Who ever thought you’d be able to flip original Disney animation art—just as the master animators drew it, in pencil form—or purchase high-quality replicas of the first Disney artwork ever sold to the public? Both options are now available to one and all. The flipbooks are part of a lovingly crafted boxed set from Disney Editions called Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: The Flipbooks. It’s part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Archive Series, which has brought us beautifully conceived and designed hardcover books of artwork from the studio vaults (Story, Design, Layout and Background).
Flipbooks are a particular passion for Oscar-winning Pixar director-producer-writer Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc.), and this project is his labor of love. I’m sure it was no small matter to decide which scenes to use, make sure they still existed in pencil form, and design high-quality flipbooks (and a handsome boxed case) to showcase them. But as much as I enjoyed flipping through these scenes from Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and other Disney classics, I got even more out of the accompanying booklet, which includes tributes to the fabled Nine Old Men (Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson, Les Clark, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Marc Davis) by some of their illustrious protégés and admirers, among them John Canemaker, Bob Kurtz, and the next generation of “Disney guys” like Glen Keane, John Musker, Ron Clements, Andreas Deja, Don Hahn, Eric Goldberg, and Dale Baer. These aren’t mere recitations of praise and platitudes, but highly personal essays that enrich our appreciation of these remarkable artists and individuals. Pete Docter also contributes a useful overview and glossary of terms.
Over the years, several of these animators told me that they never saved, or had any particular interest in, original cels from their films because they didn’t represent their work, which was done exclusively in pencil on paper. But there is no question that cels evoke the films as we viewers know and remember them: in color, with ink and paint beautifully applied by hand.
The first person to recognize the sales potential of this artwork was a San Francisco fine-art dealer named Guthrie Courvoisier. In 1938 he signed an agreement with the Disney studio to market art from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through galleries and museums. More than 8,000 cels from Snow White and 5,000 from other Disney films were earmarked for the dealer, and Disney set up a 20-person crew under the supervision of Helen Nerbovig to prepare the materials.
“Walt wanted every piece to be reminiscent of the film,” she said some years later. “I would look at the film and decide how each set-up was to be made, and I’d make the first one… Because there are so many more cels than backgrounds in a film, we didn’t have enough original backgrounds to work with. But it would have been inconceivable to send out art that wasn’t a finished picture. So when we ran out of backgrounds, we made our own.” She and her staff devised a number of innovative techniques to make each presentation attractive and appealing. Original Courvoisier cel set-ups have always been highly desirable.
Ron Stark of S/R Labs has been involved in animation art conservation, as well as sales and auctions, for nearly thirty years. Some time ago he acquired the rights to the Courvoisier name; now he and a team of artists are actually reproducing the presentation cels just as the fine-art dealer offered them so many years ago, using a variety of procedures, including airbrushing, and the same paper stock that was employed in the late 1930s. Prices range from $300 to $600, which seems reasonable to me given the quality of the artwork and the way it’s produced.
You can see the results for yourself, and learn more about Courvoisier history, at www.courvoisiergalleries.com.
Incidentally, in the wake of Disney’s success, such rivals as Max Fleischer, Walter Lantz, and Leon Schlesinger also tried selling cels from their cartoons, with hand-written explanations of what the artwork represented, on a clear overlay, and their signatures (in reproduction). I’ve seen a handful of these from time to time, and even similarly-packaged images from Winsor McCay’s 1918 short The Sinking of the Lusitania, but I don’t believe they ever caught on quite like the Disney artwork did.