave Disney animation a kind of a leg up on a lot of other animation."

    photo credit Disney

  • Meet ARL Creative Director Lella Smith 11 of 15

    Our final stop was with Disney's Animation Research Library Creative Director, Lella Smith. Spread out on a table in front of her were remarkable pieces of concept art for The Little Mermaid. With the re-release of the Disney classic on DVD and BluRay, including never before seen bonus features, this is why we came.



  • The Little Mermaid Ariel concept art 12 of 15

    Lella points us to the concept art above, 


    "We have early concept [art] of Ariel. Don't you like that blonde one? Wasn't that beautiful. [An animator] tells an interesting story about animating Ariel's hair. That was before we were using computers like we did Tangled to animate Rapunzel's hair. And he was afraid it was gonna be an amazingly difficult project until he saw on television one of the female astronauts talking and she was up in the air and her hair was kind of floating and that's when he came across the idea of having Ariel's hair be more a body than individual strands."


    photo credit Disney 

  • The Little Mermaid backgrounds 13 of 15




    photo credit Disney

  • The Little Mermaid concept art 14 of 15




    photo credit Disney

  • Walt and the art of preservation 15 of 15

    Fox Carney, Manager of Research at the ARL, tips his hat to Walt with this final appreciation,


    "For a long time this department was known as the morgue and was housed in the basement of the old Ink and Paint Department. But it wasn't where art went to die.  


    "I think Walt, being an artist first, saw the value of retaining the artwork so that future generations of artists can always refer to that.  And that's what [the ARL] repository is for, for that artwork. And people will come to reference it either for problem solving:


    "How do they make those characters move that way? Or maybe just pure inspiration. 'Wow, look at what they've done.' Some artists are a little bit tentative, or they'll say, 'How could I ever do something like that?'  But what they don't realize is, they are creating artwork just as good as the classics.

    "So it was always [that] this repository was something that the company could go back to the wellspring of their knowledge.  Even Walt, back in the ‘50s, said, 'This is the sum total of our of our experiments.'  And we're always building upon it."



• • •

Experience the magic that is The Little Mermaid all over again or introduce it to your family for the first time now with its release from the vault as a Diamond Edition!

Thank you to Disney for providing travel and accommodations for The Little Mermaid press trip. 

• • •

Read more of Megan’s writing at VelveteenMind.com
Follow her finding her voice on twitter and Facebook

More of Megan on Threadbare Theory:

What Walt Knew: Meet the Spirit and Craft Behind The Little Mermaid
Jodi Benson on Finding Ariel’s Voice
How I Found My Goofy Voice as a Mom

Disney Hangover: How to Cure Post-Vacation Blues

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