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After 22 years, Lella Smith checks out as Creative Director of Disney's Animation Research Library

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After 22 years, Lella Smith checks out as Creative Director of Disney's Animation Research Library

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When Lella Smith's 10-year-old godson, Rey, found out she was retiring from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library (ARL), he was incredulous. "Why would you do that auntie?," he said. "You've got the coolest job in the world!"  Smith has been the Creative Director for the ARL, the little-known department of the Mouse Factory once described by Disney CEO Bob Iger as "... the most important department in the Company."  The ARL is the repository for all the Disney artwork created for its feature-length and classic short animated films.

"Don't get me wrong. I love my job and have honestly enjoyed every second that I've spent at the ARL," Smith stated during a recent phone interview. "When you work for the Walt Disney Company, you work pretty hard on a continuing stream of very interesting and complex projects that engage your imagination and challenge you. Naturally with that comes great pride and satisfaction in the nature of your work. It is fun to go to work each and every day." 

And when Lella talks about "interesting and complex projects," she ticks off a few of the recent projects she and her team have worked on over the last year.

Lella Smith (center) shows some of the pieces from Disney's Animation Research
Library's collection to a group of visiting foreign journalists. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

  • The ARL began designing a large Disney art exhibition, scheduled to open the summer of 2015, to introduce the Company's characters and stories to the people of China. Lella wrote the exhibition catalog, designed by Leon Ingram.
  • The ARL also worked with the production team for the live-action film, "Maleficent," providing them with a variety of reference materials from Disney's 1959 feature "Sleeping Beauty " so that the look of the production would be true to and evocative of the original.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, this is just a sampling of the diverse projects that Smith and the ARL worked on in 2013. Their primary mission remains the preservation of the Walt Disney Company's animation legacy and, by extension, much of the history of animation's ascendency to a legitimate art form in its own right. This requires the constant care and careful cataloging of an astounding estimated 65 million animation drawings, background paintings, concept pieces and story sketches that Disney keeps in this climate controlled/ high security facility that would be the envy of any museum. 

"Fortunately, Disney is luckier than most of the studios out here in California. You see, Walt was kind of an archivist," Smith explained. "Perhaps it was because he came from the advertising world where it was common practice to store completed works and research in the "morgue" (the original name for the ARL) so that it could be retrieved in the event the material could be useful for future campaigns. His decision to follow this practice at the Studio has proven to be an essential element facilitating the Company's synergistic growth to become the largest entertainment enterprise in the world. Naturally, as the Company grows, the demand for artwork grows along with it.  It is not unusual for a client to request more than a hundred images for projects as disparate as decorating hotels and cruise ships or developing a new consumer products line."

"Surprisingly, the Studio initially didn't keep the rough animation because they thought only the clean-up animation might be used again," Lella continued. "Over time they started to keep story sketches and concept art when they realized that there was interest in reviewing the evolving nature of the animation process itself. When one sees an early Snow White character as a blond or redhead with various physiques and facial features, one understands the extensive experimentation pursued by the artists for every character, location, or film style.  It really highlights Walt's reputation as a visionary for having the foresight to begin doing this 85 years ago." 

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

All of this carefully preserved artwork is still being actively consulted today. Case in point, when Imagineers wanted to create a sophisticated garden-like decor for a Club 33 venue in Shanghai Disneyland, set to open in 2015, they reached out to the ARL for artwork to reference in their design. Smith and her team were able to provide WDI with images of concept art from the original 1940 production of "Fantasia ." This made it possible for the artists and designers working on this venue to add an air of elegance that still subtly evokes the artistic legacy of the Studio.

"Of course, in order to be able to do something like that, it is helpful to have a thoroughly cataloged collection and that takes time," Smith said. "Take, for example, Disney's 'Sleeping Beauty.' Some studio veterans will tell you that this film was in production for six years while others will tell you it took ten. All I know is that it took a team of six ARL Collections Specialists and four Image Capture Specialists 18 months to first analyze and reconstruct the storyboards and then document and digitize just the concept art and story sketches from that film. Remember, in those days, it was not unusual to create over a million pieces of artwork for an animated feature film."

But, in Disney Corporate's typically forward thinking fashion, it just wasn't sufficient that the artwork from its 60 full-length animated features was being kept safe and dry. John Lasseter and other Mouse House executives wanted this material to be remotely accessible by all parts of the Company. This prompted the development of  the GEMS initiative at the ARL, headed up by the ARL's Managing Director Mary Walsh, Technical Manager Mark Dawson, and a team of professional photographers.  Lella considers it to be the most exciting and significant project that Disney's Animation Research Library undertook during her tenure. 

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"We began by photographing all of the older, more fragile assets associated with the early animated features, such as 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.'  Our next goal was to capture the iconic moments in animation history, such as the spaghetti eating scene from 'Lady and the Tramp .' All the while, we were challenged to meet important deadlines for various Company initiatives, such as providing Disney Animated with thousands of images for the popular interactive Disney App containing artwork and movie clips for Apple mobile devices.

