Icons in Plastics

In 1988 Dr. Charles Selwitz, a conservation scientist at the Getty Conservation Research Institute, learned about our work with animation art. At the time he was working on a study to explore the strength and use of nitrocellulose in conservation. We supplied cel samples for the study and discussed our treatments and procedures for cels made prior to 1940.

While considerably technical in nature, the study was published with the title, “Cellulose Nitrate in Conservation “. You can find it as a PDF document online here;

Dr. Selwitz and his valuable and revealing study and its results plays a part, to this day, in the way we think about the conservation and treatment of nitrate cels. In fact, our treatments and procedures dealing with nitrate cels were a direct response to the Dr. Selwitz’ findings.

You see, conservation scientists provide the window through which conservators view their work. In some of the most formidable labs in the world, these masters of materials run complex tests trying to unravel the unimaginable complexities that face conservators now and in the future. Based on the results of their work we are able build a road map that serves as a treatment regimen, thus anticipating and slowing the degradation of the art so many collectors not only love and care for but have invested in as well.

In a recent lecture, ” Icons in Plastic,” presented by the Getty Conservation Research Institute, four distinguished members of the conservation community gathered to present their observations and experiences dealing within the world of objects crafted of plastic.

Gathered together were Tom Learner, head of Science and leader of the Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative; Tim Bechthold, head of conservation at Die Neue Sammlung, the International Design Museum in Munich; Thea Van Oosten, former senior conservation scientist at the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) in the Netherlands; and Roger Griffith, objects conservator at the museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

For almost two hours the participants discussed such issues as lastability, restoration, display, storage, and reversibility. In all, what each had to offer only strengthened our collective knowledge. What we here at S/R Labs have experienced thus far in treating objects made of plastic will continue to change as the objects themselves change.

“While conservation science provides valuable insight into an object’s present condition, it is clear that analysis alone is just part of the story,” observes S/R director Ron Stark. Interestingly, Thea Van Oosten commented in her presentation that “beyond conservation science is the conservator. Matters of restoration and intended purpose are the realm of the conservator.”

Indeed, while conservation science is invaluable in assessing condition “in situ,” or as it is located, knowledge of how the object fairs over time and what contributed to its present condition are conservation answers hidden in years of experience in conservation practice.

The need for record keeping is a keen issue all conservators face, involving the ability to return to not only a single object’s treatment records but to view the records of similar objects and establish trend lines that will provide the logistics for long-term care and conservation.

“Our record keeping system is designed to keep track of our restoration history, with over 30 key “points of interest” in a searchable database custom designed for our practice,” explains Amelia Dodge, lab manager. “And, with more than 35 years of experiences we support the conservation and treatment of animation art from all of the world’s studios”.

What’s interesting to note is S/R Labs is not just an atelier. Here art materials that are no longer mass-produced can be recreated for the requirements of restoration in returning artwork not only to its original appearance but adding to its value and longevity as well.

When we listen, learn, and compare our time-tested approach to the conservation, preservation, and treatment of animation art with that of other conservators and conservation scientists, we know we are delivering on the promise we make to ourselves and the members of our client family every day.

The Disney color system

Many moons ago S/R Labs acquired the Disney paint system. I felt like Moses receiving the holy tablets and, in fact, the complete story is something of a miracle, you might say. I will leave the details of how that all happened to a book some day. Suffice it to say that when the late Roy E. Disney learned the details he was both surprised and delighted.

What is the Disney paint system?. It’s a lot more than a laundry list of colors and much more significant. It is the totality of Disney animation paint colors broken down into what are called top or full-strength colors, their mixes and various combinations, with their names, numeric designations, and references, which is why it’s called a system. There’s more, but that will do for now.

That first step was only the beginning of an even longer journey. You see, pigments are usually sold in 50 and 100 pound bags or even larger. Because paint formulas rarely call for all pigment, but contain various kinds of extenders, a 100 pound bag of pigment can last decades. The Disney Studio purchased large quantities of pigment so they really never had to refresh their supply over a multi-decade period. Too, Walt’s cost consciousness told him that if you buy a large quantity, you’ll get a smaller price per pound. Of course that makes sense. Later on, much later on, this created a real monster. The pigments purchased years before had become, to a great extent, extinct. That’s right. Gone, never to be made again, because either the company that made a certain pigment discontinued or updated it, or ceased operation and sold the line, or….well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say that dozens of pigments were well out of date by the time we received the Disney paint system. Now here comes the brilliant part. Just after The Black Cauldron finished production the Studio decided it would change the structure of its paint lab and disposed of all powdered pigments. No, I couldn’t believe it either. Many pigments were literally irreplaceable. I tried to rescue them, but the Studio feared some or all were so old they could present a health hazard, and they were correct. The pigments were sent to the dump and the old paint lab was dismantled.

Now, here’s is good part. The National Society for Paint and Coatings Technology has an active retirees club, and the old timers, who hadn’t lost their love of paint technology, would voluntarily help when members needed a hand. We needed lots of hands. Oh boy did we need hands. It took a while, but they put their heads to it and tracked down old cronies. References, and formulas long lost. Was it worth it? Does a bear eat fish? Oh yeah. In time we had a whole new palette of colors that were, by any other name, the old Disney palette.

We had to make several adjustments, but inside of nine months we had the old Disney paint lab completely reconstructed at S/R Labs. Instead of the slow stone mills Disney used, we used a high speed stone mill able to create any Disney color in about 10 or 15 minutes. Colors that are unavailable commercially could be made on short notice, and color matching, when you have the right tones at hand, is a snap.

We are often asked if Disney paint is really magic. In a way, it is. First, the colors are pure, meaning the colors themselves are not combinations of pigments, but are whole and clean. This is a lot more rare than you’d think and makes for a rich appearance. Also, they are ground superfine to the consistency of buttermilk. They flow off the Kolinski sable brushes we use like, well, magic. Their natural gum base is made of a rich combination of chemicals that helps the paint actually flow onto the cel and dry to a soft, satin finish that’s even, flexible, and flat.

With a few adjustments we can create matching ink colors that “stand up” and have the familiar high top that makes Disney cels so remarkably DISNEY. You cannot achieve the same affect with any paint medium available commercially today.

We learned a lot once the Disney paint system was in place. One of my teachers, Emelio Bianchi, who was the last Disney chemist, taught us Disney color theory. For instance, there is no green pigment in Peter Pan’s jerkin. Steve McAvoy, the chemist prior to Emilio, taught us how to create the paints of Sleeping Beauty, which called for certain additives to give them a glow on the screen unlike any paints made before or since.

We’ve learned a great deal in our 36-plus-year history. It is one of the things that gives us the ability to make your art so beautiful and stable.

Next time, I’ll get out my notebooks and tell you the story of finding Disney’s Aqua-fix© and the magical part it played in Disney artistic history.

Just getting started

Hi. I am delighted to get this blog going as so many have asked, over the years, why doesn’t S/R Labs have a blog?
Well, there are many issues and ideas that we wish to set forth here and I guess now is the time to do so. Naturally, if you, dear reader, have any suggestions for topics you wish us to address please send them along to me at; ron@srlabs.com We will be as quick as we can in responding here for all to see.
Meantime, we are getting ready for our Spring auction, in the third week in May, which I believe will be a fantastic offering.
Check back soon, OK?
Ron Stark, Director