About Disney

DISNEY ANIMATION ART - From Cartoon to Fine Art

 Walt Disney's Unique American Art Form

From the moment he arrived in Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923, Walt Disney was the supreme innovator in animated films.  In 1928, together with pioneer animator Ub Iwerks, he made Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon to synchronize a sound track with the action and characters on screen.  It also created two new stars -- Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

In 1932, Disney's first full-color Silly Symphony, Flowers and Trees, won the very first Academy Award given for a cartoon.  By the mid 1930's, Mickey Mouse and the feisty Donald Duck were American icons, familiar to audiences in almost every country in the world.  Disney films thrilled millions of children and brought countless adults in touch with the feelings of childhood again.

At the crowded Disney studio on Hyperion Avenue in Hollywood, animators and hundreds of supporting artists, working elbow to elbow, literally reinvented animated filmmaking day by day and rewrote the vocabulary that defined it.  At the center of every creative decision was Walt Disney himself.  One of his major contributions to cartoons was his insistence that characters must have feelings and personalities with which the audience could identify.  Often at a story conference, to show the animators what he had in mind for the characters, Walt Disney personally acted out each role.

It was the job of the animators and artists to bring these characters to life.  Flickering through the projector at the rate of 24 frames per second, an animated film requires thousands of individual images.  Each one of these images had to be sketched, and in the early days, hand-inked and painted on clear celluloid panels, then positioned against a background and photographed.  Disney animators became superb draftsmen and as animation became more sophisticated and lifelike, the medium itself developed into a truly unique art form.

 A New Era of Animated Features

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length feature animation film, was released in December, 1937 and promptly became the hit of 1938.  It was scarcely nine years since Mickey Mouse had squeaked out his first lines on the screen, yet the full-color Snow White was light years beyond Steamboat Willie.

Feature films seemed to tumble out of the Disney shop.  In 1940, the year the staff moved to the present site of the Disney studios in Burbank, Pinocchio appeared and the Fantasia.  Dumbo followed in 1941 and Bambi in 1942.

By 1965, Disney had produced 19 animated features, each more technically advanced than the last.  The Jungle Book was the last feature to bear the personal touch of Walt Disney, who died in 1966.  But production of feature films went on, and in 1993, Aladdin set the record as the highest grossing animated film ever.

 Treasuring the Animator's Art

These cartoons are an American legacy.  Their characters still move, talk, sing, dance and emote on film, just as their talented masters created them.  But what is increasingly prized by connoisseurs and collectors is the individual image, the fleeting twenty-fourth part of a second, drawn by the animator and preserved on a "cel," a transparent sheet of celluloid about the size of a coffee-table art book.  Here the character, inked in outline, painted by hand in vivid color and frozen in an expressive moment of action, reveals the true art of the animator.

Most of the cels from the earliest films, made of flammable cellulose nitrate, have long since vanished -- either destroyed, given away, disintegrated or simply wiped clean and reused to save the cost of new sheets.  After 1940, cels were created on the more durable cellulose acetate.  Today the few remaining cels from the early Disney films command high prices in the animation art markets.  For example, a cel and background from the 1934 Disney cartoon, Orphan's Benefit, starring Donald Duck, was sold for a record auction price of $286,000.

Disney Art Editions was established in 1973 to manage the sales of this collectible art form to the public.  Disney animation artwork is now available in a variety of forms:

PRODUCTION CELS -- Original production cels are colorful paintings on acetate, created by studio artists, then photographed and actually used in a film or television program action sequence.  Disney Art Editions offers these one-of-a-kind cels taken from more recent feature films and television programs.

HAND-INKED-LINE LIMITED-EDITION CELS -- Since few production cels from earlier animated features and shorts exist, Disney recreates cels of the most classic moments in limited editions.
Hand-inked-line cels are made using traditional animation techniques, exactly as the production cels were originally made for so many classic Disney films.  This includes tracing an animation drawing onto acetate by hand with different color inks and hand-painting it with gum or acrylic-based colors formulated exclusively in Disney laboratories.  The work is done by a small cadre of Disney artists who have kept this almost forgotten art alive.  Some hand-inked-line cels are also combined with backgrounds.

XEROGRAPHIC-LINE LIMITED-EDITION CELS -- Xerographic-line cels, instead of being hand-inked, are created by transferring the original animation drawing to the acetate cels by a special six-step xerographic process, a refinement pioneered by Walt Disney Studios in the late 1950s.  101 Dalmatians was the first feature film to be created entirely with this revolutionary process.  Many of the cels are then enhanced with hand-inked lines before being hand-painted with Disney colors and combined with a lithographic background.

