September 2000 Volume 22 Number 3

An Introduction to the Forms and Materials Used in Animation Art

by Tim Campbell

In recent years the art from animated films has become more and more popular as a collectible art form. There are many and varied materials created during the production of an animated film; knowledge of what they are and how they were intended to be used should be of value to a conservator seeking to treat them, as well as to those who collect. The idea that the individual artists and pieces that contribute to the final product are not in themselves significant is as ill-conceived in animation art as it is in any other art form.

A large quantity and variety of this artwork left the studios in years past through various channels, and so there is quite a lot of it in circulation. At Disney it is estimated that each new animated film may entail the creation of a million drawings, sketches, and paintings. While only a small amount of material leaves the studios to represent new productions, animated films and television shows continue to create these art forms as "by-products," and so the market continues to grow. These items can sell for large amounts of money in auction houses and galleries, and sometimes turn up in museums. Private collectors are willing to spend to increase their holdings, They are also showing an interest in improving the condition of their treasures -- or at least ensuring that they last.

Much of the art from an animated film is art on paper, and ordinary methods of treatment are appropriate and easy to determine -- tears, folds, rolled papers, tape, staples, rusted paperclips, and glue are things the paper or paintings conservator encounters regularly. Some animation materials are specific to the industry and require a more specialized knowledge.

The first key to understanding animation art is knowing the processes and procedures involved -- the aspect of understanding the artist's intent common to any conservation treatment. The information here reflects how it has worked at the Walt Disney Studios.

A basic idea for a story is agreed upon, and the process begins: scripts are written and evolve; voice-talent actors and actresses make recordings; pictures, places, and people may be visited and researched to use as references for different subjects or characters in the film. Finally, teams of artists go to work producing visual development sketches, character models, story sketches, animation, backgrounds, and many other pieces of art. There are also 3-D study models (not covered here) known as maquettes, which are made to help teams of artists maintain a consistent look when a character is viewed from different angles or drawn by a different hand. All of these things, manipulated and processed by teams of experts in the field, add up to create the animated film.

The following are more detailed descriptions of the kinds of artwork and some of the artifacts produced in the making of a Disney animated film. While some information, unfortunately, must remain as trade secret, the following is presented to provide context and understanding of the artistic and historic value of these objects.


Many artists work on designing the visual style for the film: the characters in it, the world in which they interact, the basic color schemes, etc. Visual development or concept sketches are done for events in the story, to plan how they will be depicted. All of the characters, places, events, and scenery of the film goes through similar steps of being sketched and sometimes painted in various attempts to choose a final look.

These may be pencil, charcoal, pastel, or marker drawings, or paintings, of any size. Animation paper is frequently used, and in the past black or brown construction paper was commonly used. When characters or things attain their final, approved design through these experiments, certain drawings are set aside as models. These models are copied and distributed for use as a reference by many artists so that they can keep the appearance of the subject consistent throughout the production of the film.

A "size comparison chart" is usually drawn showing all of the main characters together so that their sizes relative to each other can also be kept consistent. "Color models" determine the paint colors (real or virtual) for the characters in various lighting and situations they encounter in the film. Visual development includes creating an environment in which to set the story, character development, prop and special effects model sheets, character model sheets, character size comparison charts, and color models.

The construction paper used was of poor quality and deteriorates quickly, and since the pastels are rarely fixed (to avoid color change) they also present a storage and conservation problem. Staples, tape, paperclips, and glue were sometimes used on these sketches.


Story sketches, individual drawings viewed sequentially to show the progression of events in the film, are created by one or more artists and selected or rejected. Different permutations of these sets of sketches, pinned to memo boards for review, finally evolve into one set of final storyboards for the film.

Story sketches are typically done on small (5" x 7" or 8" x 8") pieces of low-quality paper, but are occasionally done on construction paper (black) or on animation paper. They nearly always have a number written in a corner (or multiple numbers from different series) indicating the place held on a storyboard, and even more consistently have pinholes in the corners. Some artists have utilized acetate levels in their sketches, gluing paper cutouts or painting on the plastic, and stapling or taping it to the paper level. For some early films, story sketches were created with more than one drawing to a page, and they were often bound into a book. Attached or accompanying strips of paper (usually hand cut) may have lines of dialogue associated with the drawing.

There are "in picture" and "out of picture" (OOP) story sketches and storyboards; storyboards are often photographed to represent entire sequences of the film. Multiple photostatic reproductions of these images were often produced.

Staples, tape, paperclips, and glue frequently occur with these sketches. Pastel and charcoal sketches, which often are not fixed, present the usual problems.


