Vintage view: Animation celluloid

Kya deLongchamps shows the value of provenance when is comes to collecting celluloid from the golden age of animation.

Vintage view: Animation celluloid

Remember that first tense drama that made you shout out loud as a young child (and that was not your big brother biting the nose off your Barbie), chances are you were stirred up by a cartoon.

Mel Blanc’s voicing for the lean, outrageous scripts of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies created sheer magic bristling with pointy adult innuendo. Then there were the feature films — Disney’s Fantasia (1940) still glorious in its breadth of surreal creativity. The shock of Bambi’s mother’s death (1940) was an emotional drop-kick to the heart.

Original animation artwork refers to pieces actually used in the production of a short or feature film. Made from the late 1920s to the early 00s, stop-frame animation celluloid (cels), was hand-drawn and finished and used in the hundreds for mere seconds of TV cartoons and movie house features.

Happily, that means tens of thousands of animation cels survive. There’s even a handful from the short sequence that changed it all — Disney’s Steamboat Willey (1928) which brought us the wonders of synchronised sound. Whether you have a favourite film, character or animation artist, you can own a real moment in a film’s working history from as little as €150.

This area of collecting crosses over industrial design, art and movie memorabilia, so it’s a busy and well documented field with dedicated specialist dealers, books, magazines and enthusiastic collector’s clubs. The different areas of the artwork used during the making of a cartoon are, in large stroke — concept art used to work out the characters and story, storyboard sketches blocking out the scenes, and layout drawings putting the characters and background together.

Incidental rough drawings of extraordinary moments or more demanding facial expressions would be left in the hands of the chief animator for each assigned character, with animation assistants or in-betweeners, otherwise altering the lines that moved the character split second to second.

Each moment was then traced in ink onto individual celluloid (cel) and painted in by other skilled individuals. These transparent cels were then laid on top of each other to build up the final picture (cel set-up). This was then photographed in painstaking sequences that took years to complete for a full length feature.

The essential magic of design tied to film work is that it was part of the actual process, and in the hands of the creatives at the studio. Concept pencil sketches have a devoted following, as the energy of some of the most important animation artists from the Golden age is still perceptive, riven into the paper by a quickly working lead. Cels with the characters and complete layers of their background as they would have appeared in the film or short cartoon, command a premium. Look for major characters (or well known cameo stars) and points of the story with real dramatic interest.

A 1990s Warner Bros’ Batman ‘BLAM’ will be highly desirable (try animationconnection.com for some original production drawings) whereas Scooby Doo’s behind will be all but worthless (Hannah Barbera 1969- present).

The Simpsons was made using stop frame animation until 2002, with plenty of storyboards and production drawings available from €400, simpsoncels.com. A light drawing featuring Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie starts at €3,000 ex delivery from a limited number of dealers including animationsensations.com (US). A late Bugs Bunny painted cel (designed largely by Tex Avery and team in 1938) will be well up into three figures even from the 1990s for a full body rabbit.

Reproductions and ‘inspired’ artwork in signed, limited edition quality prints for contemporary CGI animated films, is of little interest to serious collectors. Marketing materials, while attractive, is also not what we are looking for. Hand-painted and hand-inked (xerographic-lined) reproduction cels are also on offer — again these were not used in the making of the film but are produced in exactly the same way.

Curiously prints and mass produced sericels can command relatively high prices and are easily confused with the original article. Ensure you have some sort of certification, a studio stamp with the scene number for example, and buy from a reputable firm who specialise in animation art. Packaging, especially if you’re having something sent from the States, is crucial, as fragile cels can bend, crease and tear. Display your pieces out of direct light, and under conservation glass if you can stretch to it.

There are real drawings, paintings and other fabulous original concept work used in the working up of block-buster CGI films available (fully animated or integrating CGI), but they are rare and very expensive.

Take a look at the eye watering masterpieces of freelance concept artist Ryan Church, a prolific ‘transportation artist’ who realised the writer and director’s imaginings for many sci-fi romps including the recent Star Wars films as Senior Art Director at Industrial Light & Magic, ryanchurch.com

Further reading: The World authority on early, pre-CGI cartoons and animation is Jerry Beck (US) and you can find a number of his books on Amazon.com

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