The artworks in Ron Stark's lab are Disney characters that didn't live happily ever after. People who remember the conniving Br'er Fox from "Song of the South" or the debonair Jose Carioca from "Three Caballeros" would have trouble recognizing the forlorn handfuls of plastic in the chamber of horrors at S/R Laboratories: Br'er Fox had lost his head and Jose Carioca was curled up almost beyond recognition.
Fortunately, Stark is used to seeing cartoon characters at their worst--the task of his lab in Agoura is to restore the fire and sparkle to rare, aging gems of animation.
"It's saving everybody's childhood," Stark, 40, said of the lab's mission as a "search and rescue team" for damaged animation art.
S/R works with all types of animation art, from initial pencil drawings to the final product--even the movable models that artists use as the basis for their sketches--but it specializes in cels.
Cels, the transparent plastic sheets on which characters are painted before being photographed frame-by-frame against a background, are the most prized objects in animation art.
Each Cel Is Unique
Owning a cel, with a character crisply painted in vivid colors, is like owning a split second (1/24th to be exact) of a favorite film. As with etchings, cels are limited in number; in fact, each painted cel is unique, differing slightly from all others, even of the same character in the same scene.
But cels are also the most prized objects in animation art because they are the most ephemeral: Many simply vanished into a vat of solvent (remember "the dip" in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"), washed off because the plastic sheets were too expensive to use once and throw away.
Although animation art has always caught the interest of collectors, it has become big business in recent years. At a recent Christie's auction, a black-and-white cel and background from "The Orphans' Benefit," a 1934 Disney short, sold for $122,000. Even the cels that used to be sold at Disneyland for $1.50 to $4 can be worth several hundred dollars today. With prices like these, Stark's business has also soared.
Started 10 years ago "by accident" when Stark volunteered to restore a Mickey Mouse cel from the 1940 film "Fantasia," the company was launched as a nonprofit project of the International Animated Film Society. In the early days, Stark worked out of his Hollywood garage, which served as his lab. The society provided him with funding of $50 a month.
"Word was instantaneous," he said. "Within three months, there were more requests than we could keep up with."
Tracking Down Chemists
But he quickly found that the people who could tell him about the techniques for mixing paint and painting the cels were no longer at the studios as animation fell victim to prohibitive production costs. Stark spent years tracking down studio chemists and quizzing them about the way they made paint, and talking to artists about the quickly vanishing techniques.
As a result, studios sometimes ask Stark how certain effects were achieved, and the lab was recently asked to supply paint for the limited edition cels of "Sleeping Beauty."
His work has won the praise of his clients. Most collectors are reluctant to discuss their valuable holdings, but Ken Anderson, the art director for "Snow White," said S/R did a "fabulous" job, making aged cels from the Disney classic look the way they did 50 years ago.
The lab employs Stark, his wife, Juliann, who handles business matters, two assistants and a color man who mixes their paint. Stark's educational background is "mostly chemistry with some art," while the others, including Nancy Ulene, who previously worked in animation production, have art backgrounds and have picked up a smattering of chemistry.
Producing an animated film is a complex process, and each step uses materials that can fall prey to particular ills: After animators finish their drawings on paper (which may be torn or have a high acid content that must be stabilized), the images are traced in ink or photocopied onto the front of a cel. Ink can disappear over time or be washed away, as in the case of a "Lady and the Tramp" cel sent to the lab after it fell victim to overzealous housecleaning.
Early cels used nitrate stock, and although it is more stable than flammable nitrate film, because of its age and composition, it is more susceptible to its environment than acetate, which was introduced in full-length features beginning with "Fantasia," and subsequently in the short subjects.
Because traditional paints sometimes didn't stick to plastic, studios experimented with a variety of materials, employing chemists who often relied on their memories instead of keeping notes.
Problems With Paint
Whatever paint was used, it did not expand as much as the surface that holds it. Eventually, the paint on some cels broke into flakes and fell off. In one of his files, Stark keeps a large chunk of gray paint that had been the back of a "Dumbo" cel.