As a longtime fan of hand-drawn animation, it did my heart
good this past weekend to see Disney's "The Lion King" once again wind up on
top of the box office heap. To have the 3D version of this 1994 Academy
Award-winner gross $30.1 million (which is more than twice what the No. 2 film,
"Contagion" managed to pull in) was just so satisfying in a strange sort of
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I mean, there's no getting around the fact that hand-drawn
has had a tough couple of years. The last time that a hand-drawn animated
feature actually wound up in the Top Ten highest-grossing-films-for-that-year
was back in 1999. Which was when Disney released "Tarzan" to theaters. Which is
why - these days -- there are fewer & fewer practitioners of hand-drawn
That's why I always enjoy looking in on Courvoisier
Galleries. Here, hand-drawn animation is alive and well. And -- no -- I'm not
talking about the way the Walt Disney Animation Studios did it back in the
1990s with its CAPS system, which made use of digital ink and paint. I'm
talking about truly old school. Where a genuine human being using a skilled
hand & an Esterbrook pen nib painstakingly traced an animation drawing onto a
piece of acetate. Which was then sent down Disney's production line for
Of course, what Courvoisier Galleries creates these days
aren't actually production pieces. But - rather - studio replicas. Handmade
high-quality art replicating iconic moments from classic Disney animated films.
Take - for example - that Evil Queen piece that Courvoisier
Galleries is just now getting ready to release. As Ron Stark, director of S/R
Laboratories explained, hours & hours of research went into the creation of
this particular studio replica.
"We started by going frame-by-frame through 'Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs,' looking for just the right pose to use with the Evil Queen,"
Stark said. "We wanted to find something that was authentic, not contrived. A
pose that was truly indicative of the way this character actually thinks and
behaves in the film. More importantly, we wanted to do something new. We
weren't out to repeat anything already on the market that featured this
character. But - rather - create a brand-new piece of artwork that then
celebrated Snow White's Evil Queen."
Once Stark and his staff settled on an image, they then
confer with Dave Pacheco - Creative Director for Disney Consumer Products - for
approval. Once Pacheco signed off on this particular pose of the Evil Queen, he
then headed over to Disney's Animation Research Library and had them pull
specific pieces of art from "Snow White." Which the Courvoisier Galleries team
then used for reference as they built their color model for this studio
This is a sample page from Snow White's
pre-production color book, designating what colors to paint the Dwarfs in this
sequence in the film
"Of course, what really helped with this particular project
is - here at S/R Laboratories - we have the actual Snow White pre-production
color book. The one Disney's artists consulted while they were making the epic
animated feature back in the 1930s," Ron stated. "Which is why we're dead
certain our choices were right when it came to matching this film's original
ink and paint colors."
S/R Laboratories, being the only animation art conservation
center in the world, makes Disney paints they way the Studio did in 1937 and
throughout its long history. So it's a no brainer for them to get the colors for these studio replicas right.
Courvoisier Galleries has been part of S/R since 1997.
Even so, once a color model for the Evil Queen piece was
completed, this production prototype of Courvoisier's newest studio replica
still had to be run by the folks at Disney for their final approval. And once
S/ R Laboratories received that, it was then time for inking supervisor Beth
Ann McCoy-Gee to begin work.
"Depending on the number of colors we're using, it can take
Beth Ann 1 ½ - 2 hours to ink each individual piece. And then another
conservator always checks her work to make sure that the inking looks proper
and the lines match up," Stark said.
Once that's done, it's time to move on to the painting of
this studio replica. Which is done in the time honored tradition with the
painting being done on the reverse side of the cel and the darkest color being
"What we do here is we 'paint to camera'. That is, the
appearance of the cel must be as good or better than what you would see on the
screen as the camera would see it. We use the exact same techniques that
Disney's own inkers and painters used back in the day. And since the camera
could always spot if there was any irregularity in the image ... Well, it's that
kind of accuracy we try to achieve here too," Ron continued.
S/R Labs manager Amelia Dodge checks the
line & paint work on a studio replica
And given these studio replicas are being created in the Courvoisier
tradition ... Well, this then means a custom background is in order.
"We start with real wood veneer. That piece of wood is
sanded, cleaned and sealed so it can then be painted. And then - using an
original background layout from 'Snow White' as the model for our studio
replica's background - we airbrush an image on this piece of wood," Stark said.
"After this image is tinted and allowed to dry, this piece of wood veneer is
waxed then buffed, then waxed and buffed again. So the cel never actually comes
in contact with wood surface itself."
And then it's time to matte & frame the Evil Queen. And
since each studio replica is an individual piece of art, each matte is hand
lettered and hand stamped.
"More to the point, our mattes are made by Nielsen-Bainbridge.
This is the exact matting materials that the United States Library of Congress
uses to protect our national documents. So right from the very start, we're
doing everything that we can to promote the longevity of Courvoisier Galleries
artwork," Ron said.
This conservation attitude extends even to the glass-like
acrylic that S/R Laboratories uses in all of its framing materials. Which -
thanks to its glazing - filters out 99.9% of all destructive ultraviolet
"Given how labor intensive our Courvoisier production
process is, what with all of the checks and balances that we've put in place to
maintain the high quality of our artwork ... Well, that's why we do such small
production runs. Courvoisier's never ever going to produce any more than 50 studio
replicas of any one image," Stark stated. "Take - for example - the Evil Queen.
We're actually limiting the production run of this studio replica to 37 pieces
in honor of the year that 'Snow White' was originally released to theaters.
Which was 1937."
And then when you factor in how few galleries around the
country will actually be selling these pieces (As of right now, what with the
gift shop at the Walt Disney Family Museum having recently come on board as an
official Courvoisier dealer, that number has increased to just 8 galleries),
these studio replicas may just be the most exclusive pieces of Disney-related
artwork on the market today.
Mind you, I'd still like to see Walt Disney Animation
Studios back in the hand-drawn animation business full-time (Which might
actually happen. When I was at the "Winnie the Pooh" press junket back in June,
lead animator Bruce Smith - who supervised Kanga, Roo and Piglet on that
feature-length project - mentioned that Disney was doing some experimentation
with hand-drawn animation. Seeing if there was a way that they could then make
this old-school style of cinematic storytelling seem new & exciting for
today's audiences). But until that day comes ... Well, it's just nice to see
Disney-style inking & painting being kept alive through Courvoisier's
studio replicas line. And you can find
out about the latest doings at Courvoisier Galleries by dropping by
I like traditional animation, as well as computer generated and stop motion animation. I love seeing how the magic happens in all areas so this is a wonder to see how this process still happening.
As for this experiment on hand drawn, is it possible it's the "paperless animation" they played with back in 2007 or so? If I recall, they made a Goofy short with no paper, all of it was made on the computer. Could it be possible they're making a full feature with this technique?
Absolutely wonderful article and kudos go to Ron Stark and his team for keeping this art alive!!! It is amazing to think the original Disney colors are utilized in the same fashion as Walt Disney's animation artistics did years ago. What a wonderful compliment and huge responsibility entrusted to SR Laboratory to maintain this tradition.