Inside the Art Market: Animated Obsolescence

“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

This wonderful line of purring dialogue, spoken by Kathleen Turner as the voice of sultry cartoon nightclub singer Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 Disney film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, sums up the charm, naughtiness and illusory magic of animation art. Anything that can be drawn will come to life on the big screen!

But sadly the drawing has become increasingly obsolete in animation art. Now it’s all about computers and high-tech wizardry going well beyond the old-fashioned, traditional ink-and-paint approach. One might think of an automobile factory with an assembly line: in the old days it was manned by humans but now is revved-up and streamlined with robots. As a result, production has increased and costs have come down. Why would this principle be any less compelling in the making of cartoons than in Chryslers?

It wouldn’t, of course. But then one keeps coming back to the word art, which stubbornly conveys the assumption of something being original and hand-crafted, not created by a machine. So one may ask: where is the field of animation art headed as a collecting category? And where did it even begin?

As for the latter question the name Walt Disney immediately springs to mind. Certainly there has never been a more talented and visionary artist in the field of animation than Disney. Starting in the 1930s with whimsical cartoons about silly creatures like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Disney went on to create a whole new film genre, the full-length animated feature. The very first one, produced in 1937 by Disney amidst crushing predictions of doom and financial ruin, was the spectacular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here was spine-tingling adventure, soaring musical orchestrations, a classic story with compelling human characters, the whole production hand-drawn with exquisite precision, nuance, color, artistry. And it was box office magic. In this pioneering film Walt Disney commanded respect for animation as art.

No one will ever come close to achieving his stature as a pioneer and innovator in the field of animation. From humble beginnings he went on to create an empire, a global brand if ever there was one. Indeed, to young and old worldwide the very word Disney means entertainment, whether delivered in a movie theatre, on television, on an iPhone app or in a video game, at a theme park, on Broadway or on a cruise ship. All of this visual splendor from a mouse!

The Walt Disney success story is pure Hollywood melodrama, with fierce ambition the driving narrative. In 1923 Disney was a struggling young animator in Hollywood, just starting his own company. He shared a small apartment with his brother Roy, occasionally was forced to borrow money from anxious friends and relatives back home in Missouri, and often dined on beans. His first venture was a series of innovative low-budget films entitled Alice Comedies. In them, a little girl cavorts with real-life neighborhood playmates while, in her dreams, she slips magically into the world of cartoon characters to share their adventures.

Alice was Walt Disney’s first film attempt to combine live action with animation, and he left nothing to chance. He drew the animation, operated the camera, directed the actors, even constructed the sets. These films were instrumental in helping Disney launch his own studio and, sixty-five years later, might be described as the first cousins of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

This film became the undisputed box office champion of 1988, hailed as a milestone in the history of animation. Its premise is novel enough: in the fantasy world of Hollywood, humans and cartoon characters work side by side, their lives hilariously intertwined. An international army of over 700 cast and crew worked for three years on the project. Essentially, two separate films were shot and then pieced together. One was the live-action film, a period piece set in Los Angeles in 1947, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone). Next came the animation film, which was supervised by Academy award-winning animator Richard Williams, who worked on several of the Pink Panther films.

Working frame by frame with high-quality photographic enlargements of the edited live-action film, teams of artists first made pencil sketches superimposing the cartoon characters into the live-action background. The movements and expressions of the cartoon figures had to be painstakingly integrated into the action to create a vivid sense of three-dimensional realism. These sketches were then hand-painted onto sheets of acetate—called cels—and photographed one at a time. The final job of marrying live action with thousands of these animation cels was performed at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in northern California.

One of the many hundreds of visual effects ingeniously added to the film made Jessica Rabbit’s gown shimmer and sparkle with heart-stopping brilliance. ILM’s finishing touches to Roger Rabbit made it one of the most technologically complex films of all time.

Throughout its glorious early history Walt Disney Studios had flirted with the notion of making these animation cels available to the public. A licensing agreement was thus made in 1938 with the Courvoisier Gallery in San Francisco to offer hand-painted animation cels from several Disney films; and over the next eight years many thousands were sold, thus lending these vintage remnants of early animation art the sort of provenance and presentation associated with paintings and sculpture. It was brilliant marketing, and since Disney was constantly creating new cels from new film productions, one could see that animation art had a bright future as a field of collecting. Occasional sales at the major auction houses lent further appeal, luring new collectors and establishing higher prices, notably for cels from Disney’s most popular animated films.

Dana Hawks was a specialist in collectibles at Sotheby’s in the late 1980s when the firm was approached by Disney about handling the sale of hundreds of cels from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Compared with all previous sales through galleries or auction houses this one would be a major step forward, accelerating the demand for animation art through one massively-promoted event. It was an electrifying moment in this hitherto provincial field of art collecting, one that suddenly promised impressive growth.