Animation drawings often make up the bulk of the material produced for an animated film. These are uniformly sized sketches or drawings, one for every frame of film where the subject of the drawing moves; a sequential number on a corner of the page indicates this. Animation artists draw the important drawings in a scene of action, especially the drawings at the beginning and ending of a move or gesture, called extremes. Other artists, called in-betweeners, create the drawings that make a smooth transition from one extreme to the next.

The first drafts of all of these drawings are called rough animation (or ruff); they may have notes on the page indicating the intended timing for the frames, a line of dialogue coinciding with the drawing, as well as a frame number. Clean-up artists work on clean-lined versions of these same drawing and make them look as they will on screen. (From the 1920's until after "The Little Mermaid" in 1989 at Disney these drawings were duplicated onto plastic sheets and then colored with paints, and these sheets or cels were filmed.)

Other animation artists work through similar steps to create special effects, such as explosions, lightning, or crashing surf, and to create the illusion of depth, adding highlights and shadows.

Animation drawings are usually pencil line drawings on a low-quality, newsprint-like paper, although newer films use better papers. The paper has a row of holes at the bottom which fit over pegs to hold the drawings in place. This allows the artist to flip back and forth easily between drawings in a scene.

Primary conservation concerns with animation are due to deterioration caused by light exposure or handling, as well as the quality of the paper.

There are several categories of animation drawings kept by Disney. 1) Rough animation (created first to establish position, style, and timing for movement on screen) and OOP rough animation (for scenes cut from the film) - the animator determines the essential styles of appearance and motion in these drawings. 2) Clean-up animation (the final look the image will have on screen) and OOP clean-up animation. 3) NG ("no good") animation (which has been replaced by a newer version). 4) Test animation (exploratory efforts which are filmed and reviewed)


Layouts are drawings done to represent how a background should look in its final form; essentially, they are the blueprints for the painted background. Layouts are often on thin paper or vellum. They may range in size from standard animation camera field-sizes to long pans, and pages may be taped together. A layout is usually accompanied by a page with information about the scene in the movie that it represents. Notes on special effects and lighting may be included in the layout. There may be several layouts on separate pieces of paper to represent the various overlay and underlay layers, too. "Layout overlays" are layouts that show character position, and they are often marked with red and blue pencil to show fielding. There are clean-up layouts, OOP clean-up layouts, ruff layouts, OOP ruff layouts, and test layouts.

Layouts are treated roughly during production and are usually folded and creased as well as taped.


In determining the style, color scheme, and overall look of a background for a scene, many pieces of art may be generated. Early efforts may be in any media or size, as "visual development" pieces. Thumbnails attempt to capture in one painting the look of a scene, and once this has been determined then "keys" are chosen as references for creating the final background.

Background keys are typically very small, quickly executed paintings created to work out the look of the final background. Color keys may be simple blocks of the exact colors selected for use on a background or in a sequence of a film. Many of the keys take the form of small cards of illustration board, painted and then covered with acetate (by the production crew) to protect them from dust and dirt. There are background visual development pieces, background keys, OOP background keys, and background thumbnails.

Staples, tape, paperclips, and glue were sometimes used on these sketches.


Backgrounds are the non-moving elements in a scene of animation. Most typically, backgrounds take the form of gouache paintings on illustration board or heavy paper, and they usually have peg holes like animation paper. When early backgrounds were painted on illustration board, the painted layer was peeled from the board in order to fit beneath glass of the camera platen. They may be of a standard camera field-size, in which case they are "stills," or they may require the camera to move along in a plane, and these are known as "pans."

Some backgrounds are done in pastels or watercolors, and experiments in other materials are not unheard of. Backgrounds frequently include combinations of layers of acetate sheets with painted images, called overlays or underlays; these combinations allow the same background to be used in different ways for different scenes, benefiting continuity as well as efficiency.

Background painters create samples of color schemes for each scene to fit the mood and action taking place, and layout artists provide a detailed plan for the background. From these the background artists proceed to paint the full, detailed background that will appear on screen. Individual artistic styles and techniques can sometimes be recognized.

There can be OOP backgrounds, NG backgrounds, test backgrounds, and experimental backgrounds in addition to "in picture" backgrounds.

Tape, and especially a very durable black plastic tape with a very strong adhesive, is frequently encountered on backgrounds. Folds and tears are sometimes found, depending upon storage conditions and history. Since backgrounds are sometimes quite large, they were also sometimes rolled or even cut.


Cels are sheets of plastic with an image (exactly like the clean-up animation) inked on and then painted on the reverse, and there is one for every frame of film that shows something moving. Cels are problematic, as they consist of paint on one of several formulas of cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate (in the case of older cels). These materials are unstable and, as well as deteriorating, can cause damage to other artwork stored in proximity. The type of plastic used sometimes varied even within the production of a single film. Newer paints have a vinyl copolymer base, while older paints were gum-based.

