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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview: Mary Walsh, Managing Director, Animation Research Library at Walt Disney (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Mary Walsh has a fascinating and important role in managing and protecting the millions of pieces of Disney’s history under her care. As Managing Director, Animation Research Library at Walt Disney Animation Studios, a role she’s held since 2014, Mary is in charge of the repository containing all of the animation artwork for Disney’s vast library of feature-length and classic short films. This preservation work is significant, but for Mary, it’s the best job on the planet, and her enthusiasm and passion for what she does is infectious.

Home Theater Forum caught up with Mary to talk about Disney’s legacy, and to celebrate the recent release of Cinderella on Blu-ray (fresh out of the vault).

Cinderella is available to rent and purchase at all major retailers in DVD, Blu-Ray, and Digital now.

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HTF: Mary, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. Let’s start with what you do for Disney. If you had to describe your role in an elevator speech, how would you describe it to someone who had no idea what it is you do?

“We estimate that we have over 65 million pieces of physical art and objects in our collection. And then on top of that, millions of digital images as well that have been created primarily from our computer-generated films from the last decade-plus.”

Mary Walsh: First off, I think I have the best job at The World Disney Company. As the director here at the Animation Research Library, and I will often refer to it as the ARL because Disney likes to shorten things here. The Animation Research Library is the repository of the original artwork that was created for both the short and feature-length animated films that Walt Disney Studios has been producing since 1920s. The art and art collection dates back to the very beginning of the company up until present day. We estimate that we have over 65 million pieces of physical art and objects in our collection. And then on top of that, millions of digital images as well that have been created primarily from our computer-generated films from the last decade-plus.

We are not open to the general public, but we are a facility and entity available to anybody in The Walt Disney Company who needs access to that artwork for any stories they're telling, projects they're working on, product development. So we work with anybody from the theatrical team in New York to consumer products at the theme parks, all the way from Shanghai to Paris and Florida, the live action team, and then still continue to provide access to the artwork here for renewed inspiration enrichment for our current animation artists who constantly look back at the artists who came before them, and that legacy, in order to build upon that for our current and future stories.

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HTF: That is one of the best jobs in the world!

Mary Walsh: It is, it’s pretty cool!

HTF: I think one of Disney's strengths is its ongoing embrace its legacy. Do you think that's why Disney has endured? I mean, it's had some rough patches. Even Cinderella, when it was released, if it had failed at the box office, we might not be talking about this now the way we are. So, do you think that's part of the strength of the company, its untenable embrace of its past and its legacy?

“…so many of the artists you talk to today can go back to the moment they knew they wanted to work in animation, and most of those moments were being inspired by a Disney film as a child.”

Mary Walsh: I agree with you 100%, and we deal with that every day with the artists who come over here. Young artists are just out of art school and have maybe been in the studio just for a couple of years. The value they get out of having access to this artwork is immeasurable, quite frankly, because how do you actually calculate the value of inspiration one artist can get from another artist? And just knowing the legacy of the films and the quality of the filmmaking and storytelling that came before them, so many of the artists you talk to today can go back to the moment they knew they wanted to work in animation, and most of those moments were being inspired by a Disney film as a child. So having that early inspiration, and for those lucky people in the world who are artists and who know what they want to do when they "grow up," to have accessibility to the art of the artists who came before them to ensure the quality of the filmmaking and storytelling for the films they're making today, [is important] because they all want to create films that are going to last for generations. And I think your point about the legacy of Disney's ability to look back and learn from and embrace the legacy, and not rest on that legacy but continue to build on it, I think is really, really important to how this company continues to evolve as storytellers.

HTF: I have read a few pieces about Disney's recent remakes of Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, even Cinderella, and one side of the conversation there’s a notion that Disney is not coming up with something new-they're retelling old stories. And I always balk at that because even the old stories were retelling of old stories. It's just that timeless nature of finding a story like Cinderella, which had been told many times in different mediums before Disney's film came out. It's just finding a way to tell that story for the audience of that time, and I think these remakes, if we want to call them that, the Cinderella’s, the Dumbo’s, and the Beauty and the Beast’s, are ways to express and explore that story for the time it's being created. Like the Cinderella film a few years ago directed by Kenneth Branagh.

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Mary Walsh: Yeah, the live-action film.

HTF: And I think it's perfectly okay to retell classic stories in new mediums with new artistic visions being poured in. Do you agree with that?

“And as our filmmaking processes evolve and storytelling evolves, artists are going to want to tell those stories in a way that connects to perhaps a more current-day audience. And I don't think they're just remaking the same story. They're bringing something new and different to it.”

Mary Walsh: I do. And I think your point about using Cinderella as an example, obviously the print version of this fairy tale comes, in some ways, centuries after similar stories that were told as far as in Asia and Egypt. So, I think it's based on very human stories that are told, to your point, at a point in time, in a specific culture, but the underlying human qualities and traits and characteristics I think surpass cultural boundaries. And as our filmmaking processes evolve and storytelling evolves, artists are going to want to tell those stories in a way that connects to perhaps a more current-day audience. And I don't think they're just remaking the same story. They're bringing something new and different to it. And in some cases, those films are fabulous, and they all, hopefully, will stand the test of time just like this animated classic has. When I look at it, they are fodder for great inspiration, and every storyteller is inspired by something or somebody.

