The Aqua-Fix Story

In Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s monumental Book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, the two legendary animators and members of Walt’s Nine Old Men tried to cover nearly every important aspect of how Disney created animated cartoons and feature films in order to leave a written account of the creativity, inventiveness, and sheer love and dedication so many men and women put forth in order to bring Walt’s visions to the screen.

I knew seven of those nine men, as well as Wilfred “Jax” Jackson, who timed “Steamboat Willie” on his harmonica in Roy O. Disney’s living room. I was there when Frank and Ollie worked on The Illusion of Life. It’s a long story but I knew their editor Walton Rawls at Abrams Books as well.

This was all happening as The Search and Rescue Team project (where our S/R comes from) of the Animation Society was just getting started. As VP of the Society I knew them all. They knew me.

I asked Ollie, “Why now? Why write such a demanding book?” He said, “Ron, if we don’t do it now we will never do it.” They had just retired. It seemed they hardly had a chance to enjoy time off, but they saw the book as their mission. “Look,” Frank told me, “if we don’t do it now things will get lost, people will change, and the links to the past will disappear. Its now or never.”

That was in the 80’s. Now, more than 30 years later, I more than understand what they meant.

Interestingly, Frank and Ollie had more than three times the amount of material selected for their book than they finally used. What was ultimately covered were the basics and a little extra. One of the interesting items their book revealed was strictly a Disney invention: Aqua-Fix.

It was developed by Emilio Bianchi, head chemist at the Disney Studio and his friend, fellow chemist Fred Wallach. Emilio and I would became close friends and remained so until his death on January 26, 1984. He was a great loss to me. I still miss him.

Quick side note here: The Disney Studio, while small, was like most Hollywood studios, in that it had “everything.” Nurse, machinist shop, paint lab and chemist, print shop, frame shop, prop shop, wood shop, barber and hair dresser, chefs and commissary, costume shop, model shop, auto mechanics, car wash, furniture makers, and craftsmen of many different kinds were right on the lot. Rarely did anyone at Disney go “off property” for anything much. Production issues were solved right on the lot.

One such issue was Walt’s idea, once the idea of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took on reality, that he wanted it to be a “moving illustration,” resembling the beautiful work in European storybooks he had known as a child. This was new. As with the rest of the innovative film, nothing so demanding had ever been attempted in animation.

Disney artists knew how to create animation backgrounds in a watercolor style, but the kind of work Walt envisioned was different than what they were accustomed to and extremely time-consuming and costly.

THE WATER COLOR TECHNIQUE

Watercolor is one of the most difficult painting styles to control. You see, watercolor paints are bright whole pigments ground or milled in a small amount of binder. They are transparent because they are used as thin watery washes applied to specially prepared watercolor paper that is bound on all four sides so that it will not buckle when exposed to the large amount of water in the colored washes when applied. Too, there is no such thing as white watercolor paint. Because of the nature of the medium and its style, the white areas in a watercolor painting are the paper itself.

Colors are applied and washed back to reveal the white of the paper. When applied the colors “bleed,” creating new colors and color combinations. Because of the solubility and transparency of the colors, all it takes is one drop of water to ruin a watercolor painting. And, once the artist commits to a color there is no turning back. Unless washed back right away, the color is there and remains there. The process is a slow and careful one. You should be getting the idea watercolor technique is not so easily applied to the animation process. This was the problem that Emilio tried to remedy with his friend, chemist Fred Wallach. Their answer was Aqua-Fix.

But what was Aqua-Fix and what did it do? Why was it so important, and what happened to it?

WHAT WAS AQUA-FIX?

As the name implies, the product was a fixative. Fixatives are used in fine art to coat watercolor, pastel, and other types of works of art on paper to make them impervious to change or damage. In earlier days most were light varnishes; these days they are usually acrylic in nature.

But Aqua-Fix was something enormously different. It was created to make possible the production of watercolor paintings in a fraction of the time traditional water colorists required to do the same job, thus responding to the needs of a production schedule.

All of this and more I learned in my attempt to find out what Aqua-fix is or was, what it was used for, and how it was made.

My search began on February 28, 1984—a month almost to the day from Emilio’s death— when Peter Daniels, of H. G. Daniels called me. The Daniels company was the West Coast’s largest art materials dealer, the place for anything in art materials, and Disney was their long-time customer. Peter said someone at Disney had contacted him asking to purchase Aqua-Fix. Peter had no idea what it was and called me.

I had lots of questions. Peter directed me to the person making the request, Disney background artist Jim Coleman. Jim was delighted to hear from me. He was almost out of Aqua-Fix. He said when Don Bluth left Disney in 1979 to start his own studio he took the last two gallons of Aqua-Fix with him. I met with Jim and he gave me a small amount of the product, about three milliliters, and hoped I could make more. That small sample and his brief description of how Aqua-Fix was used led me on a four year journey.

