The Biggest Draw: Disney Animation Research Library’s Mary Walsh talks Disney: Magic of Animation exhibit

For F*** Magazine 

F*** talks to Mary Walsh, managing director at the Disney Animation Research Library, at the launch of the Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition in Singapore.

By Jedd Jong

Disney fans, or ‘Disnerds’ as they like to be known, are in for a treat: more than 500 pieces of artwork used in creating the studio’s short and feature animated films are going on display for the first time in Singapore. The Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition opens at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands Singapore and runs from 26 October 2019 to 29 March 2020.

The exhibition offers visitors a peek behind the curtain at the House of Mouse, highlighting the talented artists and technicians who work in various departments on the studio’s animated films and walking visitors through the process of creating these films. The pieces of art on display include original concept sketches, background paintings, sculptures and models which were created in the making of Disney’s animated films.

The highlights of the exhibition include sketches of Mickey Mouse from 1928’s Steamboat Willie, the first animated short film synced to sound, early designs of Snow White, sculptures of Belle and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and a model of Sugar Rush from Wreck-It Ralph made from biscuits and candy.

The exhibition also includes artwork from the upcoming Frozen 2, marking the first time that art from a yet-to-be-released Disney film has been exhibited.

The exhibit also includes interactive activities, including a station where visitors can get a taste of what it’s like to be a Foley artist, attempting to match sound effects created using props to a scene from Mulan. A zone of the exhibit is decorated to resemble the Nordic autumnal forest seen in Frozen 2, allowing fans to take photos against a backdrop that brings the film to life.

Disney keeps meticulous records of the artwork created in the process of making its films. The Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) is where the physical art pieces are kept, and the works displayed at this exhibition are drawn from the library’s vast collection, which stretches back to the very beginnings of Disney.

At the media preview of the Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition, F*** spoke to Mary Walsh, the managing director of the Disney ARL, about what it’s like for artists who work at Disney and what fans can look forward to when they visit this exhibition.

F*** MAGAZINE: Great to get to talk to you! Could you tell our readers what you do at Disney?

MARY WALSH: I’m the managing director of the Animation Research Library. The Animation Research Library is the repository for all the original animation artwork that was used to produce our animated short and feature-length films, both from the very beginning, so we’ve got artwork from the early 1920s, all the way up to the present day. We have over 65 million pieces of art in our physical collection. We’re not public facing, but we’re open to anybody in the Walt Disney Company who needs access to that artwork for either creative inspiration, theme parks, new product development, whatever it happens to be. Theme parks, Broadway shows, everything, so it’s really great. Because we aren’t open to the public, we have this huge collection of such beautiful and I would argue really important artwork from an animation point of view, what can we do to share that with the world? We established this exhibition program, and this exhibit is one of the fruits of that labour. We can take this artwork, curate it in a story that we want to share with the world, and then bring it into museums like ArtScience.

What is your personal Holy Grail piece? If you were Nicolas Cage, what would you steal?

That’s funny, Nicolas Cage, I get the reference! I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t have a single favourite piece of art because I’m surrounded by all this beautiful art! I have two kids: it’s like asking which of my two boys is my favourite. Some days I like one boy better than the other because of his behaviour. For me, there is so much beautiful art and it is really the development of the artistry and the craftsmanship from the very beginning to what we’re doing today, and the constant inspiration that the art in our collection provides for our artists. One thing that we really value is we have all this artwork and it’s a fabulous artistic creative legacy that we have, but we don’t look back on it and say “wow, that was great! We’re done.” We’re never done. [The artists] are using that to inspire themselves, to inspire themselves, to educate themselves, so they can create at least that level and hopefully go above it.

Rapunzel by Claire Keane

At this exhibit, there’s a Tangled piece by Claire Keane, who is the daughter of animator Glen Keane. It’s so beautiful that there is that familial legacy. Disney is all about legacy – what do you think represents that idea the best?

The biggest part for the legacy point of view for me is the fact that we can look back at the art that was created. Claire is the perfect example of that: her father is obviously a brilliant animator and draughtsman and a huge component of the artistic output the studio has, ever since he joined in the 1970s. He’s been hugely important in the development and continuing expansion of our creativity and our artistry. Claire’s doing that on her own – she’s following in the footsteps of her father, but all the other great artists who came before him and are coming after her as well too.

Ariel by Glen Keane

For me, that legacy really ties into the idea of mentorship, because all of the senior artists mentor younger artists coming in. Glen Keane worked with Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) – he knew them, he could go to them, they were his mentors. He continues to mentor people through his career at Disney. I think that’s really important – the artists joining the studio understand Disney animation because of its impact in the animation industry, culturally and from an artistic point of view. They come in with that expectation and I argue responsibility to create to that minimum level and exceed it. The way you do that in a collaborative artform is to support each other artistically – the mistakes that you made and how you corrected those mistakes. It’s all about sharing that information. I think that’s a true testament to that legacy because it started with Walt and we’re still doing it today.