"Capturing the artwork at a high resolution helps us in two ways," Lella explained. "First, it is an educational tool and source of inspiration for today's artists. Disney and Pixar animation employees can now call up all of these rarely seen artworks right from their desktops enlarging the image to study the painterly style of the artist or follow the progression of animation drawings. And, secondly, now that this art has been digitized we no longer have to handle them quite as frequently, which, given how fragile some of these items are, is a blessing."

"Digitizing all of this artwork and, in particular, getting the color on each individual scan just right, is admittedly a slow go. But, after five years, we have captured 1.5 million images." Smith said. "Everyone in the Company loves what we've done so far and it has enabled us to share this wealth of assets with others in the Company all over the world."

Lella Smith speaking at the opening of "Dreams Come True: Art of Classic Fairy
Tales from Walt Disney Studios" during this exhibition's stop in South Korea.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, The Walt Disney Company clearly believes in the mission of the ARL. That's why -- just in the time that Lella has been working at the library -- she's seen the ARL team grow from just 5 to 23 current cast members, with each of them dedicated to preserving and protecting Disney's creative legacy.  Thousands of works of art have been properly archived and made available for future generations and a traveling exhibitions program has been developed, including "Dreams Come True, Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studio," brings this art to such venues as New Orleans, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and soon to Europe.

The exterior of the building at the Walt Disney Family
Museum which housed "Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic" last year.

But even with all of the pats-on-the-back that she received for curating last year's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic" that opened at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and moved on to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA where over 96,000 people visited during its five month run or the possibility of being able to travel to China next year to help launch the new exhibition, Smith still thinks that she made the right decision to retire this month.

The interior of the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The
Creation of a Classic" exhibition.

"I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of the team at Disney's Animation Research Library. No matter what the assignment: the researchers under the direction of Fox Carney discovering a fascinating piece of concept art attached to pages of an early treatment for 'Cinderella ,' circa 1940; or the Design team, under the direction of Tamara Khalaf, preparing an exhibition of 'Frozen ' artwork for Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom; or the Collections team under the direction of Kristen McCormick, reaching another major milestone as they preserve the artwork for generations to come; or the Image Capture team, under the direction of Richard Kanno crafting custom technical solutions to difficult requests, we are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of the collection while sharing it with the world."

And though she'll obviously miss the unique perks of her position like attending a museum opening of Disney artwork at the Grand Palais in Paris, or just sharing artwork with employees as she did on a recent trip to Pixar in Emeryville just last month to show Pixar employees some of the character and costume designs that Disney Legends Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle created for 'Sleeping Beauty,' Smith still thinks that it's time that she made her exit.  "One of the most satisfying aspects of the job has been introducing original Disney artwork to people around the world, watching their response to the artistry, and most importantly, making lasting friendships in these places."

"Oh, I'm sure I'll miss the excitement. The surprises that you can only get when you work at a place like the ARL. Take, for example, opening a scene of animation from 'The Skeleton Dance' and finding drawings from 'Trolley Troubles,' the first Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short released two years earlier, a short for which we thought we had no animation,"  Lella exclaims, "It's so exciting to hold a piece of animation history in your hands like that and know that now you will be able to share it with others."

"I have to say, though, I did think long and hard about that trip to China in 2015," Lella admitted. "I have not been to China since 1980 when I took an exhibition to Beijing from the Armand Hammer Collection.  It would be interesting to see the new museums and all of the changes that have occurred. But then again, when you have worked for Disney, you never really stop working for the Company. For instance, later this Fall, the Disney Cruise Line has asked that I give five talks about (what else?) legendary Disney artists and the history of Disney animation art. And I will remain involved in Disney projects as long as they ask me."

"Justine," one of the many beautiful quilts that Lella has
created over the years. Thus named for the picture of
Smith's goddaughter included as part of this quilt.

Lella went on to explain, "This experience is energizing and tantalizingly pulls you along until one day you decide, almost arbitrarily, that the moment is right for me to spend more time in my quilting studio pursuing personal creative endeavors and that the next Disney project as an employee will be my last.

But, before Lella headed out the door and settled into her quilting studio, she took on one last project: a book about one of Walt Disney's great artists Marc Davis (1913-2000). The book, entitled "Marc Davis, Walt Disney's Renaissance Man " will be released this Fall by Disney Publishing.  Smith made a pledge to Marc's widow, Alice Davis, that she would not retire until Marc's book was published. Many people know that Marc animated such characters as Maleficent and Cruella de Vil and designed charming theme park attractions, but his talent was much broader. 

Alice Davis & Lella Smith at Lella's retirement party

Working with book designer Tamara Khalaf and the entire ARL team, she found dozens of artworks never published before, both from the Alice Davis collection and from the Disney Company to reveal the breadth of Marc's talent;  his fine arts, animal and motion studies, watercolors from his travels to places like Papua New Guinea and his sketchbook drawings.  Included in the book are original essays by well-known Disney scholars and professionals.

Well, with this Fall's publication of that Marc Davis book, here's hoping that Smith can take pride in all the changes that the ARL underwent during her two decades+ tenure. More to the point, that she can sail off into retirement at the end of March knowing that the collection will be in the very capable hands of Mary Walsh, Lella's co-director for the last seven years.

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