Here’s how Jim described using Aqua-Fix:

“I spray my background art board with Aqua-fix. Let it dry. That’s it! I’m done. When I paint on the board my water colors flow as usual. As long as they are wet I can wash them back as any good watercolorist would. But when they dry they are set. Now I can lay down a color or colors over them. But again, whatever dries is set. I can do the next layer and the next, each one setting as the first. I can create a layered water color painting in a fraction of the time it would take to do with traditional technique, even though the basic technique I use is quite traditional.”

It sounds simple but not so fast. It had taken two great chemists to work out the details. I knew one of them, but Emilio died before he could share with me the secret of this amazing painting system. Indeed, he had shared everything else, but fate prevented him from sharing this last secret. But I had a sample and knew how it was used. I sent a portion of my sample to a good friend at the Union Carbide lab who, I hoped, could “reverse engineer” or decode my sample. Two weeks later I got his answer: it could be one of about three dozen things, depending on the paper, the water pH and the paint brand. The test results were inconclusive, and the answers I was looking for remained as elusive as before.

I thought about Aqua-Fix from every possible viewpoint. I wondered if it could be some long-lost art product left over from a time 20 or 30 years before when the toxicity of chemicals wasn’t the concern it had become in the 80’s. An easy question, but who to ask?

H. G. DANIELS WAS RIGHT THERE ALL THE TIME

I was, at this time, working in an office building at the corner of 8th and Park View in downtown Los Angeles. Nearby, just a block away, was McArthur Park and just one more street over on 6th Street was H.G. Daniels, the aforementioned art materials dealer. Across the street from Daniels was McManus and Morgan, who was and still is a purveyor of fine artists’ papers. Why here? Because nearby was Otis College of Art and Design and Chouinard Art Institute. Many of Disney’s finest artists came from these schools, much in the same way many do today from Cal Arts in Valencia, California. I didn’t know it at the time, but I worked in the “artists’ triangle.” Because of my work at the time, I became friends with Peter Daniels, one of Harry G’s sons, who ran the store. Daniels introduced me to the National Art Materials Trade Association as well. Still, I was the Lone “Aqua-Fix” Ranger. Surely someone had heard of Aqua-Fix.

After reaching out to associates, friends, and anyone we could think of who might know or have a clue, we finally found out who knew about Aqua-Fix: no one. Absolutely no one could untie this Gordian knot.

AND THE ANSWER IS….

I wasn’t down yet. Had Fred Wallach, who had worked with Emilio on Aqua-Fix, kept notes or notebooks in which his formulas and products were stored? If so, where were they? If I could get to the notebooks perhaps I could find the answer. Fred’s son was the key and I contacted him. The books, along with Fred’s business, had been sold to another company and were not easily available, but the son would inquire for me. I waited weeks. But again, there was no answer: nothing in Fred’s books gave any indication of what Aqua-Fix might be. Back to square one.

Over three years now had passed since Jim Coleman asked me to make more Aqua-Fix for him. He’d moved on and no longer had a need for the product. The tiny sample he’d given me had been poked, examined, and fiddled with so many times that almost nothing was left in the tiny bottle except a memory.

At this point you’d think I would just give up. With the need gone who would care? But it was a missing piece of the Disney puzzle and, like Frank and Ollie, if I didn’t do it now, it would never get done. I had to have missed something. I didn’t know that for sure, but the little voice inside me said I’d missed something. I’d tried everything. Or had I? I returned to Jim Coleman. He described everything just as he had before. This time, however, I asked him to slow down and re-create the process. He retold the same story, but this time I asked scads of questions. He said, “. . . and when the board was dry it was ready to paint.” STOP! Paint with what? “Well, the paints I always use. Disney poster paint.”

Disney poster paints, as they were called at the Studio, were simple paints of whole color but, unlike animation paint, which is made for cels, the poster paint was made for the background painters. And, in many respects, it was a whole other concept. Was THIS the missing link? I had dozens of possibilities, but there could be only one key to unlock the mystery. Working as Emilio and Fred had a long time before, I and our color man, David, re-discovered Aqua-Fix. It turned out to be a very complex answer to a simple problem. What’s more, it is a toxic combination of chemicals that need to be formulated under close supervision. It is not only carcinogenic but mutagenic as well. In other words, it’s not something for home use. In a studio setting, it’s a miracle and worth including in Frank and Ollie’s momentous book.

Do we use Aqua-Fix in the lab today? Indeed we do. Its just part of the fascinating ink and paint magic that makes S/R what it is today. If we don’t save the techniques and materials, we can’t save the art. Frank Thomas was right: “If we don’t do it now, things will get lost, people will change, and the links to the past will disappear.”