Eighty years ago next month, theaters premiered “Walt Disney’s Academy Award Revue,” a May 19, 1937, release including the Oscar-winning shorts “Flowers and Trees,” “The Country Cousin,” “Three Little Pigs,” “The Three Orphan Kittens” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” to help promote the first full-length animated feature film a few months later: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Snow White is featured in Peorian Steve Spain’s 74-page hardcover “The Art of Disney’s ‘Golden Age’ Films and the Animation Process That Brought Them to Life,” released last year.
“Like most people in my age group (Baby Boom generation), I grew up on Disney – the original Mickey Mouse Club, the Sunday evening ‘Wonderful World of Disney,’” he says. “I have fond memories of seeing classic Disney films at the old downtown movie palaces like the Madison, Palace and Rialto.
“While working as a movie projectionist, I frequently worked at a theater where a classic Disney film was showing,” continues Spain, a 65-year-old Peoria native who graduated from Richwoods then Illinois State University. “After watching many of these films over and over, I was amazed at how beautiful the artwork was. Many years later, I stumbled onto a book at the Peoria downtown library called ‘Treasures of Disney Animation Art’ by John Canemaker. I sought out sources and started collecting original art shortly after that.”
That art is literally original, the rare cels (for celluloid) used in creating animated films. Often, the cels were lost or discarded after a movie’s completion. But some survived and became increasingly sought-after by people who liked the memories and the art they embodied.
“I’ll never forget the day when I opened a package from Philadelphia in 1986,” Spain writes. “It was like opening a time capsule. It’s not possible to reach out and touch Judy Garland or Fred Astaire. But here I was reaching out and touching Cinderella – exactly as she looked in 1950.”
Now collecting cels for 31 years, focusing on the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Spain exhibits a fascination, almost a devotion to the art and craft – and magic, arguably – of the cels.
“I actually have a little ‘gallery’ in my home,” he says. “I just enjoy the artwork, the artistry involved, and the meticulous attention to detail. Every frame from these films was painted by hand. It was an incredibly labor intensive process.”
Available locally at Spain’s Costume Trunk shop on West Main Street, I Know You Like A Book in Peoria Heights, and at the gift shop at the General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport, the book has packaged familiar and favorite characters. There’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Lady and the Tramp, and Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty – from Disney’s final “hand-made” animated feature.
These stunning examples from Spain’s collection are accompanied by brief, behind-the-scenes narratives, plus insightful information on the classic, pre-digital process, and illumination on the art itself. Spain recounts how he acquired them, and their histories; he points out aspects that add to readers’ appreciation (such as the studio using actual rouge to add blush to Snow White’s cheeks); and he explains the job and dedication it took to create the movies.
Such animated motion pictures needed more than 86,000 such paintings for an hour-long film, and the films started with planning by means of storyboards – a pioneering idea later adopted by many filmmakers for live-action movies. After a color stylist’s input, animators, background artists and special-effects artists weighed in, followed by ink drawing and painting, and then assembling and photographing the cels.
As local arts patron John Amdall comments in a closing essay, “Disney was the first to create an animated movie that was art … something that creates an emotional response from the viewer.”
Spain is more expansive, writing like a proud parent describing a long-lost loved one: “It’s fine art, it’s illustration art, it’s film art, it’s movie memorabilia, and it’s Americana.”