There’s a unmarked, modest building in the vicinity of Disney’s Los Angeles studios that doesn’t look like much from the outside. Yet, behind its doors lie temperature-controlled vaults housing a treasure trove of animation history. It isn’t accessible to the public, but for creatives who work at the Walt Disney Company, this is a resource unlike any other— a place to learn about, and be inspired by, some of the most iconic animation ever made. It’s all gathered in the single largest animation collection in the world: 65 million pieces of art, from the first pre-Mickey sketches to Moana. And I got to go inside – me, someone who doesn’t work at Disney.
In June this year, I went to LA to visit the Walt Disney Studios and talk to those who work with Mickey Mouse on a regular basis. Anything that went into the production of a Disney animated movie or short film, cartoon or skit — concept art, story sketches, layout drawings, background paintings — from the 1920s to more recent times can be found inside the Disney Animation Research Library. “This was originally known as the morgue,” Fox Carney, who manages it, told us. “But not in the sense that it was a place where things went to die. It was rather a place where they kept materials that were used but still useable. Like reporters who keep ‘morgue files’ when they’re working on stories. This is a place artists could go back to over and over for reference.”
It’s a repository for the entire output of the company. Well, for everything that was saved, that is. Walt Disney was known for sometimes giving away drawings to celebrities and VIP guests if he felt like it.
The building houses 11 individual vaults that each hold archived collections. Vault 3 is known as Walt’s Vault, as it holds films and materials that Disney personally worked on in his lifetime, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. Inside another, dozens of maquettes, or small sculptures of Disney figures, are housed, such as the Mickey and Minnie maquettes from the 2013 Oscar-nominated short Get A Horse!
The early beginnings of Mickey Mouse form a large part of the library’s legacy. Carney pulled out a pair of white gloves from his pocket before showing us the original artwork Disney’s creative partner Ub Iwerks created of Steamboat Willie. “In the old days, artists would go to the morgue, which used to be housed in the Ink & Paint Building in the Walt Disney Studios, take a sketch, sign it out and take it back to their cubicle to study. Over time, this is how the artwork could become damaged,” Carney said. “So the library is a way to protect the materials but still make them accessible to those who need them.”
It’s run like a museum, Carney explained, as he showed us drawings made by some of the legendary Mickey Mouse animators, from Freddie Moore to Les Clark who created the Sorcerer’s Apprentice look in Fantasia. Nine years ago, the library began digitizing major parts of its collection, to help its preservation efforts. This means the art is handled less frequently, but still available to anyone who needs it. So far they’ve digitized about 1.2 million pieces that are now available to Disney Imagineers and artists for research via their inter-office digital archival computer system.
It’s one thing to see the digital art, it’s another to see the physical art that someone worked on years ago. You can see the context in which the piece was created. Little notes in the margins made by the animators and extra details left behind are hints as to what the artist was thinking at the time of drawing. These are clues that can help animators today.
It’s been nine decades since Walt Disney brought Mickey Mouse to life on a cross-country train ride from New York to Los Angeles. Talk to those who work with Mickey Mouse on a daily basis and they’ll tell you that its essence that keeps him appealing. The adorable, friendly little mouse that got his start on film and became a star of TV, print and merchandising seemingly never falls out of favour with his fans.
Although the idea of Mickey Mouse was thought of on a train ride that Disney took back after a disappointing meeting with his distributor in early 1928, in which he’d lost the rights to another of his creations (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), it wasn’t until November 18, 1928 when he was officially unveiled to the the world. The debut of Steamboat Willie changed entertainment history forever – introducing synchronized sound to Disney cartoons, as well as a lovable little mouse with a can-do attitude.
More than just cute and entertaining, Mickey Mouse as a movie star went on to receive critical acclaim. Before his death in 1966, Disney collected 25 Oscars— including a specialaward for creating Mickey Mouse. He won a final posthumous honor in 1968, bringing his total count to 26 Oscar statuettes, making him the most celebrated Oscar winner of all time.
Disney’s admiration of another silver screen star, Charlie Chaplin, can be seen in Mickey. Rebecca Cline, who runs the Walt Disney Archives, believes that has a lot to do with his endearing appeal. “There was a lot of mutual admiration. Walt used to dress up as Chaplin and imitate him, and that same kind of attitude behind Chaplin – he would get knocked down but he would still get back up – is what would drive Walt. That appeals to anyone of anyone age.”
Mickey has gone on to far surpass his cartoon form, becoming a powerhouse that never goes out of style. If Mickey doesn’t change, then neither does his right-hand gal, Minnie. His anniversary is just as much her’s too. Recognition for Minnie may have lagged behind, but in January this year, she finally got her star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.
For the next 90 days, until February, an exhibition in New York brings together the elements of Mickey’s legacy, with a contemporary spin on what he means to artists today (or in recent history). One of my favourite pieces is the Keith Haring, who liked drawing Mickey when he was younger, and London Kaye, who makes art out of yarn on objects outside, like water pipes and gates.
If you’re in New York or visiting before February, you’ll be able to see Mickey: A True Original in the Meatpacking District.