In the 1930s, animators spent hundreds of hours painstakingly drawing thousands of pictures on celluloid to create a single Mickey Mouse cartoon, only to have their work destroyed after the cartoon was filmed. Today, those same cels often bring tens of thousands of dollars at auction, where they have become a hot commodity among art collectors.
Last June, a collector paid $121,000 for a black and white Mickey Mouse cel from the 1934 cartoon “The Orphan’s Benefit.” It shows Mickey, hand to mouth, shouting across a stage. The image is among the most renowned in animation art.
Prices will be more reasonable Saturday night when Circle Gallery in Old Town opens sales on 200 original cels from “Oliver & Company,” Walt Disney Pictures’ 27th animated feature, released last November. A reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m.
The film is an animated version of Dickens’ classic, set in modern-day Manhattan. It follows the adventures of Oliver the kitten, who is befriended by a gang of wily dogs headed by Dodger and their human master, Fagin.
Before production began, photographers shot New York street scenes from a dog’s perspective--18 inches off the ground. The effect is similar to “Lady and the Tramp,” the first animated movie shot from an animal’s point of view.
Part of the opening-night proceeds will benefit the San Diego Humane Society. Because the feature revolves around the lives of stray dogs and cats, Circle Gallery director Barbara Cox chose the humane society as recipient.
A team of 300 artists and technicians worked 2 1/2 years to create the hand-drawn “Oliver & Company.” They produced more than a million story sketches and drawings for the 119,275 cels that make up the completed film.
The cels will be introduced at prices ranging from $500 to $700 each, Cox said.
Cel collecting came into vogue about 10 years ago, Cox said, but really took off in 1984 when Christie’s and Sotheby’s art auctioneers realized collectors’ interest and began holding separate auctions for cels as they would for fine paintings or sculpture. Christie’s holds twice-yearly cel auctions each June and November.
Although there are thousands of casual collectors, serious cel buyers include Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and Michael Jackson.
“I think animation art should be viewed as some of the best American art ever produced. I think it should be appreciated for its beauty,” Joshua Arfer, head of animation art for Christie’s, said in a recent article in Insight magazine.
Early black and white cels are the most coveted and valuable of animation art, dealers say. Also in demand are cels from vintage Disney films such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Even backgrounds used in the films, on which the characters are superimposed, are in demand, though for lesser sums.
Ironically, the studios that now profit from the sales once considered cels a mere byproduct. Usually cels were washed and reused like old canvases, thrown away or sold for $1 per box of 100, Cox said.
Saturday’s opening at Circle Gallery will feature a demonstration and discussion by Ruben Aquino, chief animator on “Oliver & Company.” Aquino will explain the use of computers in animation.
The exhibition will continue through April 15 at the gallery, at 2501 San Diego Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.