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Behind the Scenes Look at The Little Mermaid

Behind the Scenes Look at The Little Mermaid

Disclosure:  I  attended the #‎DisneyPlanesPremiere‬ and ‪#‎LittleMermaidEvent‬. My flight, lodging and expenses were all covered by Disney. However,  all opinions are my own.

 Behind the Scenes Look at The Little Mermaid

Behind-the-scenes look at THE LITTLE MERMAID archives at the Animation Research Library was an unforgettable experience to say the least. We went to the Animation Research Library and spent some time there and it was amazing, awesome, fantastic, inspiring and almost every other great adjective you could imagine. The Animation Research Library isn’t open to the public and very few people outside of the “Disney Family” see what is in the Animation Research Library so it was an honor to be allowed in through the doors.

Behind the Scenes Look at The Little Mermaid

Copyrighted Disney Picture

We first arrived and were in Disney heaven as soon as we stepped inside the lobby doors. There was the huge Alice in Wonderland Mural, Disney memorabilia a photo of Walt Disney himself and so many more wonderful goodies. We were allowed to take pictures in the lobby so you can only imagine the amount of clicking that was taking place. It was nothing short of amazing and we had barely gotten started.

The rest of the trip we were whisked away on a secret mission allowed to bring in certain items. All of the cameras had to be left in the conference room to help preserve the artwork and Disney treasures within. There was a Disney staff member allowed to take pictures and the rest of the pictures in this post are all copyrighted by Disney.


The Animated Research Library (ARL) holds millions of pieces of Disney’s history including artwork, animation art, shorts, features and so much more. It includes items dating back from the 1920’s movies until current films and with each day the collections are growing. There is approximately sixty-five million pieces of artwork from the Disney productions! The staff of the ARL has an amazing job to do as well as preserving these wonderful treasures for generations to come. They have an amazing system in place that helps each individual there be a part of a bigger “Disney Team” and they work together for the common good of preserving the years of artwork that have made Disney what it is today. Fox one of the staff members of the ARL said it best when he said the following:

Um, we celebrate the history of Disney Animation by preserving the artwork as best as possible, so that future generations of artists and company personnel can always refer to it. Our job it to take care of it as best as possible but still keep it accessible to people within the Walt Disney Company. It makes no sense if you just put them, these in boxes and store them in a, in a mine somewhere that nobody can’t access.


Copyrighted Disney Picture

Image Capture Room

The ARL is a way to keep the history alive and functioning as a research facility so that way artists, animators, writers and so can come into the facility and reuse ideas and come up with new ones at the same time! Which I believe is just one of the ways that the Disney magic happens in all of the films because in some way or another they are all tied to something that is as unique as each part of artwork in The Disney’s Animation Research Library.

The first stop on our tour was the Image Capture room which is the room that they now work on digitizing some of the artwork from years past. The cameras, computers and how it all makes animation was simply amazing to see in action. One of their cameras takes pictures up to 240 megapixels and the iPhone is only 5 megapixels so you know they are getting great images. But because of their jobs of preserving the artwork they have different cameras for each job and have been working for 3 1/2 years and only captured over 800,000 images so they still have a long way to go, but they will get there!

Because we were there focusing on The Little Mermaid we got to see an animation of Ariel through an entire sequence and it was nothing short of magical to see it work right in front of our eyes. When we asked if they showed 24 drawings per second our answer was that it it ” twenty-four frames per second.” This is a frame rate so to speak so it depends on the amount of layers, amount of drawings and amount of animations that are done for each second. Which is lots of animation just to get Ariel to move!!


Copyrighted Disney Picture

Design Department

Our next stop on the tour was the Design Department where Tamara and Patrick were there to greet us. They told us that their job was part of the messy fun section of the building because they work on lots of different projects. They work closely with not only Feature Animation, but also do theme park displays, promotional items for upcoming films as well as working on book projects with Disney Publishing. They also helped build the exhibit called Dreams Come True which was started on its tour in the New Orleans Museum of Art, (NOMA Exhibit) shortly after Hurricane Katrina. They had an amazing mock up of the actual exhibit that was amazing to see in person, which is on the table. The entire table was covered with projects that were unfinished projects but neat to see.

One that stuck out in my mind was a picture of Larry the Cable Guy signed by him because of his Disney Character Voice Mater in the movie Cars. They also had some prints up from Little Mermaid that were from previous events. They each had different favorite projects and one of them was the NOMA Exhibit because of the influence of fairy tales.

The female’s favorite project was the book projects that they have had a hand in helping with design. They had pens, pencils, scissors, tape, glue and lots of goodies spread around on their working area. They use them on touching up artwork that the computer can’t match but never the original artwork, just the reproduction pieces that help them piece together their exhibits, books, park displays and so much more. They defiantly have the more fun messy artist like surroundings that I expected.


Copyrighted Disney Picture

On the way to the next stop I saw a piece of artwork that made me stop in my tracks. They were reproductions of the artwork, but I was still in awe. The first picture was pictures of  “Sleeping Beauty” along with “Mickey and The Beanstalk”  and of course “The Pied Pieper”. Those three movies were movies that I grew up watching and was just in awe.

Copyrighted Disney Picture

Copyrighted Disney Picture


Vault #3

But quickly moving on we entered the first of two vaults we visited that day which happened to be number 3. There are 11 vaults in all at the ARL that are all temperature controlled, sorted by dates, have earthquake bars to prevent a huge mess and all of this to help preserve Disney’s Artwork the best way they can.

