Ron Stark couldn't believe it. A woman was approaching him holding a rare piece of original animation from Walt Disney's Fantasia. "It was Mickey Mouse from 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' and she was waving it around like a piece of salami. Flakes of paint were sprinkling off of it," he recalls. "What do I do?" she asked. "Well, the first thing you do," he replied, "is hold it flat."
That was 26 years ago, back when Stark was volunteering at the International Animated Film Society's annual festival in Los Angeles. (By day he was a radio, TV, and film producer for the American Heart Association.) Stark had already repaired many donated cels-the painstakingly hand- painted clear plastic sheets that were used to create thousands of classic animated films before the digital age. But never before had he worked on anything as challenging as Mickey. Once Stark finished, he got to thinking that there must be thousands of people out there hanging on to priceless but damaged cels without any way to repair them.
So Stark decided to create the Search and Rescue Team project and became perhaps the world's first cartoon doctor. From former inkers and painters, he learned the basics of creating animation art. He studied how to use different kinds of microscopy to examine such cel characteristics as surface texture, flexibility, color, and clarity. He also learned what causes problems. "In most cels, much of the damage comes from trauma," says Stark. Since cels are made out of petroleum derivatives like cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate, they attract dirt and oil from a handler's fingers. "Often, somebody sees dirt on the cel, gets a bottle of window cleaner, sprays it on, and turns the image into mayonnaise." Indeed, there were no products to safely clean and polish the cels-until Stark developed his own chemical reagents.
Today, Stark's company, S/R Laboratories Animation Art Conservation Center, in Westlake Village, California, is the world's only animation art conservation center. Everyone from Pepe LePew to Fred Flintstone has passed through its doors. And each one has left feeling like a brand new toon.