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Disney-style inking & painting lives on, thanks to Courvoisier's studio replicas

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Disney-style inking & painting lives on, thanks to Courvoisier's studio replicas

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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 way.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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 animation.

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 painting.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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 replica.

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 applied first.

"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 energy.

"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 www.courvoisiergalleries.com.

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  • 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.

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