SERIGRAPH CELS -- Serigraph cels, or sericels, recreate images of Disney's famed cast of characters.  To produce a sericel, Disney artists create a hand-inked, hand-colored painting or model of Disney characters, which is then transferred to acetate cel by a silk-screen printing process known as serigraphy.

 The Art of Animation

When Walt Disney introduced Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie in 1928, Walt had the ideas and animator Ub Iwerks turned them into finished pencil drawings.  But as Walt pushed to make cartoon films more sophisticated and lifelike, the animation process rapidly came to require teams of highly skilled specialists.

The first step now, as it was in the beginning, is to decide on a story and a plot.  A writer then develops the script, which is translated by story sketch artists into a "storyboard", a sort of long comic strip with the action depicted in thousands of pencil sketches matched with the dialogue.  The storyboard is mounted on a wall and the film's director, animators, layout artists, background artists and composers meet to discuss any necessary revisions.

The director is charged with bringing all the elements together -- story, animation, dialogue, color, sound and music.  While the music department carefully "times out" the action and a dialogue track is recorded, an animator studies the development of each character in the film and then produces model sheets with drawings of just how the character should look in different attitudes.  Once approved, these model sheets are used as reference by all the artists involved in the animation process to insure that characters are drawn consistently.

Original "concept" paintings in full color demonstrate even more completely how characters will appear against specific backgrounds and the mood of each scene.  The layout department sketches out each scene, matching the action and position of the characters to the background.  Using these as guides, background artists paint the backgrounds, usually in opaque watercolor.

The task of animating the characters is divided among several groups.  The animator makes rough pencil drawings of the key animation, which usually amounts to what are the "extremes" of the actions or movements.  An assistant then draws "breakdowns," which may be one or several key drawings to bridge the extremes.  Then an "inbetweener" fills in the remaining drawings, adding the slight incremental movements to complete the action.

After the animated drawing are checked to see if the action flows properly, the drawings are then "cleaned up" -- that is , re-drawn in pencil -- and transferred to transparent cels.  In earlier days, this transfer was done by inkers who traced each drawing onto the cel.  Since the early 1960's, the lines have been copied by a laborious xerographic process which was perfected by Disney, working together with the Xerox corporation.  This technique produces an image that is more faithful to the original drawing than is tracing done by hand.  After the lines have been transferred, painters add color by hand on the back side of the cel, using special Disney gum or vinyl acrylic paints.

The camera department photographs the cels against the background, adding special effects such as dissolves, pans and zooms.  As many as seven cells may be photographed against a background at once to make a single frame.  Then the soundtrack is added and the film undergoes editing.

Animation has come a long way from the hand-drawn cartoons of the 1920s and 30s.  Although each technical advance along the way has saved tie and expense by replacing the work of individual craftsmen, it has maintained the high quality of Disney films while opening the way for the use of more special effects.  Nevertheless, nothing has yet replaced the imagination of the artist required to conceive and develop characters and plot in an animated film that can still make audiences laugh and cry -- and rejoice in a happy ending.


CEL - An outline, or drawing, of a character and sometimes certain special effects, either hand-inked or xerographically transferred onto a clear sheet of cellulose acetate.  The image is then painted on the back side of the sheet.  Cels are mostly in two standard sizes: a 12-field, about 12 x 10 inches; or 16 field, approximately 16 x 12 inches.

BACKGROUND - A painting of a scene to be used as a background for the animated action.  Thousands of cels may be photographed over a single background to create one scene in an animated film.  A production background is one actually used in a film.
CEL SET-UP - One or more cels overlaid on a background.

ANIMATION DRAWING - A pencil drawing on animation paper, created by the animator and used as the basis for an image on a cel.

STORYBOARD DRAWING - A drawing or story sketch made for the storyboard, which conveys visually the original plot and action.  The storyboard serves as a preliminary guide for those working on the film.

PUBLICITY CEL - A cel not actually used in a film, but created instead solely for publicity or promotional purposes.

LIMITED-EDITION CEL - A cel created specifically for the collector market in a pre-determined quantity.

MODEL SHEETS - Drawings of a grouping of characters or a single character in a variety of attitudes and expressions, created as a reference guide for animators.

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