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Disney Affordable Treasures
By John Cairns and Wanda Lunn
One of the best kept secrets in Disney animation collecting is the variety of original production available to
collectors. Collectors who are introduced to cartoon art by inexperienced sellers on line or at the theme
parks, are often told that ‘originals’ no longer exist. “...all the cels were washed off.” , “...the paper was
mostly reused” are some of the phrases heard by novice collectors in many stores. This makes the studio
limited edition and modern production art seemingly the only choice for them.
But what the studios don’t want you to know is that we can find many wonderful original cels, drawings and
pre-production materials. These are not acquired through the studios, but by searching private collections
around the country.
Limited editions art is attractive because it can capture an entire scene from films with multiple characters.
In contrast, production art captures a specific moment or idea and will generally feature a single character.
Be realistic in your search. Remember, an original production cel or drawing is a way to have a unique rarity
for your collection, not necessarily the perfect moment from the film that you remember.
But how to judge, and what to collect? First you have to know what art is out there and how it was used.
Here’s a quick primer:
Production cels are the finished hand painted images on clear acetate or nitrate that were actually filmed
when making the cartoons. Production drawings will be either roughs of characters - (loose construction
drawings of the characters in motion), or clean-up drawings - (precise finished pencil drawings ready to be
transferred to cels.) Color model drawings are like clean-ups in that they are precise finished images used
as guides in the ink and paint department to identify colors on the different parts of the character’s body or
costume. Color Model Cels are the finished painted images used as color guides by the inkers and painters.
Also to be found are concept sketches in graphite or charcoal or pastels - these are the drawings used in
planning the look of the character and sometimes vary widely from the finished image. Storyboard sketches
are small drawings, pastels or charcoals used to plot the sequences and action in a film. Pencil Model
Sheets are a group of character sketches, either on one paper, or they are several images cut out and
mounted together on a larger sheet. Ozalid and Lithograph Model Sheets were made in a very small number
from the original pencil model sheets. These were used as drawing guides by the animators and in between
artists. Background layouts are sketches that will generally be in blue or gray pencil used to create the
final watercolor backgrounds. Production Backgrounds are the actual watercolor paintings used to film with
the cels. They are especially rare and valuable.
Here are some general points to understand.
Generally, feature film cels and drawings will cost more than short films, and the older the art, the more well
known the character, the more you are likely to pay. Most cels and drawings from the vintage era will be
single character images. You also need to understand the time periods in which the art was used and what
still exists. We like to think of vintage Disney animation art falling into 6 time periods; all under the
direction of Walt Disney himself.
The Short Film Era : 1928 - 1937
This is the time period when Disney produced hundreds of wonderful short films. Some of your favorite
characters were “born” in this era, including Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, the Three Little Pigs and many
others. Cels that still exist from this time period are quite rare for main characters and are very sought after.
Concepts, backgrounds and model sheets will not be bargains, but good values can be found if you
concentrate on lesser characters and scenes. Keep in mind that the first color Mickey cartoon was in 1935
and most vintage cels before that date are in black and white.
Best Values: Look for original pencil art of the main characters to get the best bang for your buck. We've
seen Mickey production drawings from this era in some pretty classic images from his short cartoons. Some
very early films like Steamboat Willie, and Plane Crazy are very rare and will be more expensive than other
1930’s films. Donald art is more plentiful from later years, but can also fall in this same price range. For
cels, search for images of secondary and odd characters for lower prices. They can capture the flavor of this
early era and be surprisingly affordable.
1937-1949 The Early Features and the War Years
The release of Snow White in 1937 turned the page on animation art collecting. For the first time, Disney
cels and other forms of animation art were sold as fine art through a few galleries. Thank goodness the
studio decided to do this marketing from 1938 through 1945. This release saved a great number of delightful
production art that might have been reused as cost saving measures or recycled for the war effort. This is the
era that produced many favorite films including Bambi, Pinocchio, and Fantasia and some of the less familiar
such as Fun and Fancy Free and Make Mine Music. Wonderful artwork survived in the private collections of
studio employees and many of these gems have found their way to the secondary market today. But art from
this time period is not plentiful and time and patience is necessary to find your favorites.
Best Values: This is a great time period to look for Donald Duck artwork since he appeared in many war era
films. Cels and drawings can be very good values. Look to pencil art for main characters from the features.
Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi can be found for much less than original cels and also in lovely poses from
their classic moments. Remember to recognize minor characters can steal the show in your collection and are
great values. Disney did lots of experimenting in this era. Concept art can be fun and reasonable. Pencil
background layouts from less known features or shorts can be a delight and very detailed. Keep your eyes
and mind open to the unusual from these years.
The Fantasy Years 1950-1959
Disney returned to the classic fairy tale in this era, releasing such memorable features as Cinderella, Peter
Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. Donald did battle with the famous chipmunks, Chip and Dale,
and Goofy made some delightful films as an “everyman” human-like character. The studio marketed cels
through the Disneyland Art Corner store for as little as $1.50 and many great images still exist in private
hands. Cels from Cinderella, Alice and Peter Pan tend to be a bit harder to find since the films were released
before the theme park opened in 1955.
This is the era to find great cels from the features. Most secondary characters are very affordable and even
the biggies like Alice and Cinderella are not necessarily out of sight. Goofy is affordable and fun in this era
as well as Chip and Dale. Kings and Queens from the features are fun to collect and not hard to get in a very
reasonable price range for cels! Lady and the Tramp cels of the sidekick dogs can be found for great values in
most cases and even the lead characters can be great deals. Remember that ideal portrait-like poses will
push prices up, but fun close-ups and action poses can be much more affordable.
Walt’s final films 1960-1967
Disney’s use of the new xerography outline technology changed the way cartoons were made. 101 Dalmatians
was made possible in 1961 with this new technology. The Disney Sunday television show brought back old
characters such as Tinkerbell and Jiminy Cricket, and introduced some great new ones like Ludwig Von Drake.
By this time Disney was no longer releasing theatrical short cartoons, so some of the best affordable art
survives from television animation. Feature films with animation include Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins
and The Jungle Book.
Look for some great classic characters in new roles. Jiminy Cricket, Mickey, Donald, Tinkerbell and even some
of the Seven Dwarfs were used on the Disney Sunday show. Ludwig Von Drake is a favorite from this era and
can be found in cels and drawings. Sword In The Stone cels are more affordable than 101 Dalmatians and
Jungle Book. Best bets from Dalmatians are the puppies, human and non Dalmatian dogs. From the Jungle
Book, Mowgli and Baloo and Kaa are very popular and can be found! Villains from this era will be very
reasonable compared to the Early Years.
So now you have some work to do and here’s the place to start. If you are collecting animation art already,
make an inventory of your current collection. What do you already have hanging on your walls? What does
your collection tell you about what you like? The point is that you need to be able to communicate your
interests clearly to your animation specialist. Are you attracted to multiple character scenes? Are your
focusing on one studio, film, or a specific group of characters? Do you see a reoccurring theme in your
favorite art? Realistic communication with your specialist will open new avenues of collecting for you.
So take the time to sit give us a call and make up that wish list. You never know what they can find for you
unless you ask!
Wanda Lunn and John Cairns have over 35 years of experience in helping collectors acquire quality animation art. They were
instrumental in the success of Gallery Lainzberg - at one time the nations first large showcase of animation art. They are the
owners of First Animation Art in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.