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Friday, May 30 • 11:00am - 11:30am
(Objects + Research and Technical Studies Session) Animation Cels: Conservation and Storage Issues

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This paper presents the results of collaborative research undertaken to study the technical properties, degradation, and preservation of animation cels. Traditional animation came about in the early 20th century and by the end of the same century was disappearing with the introduction of the digital age and digitally-created animated films.  Left behind is an art form that holds the characters of our childhood:  Pinocchio, Cinderella, Snow White – painted on thin transparent polymer sheets of cellulose esters such as cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate and more recently polyester.   These plastic sheets, known as “cels”, are the artwork that was then photographed to make the animated films.

Animation cels present conservators and scientists with a host of challenges, such as buckling, yellowing and off-gassing of the plastic due to hydrolysis and oxidation, whereas the gum-based paints are prone to cracking, flaking and delamination. Cellulose ester photographic films are stored in very cold environments to slow deterioration rates, but it is not clear that these conditions would be safe for animation cels painted with gum-based paints, because colder storage may be detrimental to the paints. Another challenge is assessing whether pollutant sorbents would be beneficial for removing off-gassed products. Would microchambers such as passé-partout mounts minimize or exacerbate the impact of fluctuating external environments? Additionally, the paints and plastic sheets may respond differently to the storage conditions, resulting in delaminating and flaking of the paints. Finally, research into flaking and delamination is sorely needed to aid in developing a proven method of reattaching paint while retaining the integrity of the work.

With little systematic investigation in this area, and a significant collection of American cultural history at risk, collaborative research was undertaken to begin examining the properties and dynamics of this medium. Disney’s large collection of cels, the diversity of production years (1930’s to 1980’s) and the various cellulose materials provided ample sampling material for this study. The collection includes cels stored in uncontrolled environments, as well as cels stored between 62-65 °F. 

Characterization of the cels by multiple instrumental techniques to assess polymer composition, aging behavior and plasticizer distribution was a critical part of the initial phase of this research. Identification of polymer type using Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FTIR) was helpful for differentiating cellulose nitrate cels from those made from cellulose diacetate, cellulose triacetate and polyester, because visual classification of cels is not always accurate. Pyrolysis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS) revealed unique plasticizer mixtures in the diacetate and triacetate cels, and evidence of hydrolysis of the acetate polymer and phthalate plasticizers. Estimates of the degree of acetylation by portable FTIR, bench-top FTIR and GC/MS were compared in order to assess the accuracy of the measurements and the suitability of non-invasive FTIR. Finally, the volatiles trapped inside the passé-partout mounts were studied by GC/MS in order to determine the usefulness of this storage method.
Animation cels represent an important and unique cultural legacy of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, the key preservation issue is finding the optimal environment to decelerate the degradation of this material. Further research towards that end is planned, building upon this analytical investigation.

avatar for Kristen McCormick

Kristen McCormick

Art Exhibitions and Conservation Manager, Walt Disney Animation Research Library
Kristen McCormick has been at the Walt Disney Company for over a decade and a half where she has been responsible for the safe keeping, care and transport of a broad range of artworks from African Art to Animation. In her current role she oversees the conservation care of the Walt... Read More →
avatar for Michael R. Schilling

Michael R. Schilling

Senior Scientist, Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage
Michael Schilling is head of Materials Characterization research at the Getty Conservation Institute, which focuses on development of analytical methods for studying classes of materials used by artists and conservators. He specializes in gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and... Read More →

avatar for Herant Khanjian

Herant Khanjian

Assistant Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute
Herant Khanjian received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from California State University, Northridge and has been a member in the Science department of the Getty Conservation Institute since 1988. His research interests involve the detection and identification of organic media... Read More →

Joy Mazurek

Assistant Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute
Joy Mazurek has worked as an Assistant Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute since 1998.  She specializes in the identification of organic materials by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.  She obtained her master’s degree in biology, with emphasis in microbiology from... Read More →

Miriam Truffa Giachet

Visiting Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute
In 2011  Miriam obtained an M.Sc. in Science and Technology Applied to the Cultural Heritage at the University of Torino with a Master thesis in chemical and physical characterization of photographic material.  In 2012 she worked for a year as visiting scientist at the Getty Conservation... Read More →
avatar for Thomas Learner

Thomas Learner

Scientist/Researcher, Getty Conservation Institute
Tom Learner is head of the Science Department at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI); he oversees all of the Institute's scientific research, developing and implementing projects that advance conservation practice in the visual arts. As a GCI senior scientist from 2007 to 2013... Read More →

Friday May 30, 2014 11:00am - 11:30am PDT
Bayview A-B