On my visit to Disney Studios last month, our guides took us to the Disney Animation Research Library. This sits at a secret location not too far from the rest of the studios, but we were asked not to tweet from or check in at the location on our phones for fear of revealing its coordinates by geotags. We also weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the place, but fortunately Disney’s photographer—Kayvon Esmali, who’d followed us around for most of the trip—handled that duty for us and did a fantastic job at it.
Research manager Fox Carney gave my group the guided tour of the place. We started out in the cataloging area, in which they had dozens of bits of artwork from Peter Pan on display for us, in celebration of the upcoming release of The Pirate Fairy, the latest in Disney’s line of Tinkerbell-centric prequels to the classic film. This included all sorts of fantastic pieces, included concept sketches of Captain Hook and all the rest of the pirates.
My favorite of the lot, though, had to be the painting of Neverland used in the actual film. I couldn’t take a photo of it—and Disney didn’t supply one—so you’ll have to take my word for it. It was gorgeous, and the detail in it was stunning.
The people in the research library take great care with their work. It requires an exacting amount of attention to detail, and they wear white gloves at all times to prevent any oils from their hands transferring to the pieces they’re working with. They denied any rumors that this was some kind of tribute to the gloves worn by Mickey Mouse.
Much of the librarians’ work these days involves preparing the artwork they have for digitization. They tag each image with details that make it easy to identify in later searches, and they send it on to another part of the building, in which technicians use gigantic digital cameras mounted over tables to take high-resolution photographs of each item. The files are then placed in a massive digital database that Disney employees can search through to find the pieces they want.
Once that’s done, the pieces are brought into a climate-controlled vault for storage. If a Disney exec wants to see an original they found on the database, they can order it to be brought to them, but most of the pieces spend their lives in these amazing file cabinets. The cabinets are mounted on rails embedded into the floor, and they can be moved back and forth to form a single aisle among them by cranking the handles on their faces.
The Animation Lab doesn’t just archive materials though. They also help design displays of the materials they curate. This ranges from museum galleries to the installations in each of the Disney Studio offices—some of which is coordinated by my pal Joe Dunn, formerly of WildStorm Productions. This part of the building featured all sorts of design prototypes, plus designer Patrick White’s incredible collection of scores of custom-painted guitars.
Disney has a strong sense of its own place in history and the importance of preserving its creations and hard-won knowledge not only for its own people, but for generations of fans. They put a humbling amount of effort into putting that philosophy into action.