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HTF: Right, right. And it's almost like the music example. You don’t really come up with a new tune. You can only come up with your version of how to play that tune. And that's almost like every story has already been told, how are you going to tell this story now? And I think that's part of the equation.

Mary Walsh: Right, exactly!

HTF: Last year I spoke with Kathryn Beaumont who voiced Alice from the animated Alice in Wonderland, which was the project that kicked off right after Cinderella way back when, and obviously she was the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan as well. She spoke very fondly of Walt himself and said that he was such a strong presence during the production. In our conversation, we talked about the way that Disney tells the stories, or the way that Disney approached the stories sometimes, departed from the original text, but it was so impactful, or it tended to resonate so magically with audiences, that it's the Disney version of the story that the world seems to know best. Disney’s Cinderella is probably a great example of that because we spend much of the film with the mice and seeing the story of Cinderella from their perspective, and that's a wholly unique approach on the story, which gets back to our different visions, different approaches to telling the same story. But what is it about the way that Disney approached these kinds of stories? I'm talking Pinocchio and the original Dumbo and Cinderella and Snow White. What is it about the approach that Disney took that really captures the imagination and supplants maybe the original text in some ways, Peter Pan being one of those examples for the world?

“[Walt Disney] knew with the medium of animation you can do it in a way that that film-making processes at that point in time, in the '20s and the '30s, from a live action point of view, couldn't allow you to do. And he used that and embraced it to tell what he believed are very humanistic stories that anybody in the world could relate to no matter where they came from.”

Mary Walsh: I think you rightly point it out and with Kathryn Beaumont's comment too, obviously, she worked with Walt and knew him and had exposure to him, but everything that I've read about him and the stories I've heard about him is that at the heart of it, he was a great storyteller. He loved stories, and he loved bringing stories alive. He knew with the medium of animation you can do it in a way that that film-making processes at that point in time, in the '20s and the '30s, from a live action point of view, couldn't allow you to do. And he used that and embraced it to tell what he believed are very humanistic stories that anybody in the world could relate to no matter where they came from. I think he always held true to that. If it didn't tug on his heartstrings, he assumed it wasn't going to tug on anybody else's heartstrings [laughter]. So, he really wanted to infuse the combination of emotion and humor, the quality, the filmmaking, the music, and everything coming together, and the audience had to invest in the characters. They were going to spend an hour-plus in the theater wanting to invest in those characters and understand their motivations and their development. And then also believe that the world in which they were living and moving around were real even though they were flat 2D art forms. And the combination of always having a strong story with emotions and characters you wanted to spend time in the believable world and holding to those tenets for all the films. I think we still do that today because we've had all these great films that come before us, and those are our teachers, right? We can go back and look at that, "Oh, this really worked. How can we take that element of storytelling and bring it into what we're doing today with the audiences of today but still have that emotional connection and reaction to it?

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HTF: I was reading recently from the New York Times about the Universal Studios fire back in 2008 and how they lost such a huge amount of vitally important cultural history. Now, for where you work and with the 65-plus million sketches and animated drawings and paintings under your care, does that kind of story break your heart, perhaps more than it does the rest of us, because you know the kinds of content that you have that make up that 65 million plus pieces. What do you do when you read something like that? Do you go back and review all your safety protocols and your fire precautions, or are you comfortable with the precautions that are in place to protect the Disney treasure? As you say, you can’t really put a price on it because of the inspiration gives. What does reading something like that do you for you and the role you play?

Mary Walsh: Well, one of the things-- and it's funny because I heard a similar story on NPR about that too, and I was here when that happened at Universal, so that was obviously something we were all talking about in all the archives within The Walt Disney Company. But the one thing that I am very grateful for is that we've always had a lot of senior executive support for the proper amount of care and attention the facility we're in needs. So if you went to any world-class museum who had a collection of similar types of work, everything that we have in place is here, just precisely to do what we can to preserve everything in the best possible way from fire retardants to security systems to environmental conditions in the wall from the humidity and temperature control. And we have a great facility. We have a great team who supports us in that. So, I'm lucky, and we're constantly evaluating those processes. We never take anything for granted because, to your point, the artwork in our collection-- it's the original IP of this company. So the value to that, not only you just the monetary value of it, but the inspirational value and what it means to the legacy of this company, and I would argue culturally as well not only maybe to the U.S. but worldwide, that those things are really important, and we do everything we can day in and day out to ensure the viability of that collection for as long as possible.

HTF: Thank you for what you do at Disney, and I appreciate the conversation today.

Mary Walsh: I appreciate it too. Thanks for your time, Neil.
 

MatthewA

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This is a great interview that for me completely refutes the notion carried by some that Disney doesn’t care about or have respect for its history.

The rank-and-file employees who actually handle these works of art care a great deal about the studio's legacy. Their actual archival standards are second-to-none, although having a relatively small library (pre-Fox merger) compared to other major studios probably helps make that easier. It's the executives they have to answer to I'm concerned about. Even if the current Blu-rays do not do the original classic films justice, it's still not too late to go back and redo them in ways that do.
 

Johnny Angell

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I would have liked to ask her if there is one item in the archive that you were allowed to have in your home, which item would it be? Also, I like that she listens to NPR.
 

Johnny Angell

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When I was a child, Disneyland used to sell original cels in a shop on Mainstreet, I think. They were probably pricey to me as a child, but they weren’t expensive. They weren’t prime cells, but I had a couple. Long gone. :(
 

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