Copyrighted Disney Picture

Copyrighted Disney Picture

Vault number 3 contains the features vault that holds 40 years worth of Animation Art History starting with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to the many adventures of “Winnie the Pooh.”  Doug the staff member said this about Vault #3:

It’s really kind of a special Vault because most of the Feature Films that was under Walt’s supervision, are housed in this Vault, um, with 60 to 65 million pieces of Art, it’s a pretty heady responsibility but much, uh, but 9 of the Vaults are maintained for our Flat Art.

Doug had on white gloves to protect the artwork that was housed in there and told us all about the process of how they ship the artwork to them, and then it was “put up accordingly.” But since they do it digitally now it goes a little quicker. All of the artwork is stored in acid free material so that way it is preserved the best way they can. He showed us they treated all of the pieces like “Fine Art” and pulled down one of the storyboard sketches that happened to be “Lady and the Tramp”. It was a reprinted edition of the movie, but I still was in love because it was yet another movie I watched growing up as a kid. He told us a little bit of the history behind “Lady and the Tramp” that started in the 40’s and ended up being in production during the 50’s. He also told us how the storyboards came first and then the scripts came after Walt’s approval came. In the 1980’s is when Disney started working with scripts and screenplays first which is when Eisner came into Disney. This is how “The Little Mermaid” was brought into being much like a stage show.


Copyrighted Disney Picture

Vault #5

Vault #5 houses the maquettes which are the studying models of the various characters that the animation teams would use to keep their characters on model. We also house much of what the company possesses multi-plane camera. Are you are familiar with the multi-plane camera? And we also house most if not all of what the studio possesses of A Nightmare Before Christmas puppets. Some of the wonderful items in this room included:

  • Sculptures of the interstitial orchestra members from Fantasia which was released in 1940. Used because it is cheaper to make something than hire live people to do live shots each time they tried something new.
  • The actual study marionette Pinocchio along with a picture of Walt Disney hold Pinocchio on his knee. Monstro from Pinocchio was also there but he is missing a fan.
  • Original Glass Pane of a forest scene in Bambi (which was amazing and not very many are left because the glass is more expensive, than just paying someone to scrap it and repaint the next scene.)
  • “The Little Mermaid” was one of the last films to use the multi-plane camera which makes it even more special!
  • He also showed us a glass pane from Sleeping Beauty as well and it was just as breathtaking!!

Copyrighted Disney Picture

Interview with Leila Smith and Original Artwork

Disney 2

Copyrighted Disney Picture

Leila Smith was a great wealth of information behind the making of “The Little Mermaid” as well as insights about Ursula and Ariel. One of the most surprising to me was that Ariel started out as a blonde. Which would make sense I learned because Hans Christian Anderson’s setting would have been Scandinavian. I (Leila Smith) think it was John Musker who decided that, you know, she should be more innocent because of her teenage crush on the prince. Ariel’s story was brought to life through many changes and it was very interesting to see rough drafts of how she might have looked.

Ursula also went through lots of changes before she finally came to be the Ursula we have grown to love. Ursula started out much scarier than her finished version, but of course Disney didn’t want to scare the children. Ursula was copied after Joan Collins’ role, but Roy Disney was the one that said, “No, she should look more like an octopus.” But we all know Ursula is more like a squid but it is all just part of the process. I would have to agree that they made the right choice by making her “look” nicer but we all know her character all to well.

In the story by Hans Christian Anderson Ariel kills herself, but Disney wanted to make it a little different. So instead of dying Ariel sacrifices her voice instead. They (the writers and staff) wanted the story to have a happy ending so they went into the research mode and went clear back to the 30’s. This way it could be more family entertainment the way Walt Disney would have wanted it.

When  John Musker and Ron Clements were invited to a special opening event at the castle they told the queen that they changed the story ending a little bit. Her response was “oh, Hans Christian Andersen did never have a close finishing off his stories so it’s fine.”   So as we said, there were lots of Ariel drawn, lots of discussion of the story and the team decided to have a happy ending.

One of the most impressive things that I learned was from this question.

How long does it take to create a hand drawn animated film like the Little Mermaid from production to ending?

The answer was three to five years isn’t unusual but Sleeping Beauty took 16 years. But now we (Disney) feels like we need to release one a year now. Because the audience wants more animated films, Disney tries to make it happen. How impressive is that?

I learned so much more that day that I ever imagined and the staff were all very knowledgeable. I hope that you enjoyed the glimpse into the making of the these great Disney films as much as I did. Disney will always be a part of my family and thousands of others families as well and with the Disney magic going full force they will be around for generations to come! Thanks to everyone who made this trip a truly amazing and wonderful experience, I will always cherish it and the memories that were made forever.

Make sure and follow the ARL to keep up on their activities as well as learn some great Disney facts on Facebook and Twitter too! Doug says he keeps it like an almanac of all things ARL!

Disney’s The Little Mermaid Consumer Products Dinner

Second Screen Live for The Little Mermaid

Remember that The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition will hit stores on October 1st so be ready to watch this classic with your kids.


  Disclosure:  I  attended the #‎DisneyPlanesPremiere‬ and ‪#‎LittleMermaidEvent‬. My flight, lodging and expenses were all covered by Disney. However,  all opinions are my own.

Heidi Gray

Money saving Mom/Nan (Grandma) of 1, who loves to travel, cook, and of course spend time with family. Fun.Travel.Food not necessarily in that order serving Missouri and beyond!



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Rachel Young

It was so neat being able to visit the ARL! So nice to read another perspective 🙂