Ron Stark has a vanity license plate that reads “CEL DR.” The plate doesn’t lie. Stark was a pioneer and remains one of the few conservators to specialize in animation art.

Animation cels–individual pieces of art on clear plastic created by the thousands to make animated films–were typically used once, then discarded. Today, surviving cels are treasured by collectors who count “Cinderella” and “101 Dalmatians” among the happiest landmarks of childhood.

As director of S/R Laboratories Animation Art Conservation Center in Westlake Village, Stark both saves cels and feeds the nostalgia of collectors.

His is a time-honored trade. Centuries ago, conservators brightened the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel using sour wine and stale bread. But caring for ‘toon art is very different from tending the work of Vermeer or Picasso, Stark said.

A major difference is that the studios didn’t think about preservation because they rarely thought of their work as art. “That wasn’t an issue, because they were making movies; they weren’t making art,” Stark said.

Initially, cels were meant to last as long as it took to get them photographed–a few weeks at most. When animation was black and white, the cels were washed off and used again. That practice ended with the introduction of color. Colored paints stained the cels so they couldn’t be recycled.

Given how ephemeral cels were expected to be, it’s remarkable any survived, said Stark, who estimates that less than 2% of the 475,000 pieces of art created for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” still exist.

At S/R Laboratories, Stark, 52, and his four assistants, in lab coats and white cotton gloves, do their painstaking work in a near-sterile environment. When the lab receives a cel (or background painting or some other piece of animation art) for restoration, Stark first puzzles out what’s gone wrong. He uses such high-tech aids as a polarized light microscope, the device used to examine the Shroud of Turin.

Each Piece Presents Its Own Challenges

Stark studied conservation at McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, but most often taps the expertise acquired in 25 years of studying cels and other animation art. Has the cellulose acetate that makes up the body of the cel become brittle with age? Does it have to be softened before the image can be restored? Is that mildew on the cel’s surface a troublesome oxide or just garden-variety dirt? Each piece of art presents its own challenges.

Restoration of a cel typically costs $200 to $1,200, Stark said. The company’s work is on display in the exhibit, “Walt Disney: The Man and His Magic,” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley, through Sept. 4.

The S/R in the firm’s name stands for search and rescue, and it was in rescuing a damaged cel that Stark found his vocation. The occasion was a fund-raising sale for the Hollywood chapter of the international animation society. A woman brought in a cel that showed Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in “Fantasia.” When she held it up, bits of paint fell off.

Stark said a call for help to Disney got the response: “Don’t even bring it to Burbank. The people are dead. The paints are gone. Don’t bother.”

Working at a table in his home office, Stark used what he had learned as an amateur chemist, onetime art student and retoucher of photos for his college newspaper to bring the cel back to its original glory. “When I started doing that first Mickey, my hands shook,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe I was touching ‘Fantasia.'”

Duplicating Disney Colors Was Difficult

That sense of wondrous connection to the past is familiar to every collector of animation art. Mike Van Eaton, 40, started Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks when his animation collection outgrew his home. He got his first cels–featuring Warner Bros. characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck–after he found and returned the wallet of an animation dealer. “The first pieces were given to me as a reward,” he recalled. “It was fate.” He continues to buy “whatever makes me smile.”

Van Eaton, who has had cels restored by S/R Laboratories, praised the high quality of its work. Skilled conservators are rare, Van Eaton said, and those few who exist often run makeshift operations out of homes or garages. “He’s got a real lab,” Van Eaton said of Stark. “He brings a level of professionalism to it you can’t find anywhere else.”

At S/R Labs, Stark handles work from every major animation studio. Most helpful to him was Hanna-Barbera, which revealed its entire color palette, including Scooby Doo brown.

Stark’s biggest challenge was duplicating the thousands of different shades used by Disney, a secret the studio originally guarded with zeal worthy of the Manhattan Project or Scrooge McDuck.

Today, Stark boasted, S/R Laboratories has more than 10,000 colors and makes its inks and paints just as Disney did decades ago. But that knowledge was hard-won. When Stark approached former Disney employees, they tended to be tight-lipped. “Everybody was very secretive, as if they would hurt the studio or would hurt Walt’s memory,” Stark recalled.

Eventually, Stark had two big breaks. Retired Disney chemist Emilio Bianci shared information on the composition and properties of the studio’s paints and inks. Then Stark found a man who had made paint for Disney. Stark grilled him, and the man confessed he had forgotten everything. But, he added, “I wrote it all down.”

Another former employee showed Stark how to hold the brush to create the rich shadows that marked the Golden Age of Disney films. Thanks to such revelations, Stark and his staff are able to achieve such effects as sprinkling Tinker Bell with authentic-looking pixie dust.

Stark Passed the ‘Dragon’ Test

David Pacheco, creative director for Walt Disney Art Classics, said he calls Stark to answer such questions as the precise color of Snow White’s shoes. Stark also cares for Pacheco’s personal collection. The first time, Pacheco tested Stark by removing a tiny chip of paint from a cel from “The Reluctant Dragon” that needed restoration.

“It was so pristine, it was beautiful,” Pacheco said of the cel Stark sent back. Moreover, the restored paint matched the original chip perfectly. “That’s it,” Pacheco decided. “Whatever in my collection needs restoration, he’s got it.”

A lover of animation art, Stark doesn’t collect it himself, although another of his companies holds twice yearly auctions of work consigned to him. He also does appraisals.

Stark said he helped bust a forger of cels and has testified as an expert witness. He told the court in one case that a cel featuring the Seven Dwarfs was worth $7,000, some of which went to the unhappy owner’s soon-to-be ex-wife.