03/27/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After 22 Years, Lella Smith Checks Out as Creative Director of Disney's Animation Research Library

When Lella Smith's 10-year-old godson, Rey, found out she was retiring from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, he was incredulous. "Why would you do that, Auntie?" he said. "You've got the coolest job in the world!"

For over two decades now, Smith has been the creative director of this little-known department of the Mouse Factory, a place that Disney CEO Bob Iger once called "... the most important department in the company." But on the 29th of this month, Lella will be retiring from The Walt Disney Company. Whereupon Mary Walsh, Lella's co-director for the past seven years, will then be in charge of this repository for all of the Disney animation artwork created for its feature-length and classic short animated films.

"Don't get me wrong. I love my job and I've honestly enjoyed every second that I've spent at the ARL," Smith stated during a recent phone interview. "When you work for the Walt Disney Company, you work pretty hard on a continuing stream of very interesting and complex projects that engage your imagination and challenge you."

And when Lella talks about "interesting and complex projects," she isn't kidding. These are just a few of the projects that Smith and her team have worked on over the past year:

• A large Disney art exhibition to introduce the people of China to the company's characters and stories that is planned to open in the summer of 2015.

• Provided the folks at Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment with artwork for inclusion with all new bonus materials for the Diamond Edition of The Jungle Book.

• Worked with the team that is producing the live-action film, Maleficent, providing them with a variety of reference material from Disney's 1958 animated feature Sleeping Beauty so that Angelina Jolie's portrayal of the Mistress of All Evil would be true to the original.


Mind you, this is just a sampling of the diverse projects that Smith and the ARL
worked on in 2013. Their primary mission remains the preservation of the Walt Disney
Company's animation legacy. This requires the constant care and careful cataloging of an astounding estimated 65 million animation drawings, background paintings, concept art pieces and story sketches that Disney keeps in this climate-controlled/high-security facility that would be the envy of any museum.

"Fortunately, Disney is luckier than most of the studios out here in California. You see, Walt was kind of an archivist," Smith explained. "Perhaps it was because he came from the advertising world where it was common practice to store completed work in the 'morgue' (the original name for the ARL) so that it could be retrieved in the event the material could be useful for future campaigns. His decision to follow this practice at the Studio has proven to be an essential element facilitating the Company's synergistic growth to become a global entertainment juggernaut. Naturally, as the Company grows, the demand for artwork grows along with it. It is not unusual for a client to request more than a hundred images for projects as disparate as decorating hotels and cruise ships or developing a new consumer products line. It really says a lot about Walt and the Company that they had the foresight to start doing this 85 years ago."

"Of course, in order to be able to do something like that, it is helpful to have a thoroughly cataloged collection and that takes time," Smith said. "Take, for example, Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Some studio veterans will tell you that this film was in production for six years while others will tell you it took ten. All I know is that it took a team of six ARL collections specialists and four image capture specialists 18 months to first analyze and reconstruct the story boards and then document and digitize just the concept art and story sketches from that film. Remember, in those days, it was not unusual to create over a million pieces of artwork for an animated feature film."

But, in Disney Corporate's typically forward-thinking fashion, it just wasn't enough that the artwork from its 60 full-length animated features was being kept safe and dry. John Lasseter and other Mouse House executives wanted this material to be remotely accessible by all parts of the Company. This prompted the development of the GEMS initiative at the ARL, headed up by the ARL's Managing Director, Mary Walsh, their technical manager, Mark Dawson, and a team of professional photographers. Lella considers it to be the most exciting and revolutionary project that Disney's Animation Research Library undertook during her tenure.

"Capturing the artwork at a high resolution helps us in two ways," Lella explained. "First because Disney and Pixar animation employees can now -- right from their desktops -- call up all of these rarely seen artworks and then zoom in really close to study the painterly style of the artist or the progression of animation drawings. It is an educational tool and it is inspiration for today's artists. And secondly ... well, it means that -- now that these pieces of art have been digitized -- we no longer have to handle them quite as frequently. Which, given how fragile some of these items are, is a blessing."

"Digitizing all of this artwork -- getting the color on each individual scan just right -- is admittedly a slow go, but after five years, we have captured 1.5 million images." Smith said. "Everyone in the Company loves what we've done so far and it has enabled us to share this wealth of assets with others in the Company all over the world."

Mind you, The Walt Disney Company clearly believes in the mission of the ARL. That's why -- just in the time that Lella has been working at the library -- she's seen the staff grow from just five to now 23 cast members, with each of them dedicated to preserving and protecting Disney's creative legacy. Thousands of works of art have been properly archived and made available for future generations and, a traveling exhibitions program has been developed, including Dreams Come True, Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studio, which has been shown in New Orleans, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and and has a planned tour in Europe starting in 2016.

But even with all of the pats-on-the-back that she received for curating last year's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic that opened at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and moved onto the Norman Rockwell Museum (over 96,000 people made a special trip out to Stockbridge, MA during the five months this artwork was on display) or the possibility of being able to travel to China next year to help launch the ARL's newest exhibition, Smith still thinks that she made the right decision to retire this month.

"I have to say, though, that I did think long and hard about that trip to China in 2015," Lella admitted. "I have not been to China since 1980 when I took an exhibition to Beijing from the Armand Hammer Collection. It would be interesting to see the new museums and all of the changes that have a occurred," Smith admits. "But then again, when you have worked for Disney, you never really stop working for the Company. I mean, later this Fall, I'll be going on the Disney Cruise Line, departing Barcelona and giving five talks about -- what else -- the history of Disney animation art. And I will remain involved in Disney projects as long as they ask me."


But before she headed out the door and settled into her quilting studio, Lella took on one last project: A book about one of Walt Disney's great artists Marc Davis (1913-2000). This book -- titled Marc Davis, Walt Disney's Renaissance Man -- will be released this fall by Disney Publishing. Smith made a pledge to Marc's widow, Alice Davis, that she would not retire until Marc's book was published. Many people know that Marc animated such characters as Maleficent and Cruella de Vil and designed charming theme park attractions, but his talent was much broader.

"Working with the entire ARL staff, we found dozens of artworks never published before, both from the Alice Davis collection and from the Disney Company to reveal the breadth of Marc's talent; his fine arts, animal and motion studies, watercolors from his travels to places like Papua New Guinea and his sketchbook drawings. Included in the book are original essays by well-known Disney scholars and professionals," Smith concluded.

Well, with this fall's publication of that Marc Davis book, here's hoping that Smith can take pride in all the changes that the ARL underwent during her two decades-plus tenure. More to the point, that she can sail off into retirement at the end of March knowing that all 65 million pieces of animation art are in very good hands.