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Animation Resources' Mission to Build a Digital Archive of Cartoon Art

"Pinocchio" art by Milt Kahl | Courtesy of Animation Resources
"Pinocchio" art by Milt Kahl | Courtesy of Animation Resources

Stephen Worth holds up an aging caricature that somehow bounced through animation studios and parts unknown over a period of decades. The drawing of a man with an oversized pencil tucked behind the ear turned up in a trash can at Film Roman, the studio that makes "The Simpsons." A production assistant found it and turned it over to Worth, who recalls the conversation: "I don't know who this is, but you like old stuff. You can have it."

A fascinating collection of "old stuff" is displayed throughout Worth's Pacoima home. Vintage marionettes are displayed on a mantel across from the living room sofa where he is seated. Gnomes are arranged in a corner. Out in the hallway is a hefty collection of records cased in sleeves that show the wear of decades. Worth's great passion, though, is animation. He has worked in the field since the early 1980s. By day, Worth is a production coordinator for the popular web series "Bravest Warriors" and "Bee and Puppycat." After hours, he's the archivist behind Animation Resources.

Self-portrait of Ub Iwerks | Courtesy of Animation Resources
Self-portrait of Ub Iwerks | Courtesy of Animation Resources

On a recent Sunday, Worth sits in the living room with a few of his Animation Resources teammates. There is JoJo Baptista, who works on "Bravest Warriors" and got much of his animation training through materials found in this collection. David "Pez" Hofman studies the classics of animation when he's not working on an updated Bugs Bunny show, "Wabbit," for Warner Bros. Alex Vassilev is the tech whiz helping them get this archive online. Together, they're working to build a massive, digital archive of animation art, ephemera and other related materials that will be available by subscription to students and professionals across the globe.

Part of the story goes back to that caricature found in a Film Roman trash can. It's a self-portrait of Ub Iwerks, the man who created Mickey Mouse. Sometime later, Worth showed off the picture to a room full of animation professionals. No one recognized Iwerks. "If it were film directors and I held up a photograph of Alfred Hitchcock or Fellini, they would have recognized it," says Worth. Animation, however, is different. In this semi-anonymous community within the entertainment industry, artists move from project to project, often from studio to studio, with little fanfare. There are a lot of different types of animation artists, from character designers to animators, who collaborate to make a piece that is so cohesive that it looks as though it is the work of an individual. In the history of the cartoon world, relatively few names will stand out -- Chuck Jones, Jay Ward, Walter Lantz and even Iwerks among them. Their faces, though, are obscured by the images of the characters they created.

"Advanced Animation" by Preston Blair | Courtesy of Animation Resources
"Advanced Animation" by Preston Blair | Courtesy of Animation Resources
Courtesy of Animation Resources
Courtesy of Animation Resources

Animation artists typically don't become celebrities. Yet, their contributions to art are immense. The characters they create and artistic styles they champion can, and often do, influence the folks who paint on streets or create works that turn up in gallery shows and museums.

"Animation is kind of taken for granted because it has been relegated to a kiddie ghetto," says Worth, "but the actual artistic merit of it and the artistic difficulty of it is up there with the most advanced sorts of art forms there are."

The Animation Resources database is still being built and only available via a local server, although some works have turned up on the group's website. It's a "stepping stone," says Vassilev. Ultimately, Animation Resources will include production art along with completed clips that haven't aired for decades. There will be biographical information on the artists, as well as old correspondence courses and other educational materials. It will all be organized in a way that is easy for users to search.

Drawing by Mike Lah, used in the layout process of a Tony the Tiger ad, c. 1960s. | Courtesy of Animation Resources
Drawing by Mike Lah, used in the layout process of a Tony the Tiger ad, c. 1960s. | Courtesy of Animation Resources
Courtesy of Animation Resources
Courtesy of Animation Resources

Although far from complete, the behemoth collection already takes up 64 terabytes of hard drive space. Volunteers have diligently scanned and saved high resolution images from the collections of artists like Ralph Bakshi and "Ren and Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi. The families of late Golden Age animators have brought in their treasures to be digitized. The plan is to open up membership opportunities in early 2015, with proceeds going towards more cloud space and equipment maintenance so that the 501( c) (3) non-profit can continue adding to the archives.

The seed for this project was planted decades ago, when Worth was a UCLA student volunteering at ASIFA-Hollywood, the group behind the industry's Annie Awards. Worth met Bill Scott, then ASIFA's president (and best known to the masses as the voice of Bullwinkle). Scott shared a dream project with Worth. He wanted to build an "animatech," where animation artists could study and work with the aid of a fantastic archive. It was a worthwhile project, but one that was too expensive to put into action at the time. Later, though, Worth saw how this is possible. The answer was in computers. A virtual library could make the materials accessible to artists outside of Los Angeles. It also has a benefit for the collectors of animation art. "People who have extremely valuable family heirlooms are willing to donate a digital version of that to our collection," says Hofman. Worth started the project at ASIFA's offices and eventually moved it into his own home, where he self-funds Animation Resources.

Gussaf Tenggran's art for a Grimm's Fairy Tales collection. | Courtesy of Animation Resources
Gussaf Tenggran's art for a Grimm's Fairy Tales collection. | Courtesy of Animation Resources
Courtesy of Animation Resources
Courtesy of Animation Resources

The digital world and the tangible one collide at Animation Resources HQ. Amid the hard drives and aging computers are some of the artifacts that are part of the collection. Worth pulls out a scrapbook of "Snow White" press clippings and memorabilia compiled by the wife of one of the film's animators. He points to a drawing of Mickey Mouse's hands hanging on his wall. Animation art fills the house, from a large print out of Mary Blair's art for "Three Caballeros" to maquettes of characters like Betty Boop. There's even more art on the in digital files. Worth flips through parts of the database. In addition to the cartoons, there are comic books and newspaper strips and book illustrations.

One of the standout pieces of the digital collection is the first edition of Preston Blair's Advanced Animation, featuring MGM characters that were taken out of later editions of the how-to text. JoJo Baptista was a college student when he studied the book. "I had always wanted to work in animation and I always drew as a kid, but I didn't have the skills that were necessary to work at an animation studio," he says. "Thanks to the archive, I was really able to hone my skills."

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Worth used eBay -- "the greatest archive in the world," he says -- to source much of the material in the archives. "The greatest collections of animation art exist outside the studios," he explains. During animation's Golden Age, roughly from the 1930s through 1960s, studios produced an unfathomable amount of drawings. While some of those pieces of art were given to visitors or mailed off to friends and family, much of it was considered trash. While animation artists were sometimes able to salvage production art, much of it was carted off like garbage. "There are dumps that are massive art galleries," he says. For example, he notes, some say that the cels for Fantasia are buried somewhere in Placerita Canyon.

While Animation Resources can't save what has already been lost, they can bring together the remnants of animation's history and present it in a useful way. In a statement relayed through Worth, famed artist Ralph Bakshi calls Animation Resources "a masters degree in creativity at your fingertips." He's right.

 

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