Any toy collector can tell you that things made with plastic…eventually deteriorate. Do a survey of a bunch of random action figures and dolls from the 1980s, for instance: you’ll find “melts” (the toy literally melting at joints and whatnot), sticky surfaces (a result of plastic decomposition), and even “toy cancer” (black spots of “rot” that can’t be cleaned off or fixed).
You know what else was made from plastic? Really unstable plastic (cellulose acetate)? Animation cels.
And now, unsurprisingly, they—original hand-painted cels for such classic movies as Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, and Bambi—are warping and “rippling,” the original paint pulling away from the cels in the process.
Art conservator Tom Learner recently told the the American Association for the Advancement of Science that many precious works of art from the 20th Century made with plastic are starting to fall apart—and that he was secured by Disney to help save their archives of cels:
As part of our cell study one of the problems was with the plastic deforming through degradation, the paint was being pushed off. ‘It’s very sensitive to humidity, so when the humidity drops to a dry condition the paint becomes very rippled and huge amounts of work have led to an amazingly simple treatment which is just to use humidity itself.
The treatment involves putting the cels in humidity chambers to re-adhere the paint to the cels. Unfortunately, the warped cel itself cannot be fixed (as far as I know).
This, to me, is quite fascinating in the sense that: so many of the artifacts of the 20th Century might end up similarly degraded. For example, I viewed an exhibit late last year that featured many key items of pop-art from the 60s-80s: you know, sculptures, installations, etc. Many used some derivative of plastic. And a bunch were definitely deteriorating: peeling, cracking, etc.
What to do with that? And will our digital archives of CGI animation outlive their ancestors?