There is a saying that is attributed to Walt Disney, “everyone has 10 000 bad drawings in them and you have to get them out of the way”.

I don’t know if he actually said that, but the concept I think is actually true. There’s another way that we describe in animation: “pencil mileage”. You have to draw and draw and draw or create on the computer – you can call it “pixel mileage” or whatever you want because it’s based on the tool. It’s an iterative process. When you create something, you’re never perfect the first time out, almost nobody is, but you have to look at a piece and say “how can I make it better? How is that piece going to support the story? How is that piece going to fit in this world? So it’s a very iterative process. You get 10 000 bad drawings before you get one [good one] – that concept I think is very true. It’s all about going out there and being willing to have a bad drawing in order to get to a great drawing.

I think that personally, it’s easy to feel discouraged when I see someone who’s really good at what they do and feel like I cannot measure up to that, so it’s important to know that nobody starts out there. How do you feel this exhibition inspires future artists?

That’s one of the things that I love about this exhibition program. What I hope is that there are artists coming through, maybe young artists, who are like “I never thought about a career in animation.” It’s a viable artform and you can have a really great profession if you’re committed to your craft, if you’re disciplined about it and you’re passionate about it. Hopefully this can show a path to a burgeoning artist who wants to go in that direction and that there are people who came before you and that you can do this too.

I attended the Singapore press conference for Moana in 2016. Producer Osnat Shurer and the voice of Moana Auli’i Cravalho came, as well as Disney artists Roger Lee and Griselda Sastrawinata. There was a sense of hometown pride, “one of our own made it”. What are some stories about the experiences that people from around the world bring to Disney?

I’m glad you brought that up because I think it’s that diversity of thought and experience. We tell global stories. The filmmakers’ intent is to be able to touch the emotional human core no matter where you are in the world, and one way to do that is to surround yourself with a diversity of styles, of thought and of experiences. That is something that we hold very dear and that we’re committed to doing.

A five-year-old will take something different away after visiting this exhibit than a 12-year-old will, than a 16-year-old will, than a 30-year-old will. How will this exhibit speak to those different age groups differently?

That’s a great question because if you step back a little bit, the intent of all the films we make is that it’s for everybody. We don’t target just little kids or just adults. Walt was the one who set the stage, he said “I make films for entire families, not just children or just adults.” With that in mind, when a young person comes in and maybe it’s a child and they’re going to be enraptured and go “oh my god, I get to stand next to Mickey and Minnie and go on this boat and take a photo,” or “I get to see these sketches, what may be very loose drawings, and go ‘maybe I can do that’” and as you get older you can understand and appreciate the artistic integrity of some of the drawings and the sketches and the storytelling.

I also think it ties back to the emotions you have when you see the film for the first time and what age you were. In my case, I’ve watched films now with my children that I watched as a kid. I now look at the film very differently, through their eyes. That is any good art, whether it’s moving images, or a beautiful painting, or a piece of music: if it stands the test of time, it’s going to resonate with you as a human being regardless of how old you are, but your life experiences are really going to inform how you’re viewing or enjoying that piece of art at that moment.

I was in the Little Mermaid gallery and was overhearing the other journalists who were surprised to see the early concept design of Ursula, when she looked more like a lionfish. What are some concept pieces that surprised you?

It was really funny, when I first got exposed to some of the early concept pieces for the character of Snow White, she was blonde, she had braids, she had red hair, so they explored all kinds of different styles. When you think about it, they were developing that film in the mid-late 1930s, so those artists were also reflecting on the societal norms and the fashions of the day and what the concept of feminine beauty was at the time. They were contemporary artists in their timeframe looking out on the world, reflecting on that and bringing it into their designs.

In an early concept, it’s all about creating all kinds of different designs and then really focusing down and narrowing down to what that final design is going to be. Without that iterative process, they wouldn’t have gotten to the final design of Snow White was without all those other concepts. If you don’t give the time for experimentation, sometimes you won’t get the best work. I think the timeframe for that iterative process is really important.

As someone who has spent your career educating people about Disney animation, what are your feelings about the recent live-action remakes? They do bring it to a new audience, but there’s also the school of thought that it’s derivative. Where do you stand on that?

For me, it’s really about the storytellers. If that storyteller and filmmaker thinks they can deliver a different take on it, why not allow them that ability to do it? If it introduces that story to a whole new generation who may not have seen the animated film who may then go back and appreciate it, it can be a gateway, and the gateway goes both ways. From my point of view, if the storyteller is committed to the story they want to tell and the visual realisation of that story is different from the original one, why not give it a go and see what that’s like?

Visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/museum/disney-magic-of-animation.html for tickets and more details.

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