Archives are divine. They have the power to transport us back to a forgotten time; they can suggest, with tantalizing incompleteness, new revelations about a hitherto familiar subject; and they can bend, warp, break, and remake history. Archives are also highly endangered–especially the animation kind. Paper–the core fabric of animation for over a century–is easily discarded, damaged, or erased and repurposed. With such acts, chunks of production history are inevitably lost. Animation cels have a more spectacular self-destructive penchant. As Ron Barbagallo has shown at past Society for Animation Studies conferences, animation cels provide a perfect site for numerous chemical reactions to take place, leading, in some cases, to noxious gas, and in others physical deformation.[i] Clay, plasticine, latex, and wool were not built to last. Consequently, the stop motion icons of yesterday (e.g., Morph, Kong, Talos, the Kraken, Clangers, and so on) are destined to decay, with increasing rapidity, without preservational intervention–thankfully, in the case of Ray Harryhausen’s masterworks, action is being taken.[ii]
Death comes to us all. Such is life. Yet, while we remain animated and have the ability to access archives, all is not lost. Pleasingly, in recent years, several initiatives have emerged and gatherings of archivists, scholars, practitioners, and archive holders are becoming a regular occurrence – thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Mette Peters and Aafke Weller and their Materials in Motion initiative. Of course, there are also the megastars of archival preservation, such as the BFI in the UK, EYE in the Netherlands, the NFB archives in Canada, and the Margaret Herrick in the US, to name but a few. However, these large-scale operations often operate under strict acquisitions policies. Consequently, the amount of archival work that they can home must always be evaluated against how much space they have available.
So, that is the short rallying cry. Now, I offer two brief examples of why the animation archive is such a rewarding and surprising place to spend time.
J. Stuart Blackton. While conducting preparatory research for Storyboarding: A Critical History (2015), I spent some time during the summer of 2012 looking through the Margaret Herrick’s Blackton papers. Within this special collection, I encountered a folder containing lecture notes from c.1936. These notes related to Blackton’s Movie Hit Parade documentary, which he toured for several years under different names. However, what interested me most about some of these notes were the sheets of paper upon which they were written. Turning the pages over revealed printed stationery for Blackton’s short-lived organization: the Associated Cinema Stars.[iii] Founded in 1936, not many details survive about this organization, which is understandable given its total activity was limited to a few social events. However, the fact that Blackton took the trouble to have stationery printed suggests he had bigger ambitions. We may never know. The Associated Cinema Stars organization is now noted elsewhere in this collection. However, in 2012 the bibliometric record for this document only recorded the handwritten notes related to the lecture series. Nothing was noted about the type of paper that these notes were written on–only by holding the paper in my hand did this become apparent.
Oliver Postgate. A similar example is found in the private collection of papers currently held by the Postgate family. Within this archive is a sequence of Ivor the Engine synopses, dating from c.1975, used during the color production. Most of these are printed and single-sided. However, within the sequence, there is one handwritten synopsis, on which it is noted: “No Third Copy. Keep This”. Clearly, the value of this sheet of paper is invested in the role it played in detailing an episode of Ivor the Engine (in which Bluebell the Donkey helps to make some deliveries while Ivor is temporarily out of commission). On the reverse, also handwritten, is evidence of Postgate’s parallel passion during the 1970s: complete nuclear disarmament. With a number of editorial marks and comments in the margin and ultimately crossed through, this page offers a twenty-line snapshot of Postgate’s pre-occupation at this point in the 1970s. When these materials do eventually make it into a publicly accessible special collection, it is my hope that the individuals responsible for devising the metadata will do a better job than the Margaret Herrick in capturing the bibliometric information that exists on the reverse of the document.
For readers familiar with archival research, nothing I have said here will be news. However, by publishing these comments in an openly accessible blog as Animation Studies 2.0, which reaches a broad audience, the objective of this short piece is to provoke an awareness within readers less familiar with archives, or who are perhaps in possession of private archives, that the value of an archive might not be immediately self-evident. By saving, sharing, and scrutinizing animation archives, we all stand to gain a much greater understanding of the production cultures and artistic ambitions of the form we care so deeply about.
Being an atheist, I chose the wording of my opening claim–that ‘archives are divine’–very carefully. Archives are always incomplete and therefore demand faith and perseverance when accessing them (eventually you will find something). Archives prey on trust – it is folly to take any archival document at face value: every effort must be made to verify its veracity. Private archives are often big, scattered, uncategorized, and geographically distant (unless you are very lucky), therefore requiring regular pilgrimage and sacrifice (of time and money) to make sense of them. I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture. So, instead of a conclusion, I offer only an instruction: keep turning the page, you never know what you might find in the archive!
Dr. Chris Pallant is Reader in Creative Arts and Industries at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is particularly interested in researching production materials, narratives, and histories related to the medium of animation. The artefacts and accounts encountered through such investigation have the power to rend open the in-between spaces, so famously described by Norman McLaren, which are closed and often forgotten with the completion of a production. The objective being to recover marginalized stories and to expand the frame of animation history. He is the author of Demystifying Disney (Bloomsbury 2011), Storyboarding: A Critical History (Palgrave 2015), and editor of Animated Landscapes: History, Form and Function (Bloomsbury 2015). He also founded and edits Bloomsbury’s Animation: Key Films/Filmmakers series. He currently serves as President for the Society for Animation Studies and is Festival Director for Canterbury Anifest.
[i] For more detail see Barbagallo’s work in conjunction with The Research Library at Animation Art Conservation: https://www.animationartconservation.com/index.html
[ii] The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation has been extremely proactive in recent years, undertaking a significant amount of preservation and restoration work of Harryhausen’s original stop motion models and associated production archives: https://www.rayharryhausen.com
[iii] Anthony Slide, The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 15.