When Walt Disney was producing the animated feature film Sleeping Beauty, he realized that a great way to publicize the “high art” approach of the film as well as address the all the letters that flooded into the studio from young artists interested in animation would be to put together a traveling exhibit showcasing the history of animation as well as how animation was done.
Walt Disney created an exhibit showing the history and development of animation. He used elements from the film itself to explain the actual animation process. The traveling exhibit was entitled “The Art of Animation: A Walt Disney Retrospective.”
To put the exhibit together, Walt sent people to the animation “morgue” where the animation art was kept. Walt wanted some specific pieces and it wasn’t just cel setups but backgrounds, concept art, story sketches, and more. There were three versions of this exhibit and each featured different original art.
One was showcased in Tomorrowland at Disneyland from May 28, 1960 to September 5, 1966. The exhibit in Tomorrowland featured early optical devices like thaumatropes and a zoetrope, as well as TV screens showing segments from “The Art of the Animated Drawing” first shown on Walt’s weekly television show on November 11, 1955.
The exhibit was connected to the Art Corner where future animators could purchase “How To Draw” Disney character books, flip books, and even an animation kit with a pressboard light table with pegs and punched animation paper.
Of course, young artists could also buy original Disney cels for a dollar and a half thanks to the ingenuity of Disney Legend Jack Olsen who was in charge of this merchandise location, and who determined that guests might like cels that were just being tossed into the dumpster at the Disney Studio.
There were two other traveling versions of the exhibit that toured the United States beginning in 1958 and then one was sent to be shown in Europe and the other to Japan in 1960 to once again promote the release of Sleeping Beauty in those countries.
The Japanese exhibit was originally displayed at 17 department stores throughout Japan, a common practice since Japanese department stores often sponsored fine art exhibits. When the exhibit finished its tour, it was moved to the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo when the Disney Studio was convinced to donate the exhibit to the museum.
However, sometime in 1962, the museum—like many museums—found itself cramped for storage space, and donated the art to Chiba University for educational and research purposes.
Prof. Hidesaburo Genda asked the museum to donate the original works to Chiba University. Genda had already started research in computer graphics and hoped to use the artwork as a foundation for future work.
The fact that the faculty’s building, then in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, had a storage facility large enough to hold the great volume of the original works also prompted the museum to donate to them. However, after the faculty moved to its current campus in Chiba in 1967, only a limited number of officials at the university were aware of the existence of the art.
As the years went on, it was not widely known that the art existed. A few university staff members used it for research, primarily Professor Genda and his protege the late Professor Shigeru Oe. When Genta retired in 1982, the materials remained in storage and were forgotten.
They were rediscovered in 2004 by Chiba University in a dusty storeroom in the university’s Faculty of Engineering building. The University contacted Erika Nakajima, director of Corporate Communications for Disney Japan.
After seeing the lost treasures, Nakajima contacted Lella Smith, Director of the Animation Research Library in California, who immediately jumped on a plane to verify the treasure trove of artwork from 1928-1959.
It included art from the Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees as well as work from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. There were Mary Blair concept sketches for Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. There was an elaborate full-color background painting by Eyvind Earle.
The collection included close to 250 pieces of original Disney art done by legends like Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, the Nine Old Men as well as art from the ending of Sleeping Beauty that had been missing from the Animation Research Library for decades.
Some of the artwork had sustained damage over the years. Apparently at one point, some of the art had been glued down with rubber cement. The restoration was done by fine art restorer Kikuko Iwai, who had worked on the restoration of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Claude Monet’s “Waterlilies.”
However there wasn’t as much damage as might be suspected. For the most part the colors were still vibrant. Officials believe the good condition of the artwork is due to the fact that they were kept in a laboratory building between 1967 and 2002 (when the building was demolished as part of a renovation project). The laboratory was a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment, and lighting was also subdued.
Once the art was restored and combined with artwork from the Animation Research Library (ARL) collection and loans from the Disney Archives and Walt Disney Imagineering, there were more than 550 pieces, making it the largest exhibition of Disney animation art ever—entitled The Art of Disney on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo from July 15 through September 24 in 2006.
In addition, to support the original touring exhibit as well as Sleeping Beauty, Walt had writer Bob Thomas put together a book entitled The Art of Animation. The Art of Animation book shown on the TV show “The Story of the Animated Drawing” was a mock-up and frustrated would-be animators who tried to search for the book.
For years there had been discussions at the Disney Studio of using art instructor Donald Graham’s notes when he taught at the Disney Studios along with notes from various sessions conducted by top Disney animators to create such a book. Bob Thomas utilized those resources to create an accurate look at the process of animation that would be accessible to the general public.
A dust-jacketed version was released by Simon and Schuster in 1958 and later, an edition without a dust jacket, but with a black cover with brightly colored illustrations instead, was released by Golden Press. This later edition is the one most commonly found in collections. It was the first Disney book to give official credit to other artists including featuring a photo identifying the famed “Nine Old Men.” Decades later Thomas updated the book but it never truly matched the original edition for technical information about the process of animation.
Here is a copy of the Disneyland Art Corner Catalog from 1956 to give you a taste of what an aspiring young Disney animator might be able to purchase at Disneyland or through the mail. (Special thanks to Jed Blaugrund of Vintage Disneyland Goodies. Click thumbnails below to enlarge)