“We were enthusiastic,” recalls Hawks, “but we also wanted to make sure the film was a success before committing. And of course it was a blockbuster. So we submitted a proposal, won the business, and had the sale in June of 1989.” The sale, cleverly entitled The Art of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, offered more than 550 hand-painted cels depicting many memorable scenes from the movie, all presented in a lavishly-illustrated catalogue and exhibited with Hollywood-style panache. It was a transformative event for both Disney and Sotheby’s: Disney would achieve the vast branding and income potential from such sales, and Sotheby’s would be launched as the official auction house for them. It seemed a marriage made in heaven.

Indeed, the very next year Sotheby’s presented The Art of The Little Mermaid with equal clamor and promotional zing, fully benefitting from the film’s then achievement of becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time. More sales were to follow on a yearly basis, but already the die had been cast and the “hand-painted” distinction of the cels being offered for sale at auction had been downgraded. The Art of Beauty and the Beast at Sotheby’s in 1992 signaled the new “computer-painted” era.

Other changes were sweeping through this field of collecting throughout the 1990s.   As Dana Hawks remembers, “The market began declining mainly because Disney was producing limited editions of cels for the collector market through designated dealers, and this caused disgruntlement.” The limited editions came handsomely packaged with stamped certificates of authenticity, but true collectors were not impressed.

Disney was in effect flooding a market it had slowly, carefully and elegantly built from scratch over many decades. Now that market had peaked. And in order to grow and flourish it demanded new product from Disney hits—specifically hand-painted cels like those from Roger Rabbit. But there wouldn’t be any. The sales at Sotheby’s thus tailed off and eventually ended.

Amidst these roiling changes there appeared in 1998 Sotheby’s Guide to Animation Art. Written by the very knowledgeable Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz, the book seemed awkwardly to celebrate the Disney legend and the growth of animation art as a collecting field while simultaneously delivering a eulogy for it. The following paragraph, for example, is inspiring in its depiction of glorious new collecting horizons:

“We are dealing, then, with a very new field of collecting, one that has risen to prominence entirely within the past quarter-century. Activity within that period, however, has been so intense that the field has a significant history with a large body of unknown work having emerged to public view from the attics and cabinets where it had been stored for decades. Great collections have been built and dispersed, to be replaced by new ones. Although scholarly books, articles, and catalogues have been produced, animation is still a fresh collecting area where everyone is welcome and snobbery is largely unknown.”

And yet deeper in the book the authors acknowledge that Disney, the greatest player of all in the animation art market, is no longer providing what this market craves the most: hand-painted cels from new animated features.

Imagine, if you will, a sale taking place today at Sotheby’s or Christie’s of original hand-painted cels from the blockbuster film Frozen. It would ignite a frenzy of new interest in animation art! But then a film like Frozen, with worldwide box office revenue of about $1.48 billion, is much more than just an animated feature film. It has ascended into the coveted category of franchise for Disney, with endless theatrical and merchandizing opportunities in the mix. Hence the little studio started by Walt Disney on a shoestring budget so many decades ago has finally and forever moved beyond the charming but old-fashioned romance of the ink-and-paint era.

Over a decade ago Sotheby’s and Christie’s abandoned their many collectibles departments. These encompassed such diverse and whimsical areas as dolls, toys, comic books, musical boxes, baseball memorabilia, carousel animals, Hollywood memorabilia, rock ‘n roll memorabilia and of course animation art. It was as much a sign of new corporate priorities as of changing tastes.

So Dana Hawks left Sotheby’s in 2003 to join Bonhams. There she travels extensively and organizes yearly sales of collectibles that include animation art, which remains an active, if diminished, field of collecting. Gone are the high prices and the Disney-glamorous aura prevalent during her years at Sotheby’s. For that was a golden age, a dazzling party compared with the drabness one finds in this market today.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Sotheby’s,” Hawks recalls with a tinge of melancholy. “I loved the people, as everyone worked so well together and there was a genuinely collegial spirit. Best of all was having clients come to New York for the animation art sales at both houses, which entailed a week of packed activity. In those days we hosted lavish receptions during the exhibitions, often with Disney characters appearing in costume and everyone excitedly anticipating another great auction. There was an intense personal connection made with collectors through these magical years, and that is now sadly gone.”

Sales of animation art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were always like a carnival, especially the Disney sales. They provided flash and light-heartened relief from the more traditional and solemn proceedings in fields like Impressionist and Modern art, antiquities and French furniture. It was not surprising that the twice-yearly sales of entertainment memorabilia always took place just before a break in the auction season: in December, before the Christmas holidays; and in June, before summer vacations. It was like transitioning from the sacred to the profane in a cartoon-like shuffle: Rare book sales one week, comic book sales the next!

In this manner the grinding auction season, with wall-to-wall exhibitions and sales week after week, a regimen causing endless stress and fatigue for all, would end at last with a smile.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. © Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s.)