DISNEY PAINT COLORS FROM CEL TO SCREEN OR WHY IS ALICE’S HAIR GREEN?

Disney, unlike other studios, made their own animation paint until 1985, when The Black Cauldron was released as the last film to be made with the original Disney animation paint. Why the change? Because Disney attempted to make the switch to newer acrylic-based paint colors, only to discover it would require an entire refitting of their paint lab. So, as change would have it, the decision was made going forward to purchase commercial paint.

While the paint lab didn’t survive in its central importance, what did remain was the idea that Disney original paints were, like Disney itself, somehow imbued with a kind of magic. Well, guess what? They were. It came from a deep sense of product purity that existed in Walt’s time that those of us at S/R labs would never have understood without the help of the chemists at Consolidated Film Industries, Eastman Kodak, and Disney’s last working Chemist, Emilio Bianchi. Others have since contributed to this notion and reinforced the concept, but the insight came from these important sources. How the concept applies to everyday operation or a product as pedestrian as artists’ paint is fascinating.

Discovering Disney Color Magic

It’s said that everything has a purpose. In this case it sure did. You see, Ron Stark, long before he created S/R Labs, began his career in the early 1970s at Consolidated Film Industries. In its time, CFI was the largest motion picture lab in the world, consuming more film than any other entity anywhere. Stark had the remarkable fortune to work with film engineer Eddie Reichard and lab director Leonard Sokolow, both of whom were recipients of more technical Academy Awards than anyone else at CFI. What Ron learned about film, film processing and how movies were made after the film was exposed was enormous and would prove to be exceptionally valuable when the time came to create SR Labs. In that time he learned about how film “sees” color versus what the viewer sees on the screen. With co-author Charles Solomon, he wrote the Complete Kodak Animation Book, putting much of his first-hand knowledge to use.

“I loved seeing the film timers work,” Ron recalls. “It is the timers who, much like sound engineers working at a control board to fine tune a recording, work to bring the raw color of the film footage into final balance. They would sit in a tiny room the size of a closet with two screens: one for a color slide to serve as the template to which they would refer as a gauge for true color and the other which turned the film negative to a positive image. The process required great skill. With a small set of controls they would move from scene to scene adjusting what appeared to be the color of the film. But it wasn’t. They were specifying the film’s color with the controls, and those specifications were translated to a punch tape. There was no such thing as digital information transfer at the time. When the negative was conformed and edited it would be used to make an interneg, or an exact copy of the original. The original was shelved for safekeeping while the copy was used to make the finished film. The interneg was used to make the finished movie as a special light filter, sort of like a prism, moved back and forth, according to the punch tape, exposing the new film positive in the light specified by the timer. Taking mere fractions of a second, as the film moved past the light filter, the color of the film is adjusted so it is consistent from scene to scene.”

It’s the Paint That Made the Difference

So, when it came to cels, it was no surprise to Ron that certain paint colors would be timed differently, depending on how the film would register the pigment. He explains,” some colors do not register correctly in Kodak’s film system, even though, like RGB in digital imaging, the color spectrum is the widest possible.”

The Girl with Green Hair

Suffice it to say that animation paint colors aren’t always what they seem to be. For instance, there is no green in Peter Pan’s jerkin. Not a drop. The color is created by the combination of two earth tones seen as green on the film. The same goes for Alice. Her Wonderland tresses are not blonde, as they appear in the film. The apparently yellow color is actually a combination of three paint colors that are a light chartreuse on the production cel. It is the film timer who magically translates the green-haired girl to a lovely blonde.

The latitude given the film timers was the gift of the Disney paint lab’s purity of color and the simple combinations they created. Film does not “interpret” color as the human eye does. It registers the color closest to what its dye capability is. The timer can only come as close to a color as the film dye will allow. Original Disney paint was magical because it was clean and vibrant and was created to reflect a depth of color not found in commercial products.

One of the jobs of the Disney color lab was doing screen tests for new colors to establish what they might look like in a finished film and how far a film timer could push the new colors from “one side to the other.” The color stylists at the studio were specialists who knew what color to specify for a character based on those screen tests.

S/R still makes inks and paint from Disney original formulas. When Disney needed paint for a limited edition, it was created in the S/R paint lab. Some of S/R’s pigments, like many of the browns found in films like Lady and the Tramp, are supplied by the same manufacturer that supplied Disney for the original film. In fact, S/R labs digitally mastered the entire Disney paint palette for Disney Consumer Products.

“Emilio taught us well,” Ron explains. “He was always being asked by the color stylists to expand the Disney palette, but the film process couldn’t register such new colors. Even though he helped us keep the number of colors we make to a minimum, we still have more than 10,000 paint colors in our S/R palette.

S/R Labs is proud to be the only animation art conservation center in the world, keeping the old values at the forefront of what we do and your art looking vibrant and alive for years to come.