Disney Animation Research Library

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Interview with Mary Ann Williams, Digital Archivist, Disney Animation Research Library (ARL)

Photo reprinted with permission of author.

About Mary Ann Williams

Mary Ann received her Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan School of Information in 2007. Her focus was split between traditional library science, archives, records management, and human computer interaction. 

"While studying in Ann Arbor I realized that I could work in the entertainment industry with my information skills, so I focused heavily on improving my skills in technology both in coursework and also in my work with real-world clients. The School of Information has a heavy client-based component to the curriculum. One of those potential employers was Disney Online, which is part of the Disney Interactive Media Group.  After graduation I was relocated to Los Angeles and spent about one year as the Digital Archivist for Disney Online.  I then transferred to the Animation Research Library where I remain today. "

Describe Your Job at the Disney Animation Research Library (ARL)

Mary Ann is the Digital Archivist for the Disney ARL, and her work has two components. She partners with other ARL staff to improve process workflows, provide education on proprietary tools, and provide support with digital assets on a variety of projects. 

Her other role is to work with the production and technology staff at the Walt Disney Animation Studios (http://www.disneyanimation.com). At the start of each film’s production cycle she is tasked with providing guidelines for preparing digital art assets for archiving after the film’s release. She also works heavily with the engineers to solve complex metadata problems that eventually are built into the proprietary software tools used by production of the Disney movies.

What Is the Role Of the Disney ARL within the Larger Disney Company?

The ARL is the primary repository for Disney animation artwork, providing Disney employees with access to these animation assets. 

"The Walt Disney Animation Studios production staff will often spend a lot of time in the early stages of making a new film by conducting research. Sometimes they want to know how a previous film handled the creation of certain characters, environments, or effects. Disney staff can access the artwork either throughout online  art catalogue or by making an appointment with an ARL staff member who will help them access art from the collection."

The ARL also provides similar services to other parts of the Disney company:

"For example, someone from Disney Consumer Products may come to view original artwork of a particular character to put on merchandise that will be sold in Disney stores. Or someone from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment may request a series of film sequences that were edited out of the final film and those will be included on the DVD release to the public."

In addition to providing research and art services to the Disney company, the ARL is also an active member of the museum community. It's artwork often travels to museums and galleries around the world.

Sometimes the artwork is featured in an exclusively Disney-curated show, such as the Dreams Come True exhibit currently on display in Seoul, Korea or artwork may be included in a larger exhibit, like Tim Burton's retrospective which is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The ARL also provides reproduction art in special galleries at the theme parks to highlight upcoming film releases.

Describe The Disney Animation Research Library, Its Staff And Collection.

Around two-dozen employees and staff serve the multiple libraries within the Disney corporation. Together they are like a collection of special libraries, but each services a specific population and provides different resources depending on the part of the company. Where animation art is concerned, the ARL is the only archive for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

"The ARL’s collection is truly one of the best collections I have worked with. It is my understanding that we house one of the most complete legacy collections out of all the large animation studios."

One common misconception is that the ARL houses primarily animation cells. While there are some cells in the collection, the majority of the collection is paper-based.  This includes animation drawings, pencil story sketches and concept art pieces such as paintings, pastel drawings, watercolors, and sculptures called maquettes. 

Some of the artists within the ARL's collection include Mary Blair, Salvador Dali, and the famous Nine Old Men of the Walt Disney era. Also in the collection are both produced and un-produced (sometimes called “shelved films”) shorts and feature films dating back to the Alice Comedies, which was Walt’s first foray into filmmaking. 

The most famous early film held within the collection is the early Mickey Mouse short named Steamboat Willie, by artist Ub Iwerks. This was one of the first animated cartoons to synchronize sound with image. 

What Other Types Of Resources Or Technology (Besides Pixie Dust) Do You Use In The Disney ARL?

"We do love our pixie dust! But due to the nature of making animated films we also need to leverage stronger technology. This can be seen through the ARL's work with the Walt Disney Animation Studios technology team and engineers, who will often build their own software tools which the ARL staff can leverage for our projects."

Through the course of creating a movie, Mary Ann might work with production and engineering staff to create a tool to better allow the tagging of the artwork used in the film.  Having a more robust tagging system of the artwork means ease of identification, reduction of potential duplications, plus it saves countless hours of manual data entry for the ARL staff.

Is the Disney Animation Research Library open to the Public?

The ARL primarily serves the internal Disney staff, but has worked with some notable non-Disney researchers and authors in the past with relation to the library's collection. Among these have been Charles Solomon, who published a book featuring artwork from unproduced Disney shorts and feature films called Disney Lost and Found. As well as the French author Pierre Lambert who researched at the ARL on multiple books about iconic movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Share one of the Most Challenging Requests You've Ever Gotten

"This is a tough question!  Many of our requests can be quite challenging, but one of the more odd questions in recent history was for artwork featuring eyelashes-made by production staff while working on The Princess and the Frog. I suppose they wanted to make Tiana’s eyelashes really sparkle!"

A more common type of request that the ARL staff get can be seen by the example during the production of Tangled, a request came in to find the right look for the main hero, Flynn Rider. Production staff poured through all of the historical artwork for all of the major hero and prince characters.

"They must have done something right because Rapunzel really did fall in love with Flynn."

One of toughest requests to ever come directly to Mary Ann was for a “simple list” of all of the Disney characters ever created. 

"On the surface this may sound simple, but it’s what I like to call an “iceberg question”. Walt Disney Animation Studios has both produced and unproduced film. Then factor in primary characters, secondary characters, tertiary characters, and background characters. Next you have to consider characters who may have ended up on the cutting room floor, and that only covers Walt Disney Animation Studios. There is also Pixar Animation Studios, DisneyToon Studios, and animated characters for Disney Channel properties to consider as well." 

The question for the “simple list” of Disney characters is something Mary is still working on, and which truly drives behind her passion for working at the Disney ARL!

Who Is Your Favorite Disney Character?

"I am very partial towards Mulan because I am half Taiwanese and grew up learning about the legend of Mulan. My mother has a Chinese calligraphy scroll in her personal art collection featuring Mulan’s story and I’ve always admired it.  When the Disney version came out, I thought it was incredibly heartfelt, very funny, and the songs were great.  The artwork for Mulan is stunning. The original legend has many different versions and they are usually not very happy stories, but I really liked how Disney handled the resolution of their version—I felt that they captured the courageous road to becoming a hero and the touching conflict of a girl becoming a woman."

How can the Public Stay Connected to the Disney ARL?

Our Facebook fan page is quite popular. In addition there is also a fans page for the Walt Disney Animation Studios

The public may also be interested in the Walt Disney Animation Studios The Archive Series of books. The series includes three already published books and a fourth one on the way. They feature artwork from the ARL's collection with each book focusing on a different elements of the production process from the story to the animation to the design, and the fourth with focuses on layouts and backgrounds.

Anything Else Would You Like Readers To Know About You Or The Disney ARL?

"It has been a real treat to work with such a well-known collection. The content is fun and being part of the movie-making business can be really exciting.  I hope that readers will look at Disney animated films in a whole new light after learning a little about the ARL in this interview. There is a lot of love and care that goes into the production of one of our movies and the love and care continues after the movie is released. At the ARL, we are the shepherds for the company’s legacy—it all started with Walt and a mouse named Mickey.  We make sure that legacy is preserved for generations to come."

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