Gizmodo went behind the scenes at the “Disney Morgue” to see how Walt Disney’s animation history is being preserved for future generations. The morgue has everything from the earliest drawings for short cartoons like Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie (1928) to animation cels from movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to stunning reference art from films like Moana (2016).
It’s a rare glimpse at the people and their technologies that are working to make sure that Disney’s animation history is around for generations to come.
In the early days of animation, many of the major studios saw animation cels as disposable after a movie was finished. But today, those fragments of animation history are recognized as treasures that give us a peek at how some of our favorite movies were made. Unfortunately, those pieces of art history naturally degrade with time.
“The cels degrade naturally by the nature of the material that they’re made of,” said Kristen McCormick of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library.
Animation art, just like old film itself, must be handled carefully. But even if they’re handled with the utmost care, they’re still going to become damaged simply through the passing of time. The cels warp and shrink over the years, deteriorating through a process called hydrolysis. Gizmodo also talked with Michael Schilling, lead scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, about how they’re working on restoring damaged animation art.
“If the humidity is raised to just the right level, the paint will actually reattach to the plastic sheet,” said Schilling, describing the painstaking process of restoring the cels.
Both Schilling and McCormick talk about how incredible it is to watch these old Disney films today. Their jobs have given them a new appreciation for the work that went into these classics. And it inspires them to continue the work that they do to preserve these important pieces of history. They love their jobs, and it’s clear that you would too if you got a chance to work with such unique treasures from the history of Disney animation.
“I always see something new each day,” McCormick told Gizmodo about what her job is like. “And I’m always astounded by the beauty of the pieces.”