Images painted on plastic for non-moving parts of a scene are usually called overlays or underlays and are associated with backgrounds. Cels were also painted for other purposes; for example, as color references for cel painters or specifically for sale.

This technique for showing movement on film is no longer used by the major animation studios. Today, animation drawings are either created in or transferred to computer files to achieve the illusion of life and motion. At Disney the drawings are still done by hand and then colored by computer.

In addition to the inherent vice of the plastic used for cels, other conservation concerns include flaking paint (depending upon the particular recipe used for each color at different times), sticking of the paint to some other surface, rips or tears in the plastic, or deformation due to changes in temperature and humidity.


Continuity is a term with a couple of meanings in animation, especially for older films. Continuity sketches may be the same as story sketches, or they may be another set of small drawings, sometimes in book form with corresponding dialogue. Drawings may be taped, stapled, or glued into a book. Continuity may also refer to the script and story as it is written.

Staples, tape, paperclips, and glue frequently occur with these sketches. Pastel and charcoal sketches, which often are not fixed, present the usual problems.


Workbooks are bound sets of drawings or copies of drawings with instructions (such as camera directions) and notes for different artists working on the film. The workbook sketches may be taken from story sketches or visual development, but are often created specifically for the workbook by layout artists. They are usually organized by sequence. Drawings may be copies or originals, and may be taped, stapled, or glued into the book. Written comments and directions may accompany the drawings.


There are many other documents and papers gathered together in the production of an animated film, and these are often of historic interest although they may not look like much.

Animators often seek certain levels of realism, and references used for this purpose sometimes continue to exist as artifacts of interest. Many photographs may be collected showing locations, people, or things, and collections of notes or descriptive summaries are also created. Photos or computer captures from video may show actors in poses or actions; there may also be actual costumes for characters.

Several documents may exist for a film that detail the dialogue, scene descriptions, and action or directions. Drafts combine all of this information, to varying levels of detail. Scripts contain less information about artists, backgrounds used, fielding, etc., than drafts. Cutting continuities ensure that dialogue and scene match up appropriately.

X-sheets (camera directions called exposure sheets); bar books, dialogue tracking, and gray sheets (for keeping dialogue timed properly with animation on film); production notes (reviews and ideas during the movie-making process); and various items created for publicity (posters, etc.) are other examples of the materials that are related to the production of an animated film, and may have value to a collector.

With all of these, the usual conservation problems associated with documents occur: staples or paperclips, tape, glue, light, and water damage are not uncommon.

And finally...

These various categories and types of artwork from the animation process are often just the first generation of a family of pieces related to a theme or to certain characters. Characters and images may look different when created for different purposes and in different forms; for example, art made by divisions of Disney other than Feature Animation. Original artwork is also created for publicity or for sale (posters, toys, fast food containers, etc.), and there may be sequels or spin-offs from films (for the theater, TV, video, or DVD), as well as children's books and comic books, the list goes on.

It is important to understand the original context in which a piece of animation art was created before making decisions about any kind of conservation treatment, as some of these pieces have history, purpose, and additional value beyond the aesthetic.


Abrams, Robert E. ed., Treasures of Disney Animation Art. New York: Artabras, 1982.

Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney's World of Fantasy. New York: Everest House, 1982.

Canemaker, John. Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

--. Paper Dreams : The Art & Artists of Disney Storyboards. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Culhane, Shamus. Animation: From Script to Screen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Grant, John. Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters. New York: Harper & Row, 1998.

Hahn, Don. Disney's Animation Magic. New York: Disney Press, 1996.

Krause, Martin, and Linda Witkowski. Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs : An Art in Its Making. New York: Hyperion, 1994. *

Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. New York: Crown, 1984.

Solomon, Charles. The Disney That Never Was. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Thomas, Bob. Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

Thomas, Frank, and Ollie Johnston. Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981.

Tim Campbell is an Archivist at the Animation Research Library, Feature Animation, The Walt Disney Company, Burbank, CA. He was assisted with the bibliography by Joanna Samija, Collections Specialist

It is a long harbored desire/plan of mine to do a series of articles on the subject of animation art. There is a notable lack of published information on the subject and few conservators who are willing to take these works on for treatment. Creating a body of information about the materials, methods, and uses of the various artifacts produced in the animation process is the first step in developing a consensus on how these pieces should be treated.

It is hoped that authors will be forthcoming to contribute articles on the following subjects: condition problems; treatments suggestions and rationales (preferably several different approaches might be discussed); handling, framing and exhibition; storage.

The Editor

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