The oldest cels we were focused on in 1976 and 1977, when S/R began, were already more than 50 years past their prime. It wasn’t until the 1984 animation art boom that we were beginning to ask the hard conservation questions, but at that time we really had no answers.
When I started the Search and Rescue project of the Animation Society, which became S/R Labs, no one had even begun to take notice of how animation art was aging. In fact, almost all 20th Century objects were ignored in deference to antiquities of earlier centuries. The 20th century was barely old enough to command attention.
Now, with the 20th century solidly behind us, conservators everywhere are turning their attention to its concerns. Contemporary art, mod-style furniture like bean bags, radio and television housings and cabinets, and just about any “modern” object you can name, including telephones and kid’s toys, are made of unique plastics and materials previously unheard of and posing questions conservation is just beginning to answer.
Many manufacturers of 20th century objects were small businesses. They left no legacy except the products themselves, which were made and sold for a very short time. Larger companies have proven to be worse in many ways, as their production methods and materials are often claimed to be proprietary. Revealing such “trade secrets” that might expose the use of, say, toxic materials, could potentially leave the company open to a liability lawsuit.
JUST GO AWAY
Closer to home, all too many suppliers of inks, paints, and cels to the animation industry have fallen by the wayside, adding to the difficulty of addressing some conservation issues. Hanna-Barbera’s paint manufacturer, for example, sold his company to a father/son team. When they, in turn, saw the end of hand-painted cels in sight, due to the advent of the computer, they decided they would rather “pack up and go away” than sell their formulas. We know because we made an offer. Not interested in selling or licensing their formulas, they, indeed, packed up and went out of business. In the event, S/R managed to purchase ample supplies of their paint.
A similar thing happened with the long-established Duel-Clean Cloth used by Hanna-Barbera to clean cels and reduce surface static electricity. Bill Hanna called S/R one day and said Dual-Clean was going out of business and wanted to know if we knew how to make the product. Good question. We called the president of Dual-Clean with an offer to license the rights to produce it. “Nope,” he said. “For now, no one is getting or licensing anything from me.” In short, we were told to go away. We did go away, and created the Genie Wipe©, which essentially did everything the Dual-Clean cloth did, with some added features. It’s still available today and sold in the art and framing market. Of course, we produce the Genie Wipe for our own in-house use as well.
As with the Genie Wipe, S/R also makes its own inks and paints. Colors once seen only in cartoons and animated features are made here from the original formulas for conservation purposes.
We try many different kinds of products to achieve our results. The old studio chemists were clever chaps who used unconventional methods to create the many techniques we think of as Disney, Warner, or Fleischer special effects, and we had to be clever in turn to re-create them for conservation purposes. As with shadow paint, a Disney specialty, knowing what’s in a paint doesn’t guarantee knowing how its applied.
SORRY, YOUR SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT ARE NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Even the airbrushes used to create such visual effects as smoke or steam are no longer available. Not long ago our long-time sponsor, the Paasche Airbrush Company, called to say their historic AB airbrush would soon no longer be made. It is a unique turbo airbrush used by famous airbrush artists such as Vargas and Bill Lane, and was used exclusively by Disney. It is such a fine and unique instrument that it is made as both right-hand and left-hand models. We were fortunate enough to obtain enough airbrushes to do our work well into the future.
You may know that S/R Laboratories is home to Courvoisier Galleries® of San Francisco. Courvoisier, the first name in Disney art, released some of Walt’s finest art ever created to the public, beginning with Snow White in 1938. The Courvoisier unit at the Disney Studio is famous to this day for the unique and innovative backgrounds they created for their cel set-ups. While cels are plentiful in a film, the hand-painted backgrounds are not. One background was often used for several scenes in a film, serving literally thousands of cels. To fill the gap the artists created fanciful backgrounds using everything from decorative wrapping paper to genuine wood veneer. The wood veneer was made in Japan. And, while the original seller has been known to us for years, the Japanese supplier is long gone, making it virtually impossible to re-create a wood background on authentic material. Or so we thought. And, if you’re wondering about the wrapping paper? We have that too!
A RACE AGAINST TIME
There are literally hundreds of wood types that theoretically could be adapted for Courvoisier-style backgrounds. The key word is theoretically, as most are no more than wooden planks, as opposed to the beautifully-produced, paper-thin wood veneer used at the Disney Studios in the 1940s. And, as we found out, even if the wood is available as a veneer, knowing the correct type of wood is the key. For over 25 years we searched for the exact wood used. It wasn’t until a veteran of the decorative wood industry took an interest in our needs that we were able to locate the precise variety. Miraculously, it is still produced as a veneer almost exactly as it had been 80 years ago. Last year, in 2016, that fellow retired. The time window closed. Such matters are truly a race against time.
TIME CHANGES EVERYTHING
The point; when an answer finally seems right for the conservation questions at hand, it is often achieved late in the game. Even when we know exactly what is needed, it frequently is no longer available. And, while some things can be substituted, there is no substitute for the real thing. And when that happens we make it.
In short, time changes everything, and we, as conservators, must make changes in how we approach our work. The artwork itself changes, too, and presents challenges that are often unexpected and cannot be foreseen.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO
Keeping tabs or tracking the condition of your artwork is vital, and you can do it by keeping your art where you can see it. Keeping it in a closet or, worse, the garage, is neglect, plain and simple. Keep a notpad with the dates you last checked your art. Every three or four months is ideal.
Thanks to our sponsors and more than 40 years of continuous hard work we are best equipped to answer the needs of your art collecting now and in the future. We will continue to seek answers to the tough questions and when you ask them we’ll do our best to have real answers for you.