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Inside D23′s Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives

This weekend not only sees Course of the Force hit PCH, it also has the opening of one of the largest exhibits from the Disney Archives ever introduced to the world. D23′s Treasures from the Disney Archives opens at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley tomorrow, giving movie geeks, animation aficionados, and Disney fanatics a destination to learn more about Walt and the empire he built.

The exhibit features early items from Walt Disney’s time as a cartoonist as well as early sketches of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his complete office as it looked on the Disney lot, props from films as varied as Sleeping Beauty to The Avengers to Babes in Toyland, and even classic Disneyland animatronic figures. The exhibit features over 500 pieces from within the Disney Archives. We got a chance to talk briefly with Steven Clark, Vice-President of Corporate Communications for the Walt Disney Company and the head of the D23 fan club, and John Heubusch, the Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, about the exhibit and got a sneak peek at the exhibit itself.

Nerdist: Walt Disney’s legacy is still at the forefront of people’s minds. What can fans expect from the exhibit?

Steven Clark: First of all, D23 is so proud to bring these Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives to the Reagan Library. It’s 500+ pieces. 50% have never been seen before the other 50% very rarely, if ever have been seen outside the Walt Disney Studios. It really is a special opportunity for fans no matter where they are on the scale of fandom to find something that brings back a nostalgic memory from 90 years of Disney history. One of the things that Walt Disney did, though, (that) I think is extraordinary: (he) allowed for there to be a fan experience or allowed people to geek out or make people want to go back to our theme parks… Why do these movies have such tremendous legs years after year, generation after generation? He was a master storyteller, he told stories that people could connect with and love. Not only that he had this extraordinary attention to detail. It’s the details I think that are what make this exhibit special. When you look at the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in the film you saw it underwater, in the dark murky ocean… or a sound stage… you know, the dark, murky ocean. Here you can actually take a look at the beautiful brass-plated submarine. You can see the rivets, you can see the detail on the window to Nemo’s cabin. All of that is there. One of the first things I was struck by when I first saw this years ago was that they even have the little boat that nestles into the top deck of the Nautilus, and it comes off. It’s that attention to detail that is extraordinary, and it carries over what we do today. You look at the Black Pearl, our shooting model of the Black Pearl that’s about 20 feet tall. It’s something that you see in the film, but to see it here and actually inspect the detail, the hand carved figure heads, the rigging. That ship is actually rigged by a professional rigger who came down from San Francisco. It took him 12 hours to rig that ship. It’s the real deal.

I also think what’s really special about exhibits like this is it gives us a chance to show off our costume collection. In the film, for a split second, you might see someone’s costume and you might think, “Oh Johnny Depp’s The Mad Hatter costume was pretty cool… moving on.” But here you get a chance to actually soak it all in and look at it. And when you step up to Johnny Depp’s costume you can see the spools of thread, the vintage scissors, the hat pins, the embroidery work, and Colleen Atwood spent so much time and energy tending to every detail, and that’s something that I think brings a whole new level of appreciation from our fans to what goes into making these classic Disney films.

N: There are a number of exhibits around the Walt Disney films of the ’60s that pioneered so many movie making techniques still in use today. You’ve even included a few pieces from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Why is it important to keep that era in people’s minds?

SC: Walt Disney did a great deal to set the foundation for our filmmaking today and he was a master storyteller. A lot of these classic live-action films, they’re cinematic history. If you look at a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Mary Poppins or even an Absent Minded Professor… How fun is it… Who knew we kept the Model T that flew across the skies in Washington DC? I think at the Walt Disney studios we’ve recognized the importance of these films which is why we’ve always kept some of these iconic pieces. To your point, we have the bedknob from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, we have the book from the Isle of Naboombu, we even have Professor Emelius Browne’s suitcase that opens up. One thing that geeks will want to know is that if you take a close look at the items that are in his suitcase, and I won’t tell you where it is, there is a Shaggy Dog ring embedded within everything. People will want to take a look, but don’t touch [or you'll turn into a dog].

N: There is so much history in this exhibit, but also a look to the future. In Meet the Robinsons there was a theme of where Disney was heading. How does Treasures speak to that?

SC: I think the quote you’re referring to is “Keep Moving Forward.” Walt Disney was a person who was always viewed as a visionary. Always looking forward, always looking to the next project, never looking behind. But he also did have in the top drawer of his desk, and he kept it there throughout his entire career, was that original script for Steamboat Willie that he created with Ub Iwerks as chief animator. So Walt was also very nostalgic and looked back on his legacy a lot, and we do that today. We value our legacy tremendously, and a lot the films that you see coming from the Walt Disney Studios, whether it’s a Tron Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alice in Wonderland, a few we have coming up you may have heard of, Malificent and even Oz the Great and Powerful, we have a lot of Oz assets in our collection. These filmmakers look back on our own history to inform how we move forward. As long as there are people who care about our legacy, people who have that attention to detail and are able to tell those great classic stories, that is what our future is all about. We’re a storytelling company and when we have movies like The Lone Ranger and Malificent and Oz the Great and Powerful… I can tell you, I’ve been in some pitch meetings and it’s incredible. One of the things we love about films like that is the Archives has first right of refusal on all of their costumes props and set pieces. So, we’re going to have to find ourselves some more warehouse space.

N: While there is always debate about a political figure’s legacy, many people can agree President Reagan was dedicated to the arts. What does this exhibit being here say about his commitment to the arts?

John Heubusch: It’s kind of neat isn’t it? To have the largest specialty exhibit we’ve ever had here at the library be dedicated to entertainment and the arts…. It’s a natural for Ronald Reagan, he came out of the world of entertainment. He and Walt Disney were friends and colleagues; They worked very closely together over the years. Of the 12 presidents that Walt Disney had familiarity with, his relationship with Ronald Reagan was the most special. Reagan, as a supporter of the arts for a long, long time, would have been honored to showcase Walt Disney here.

N: Ronald Reagan had a belief that our commonalities could overcome our differences and that entertainment could help achieve that. What about Walt Disney’s work spoke to that ideal? 

JH: Walt Disney at his heart was not only a brilliant visionary and an imagineering kind of guy, he knew how to entertain people. When you go forward, whether you’re drawing cartoons or producing movies or creating theme parks, you don’t do it for one particular segment of society, you do it for all the people, and to do that well, you have to find common ground. He and Reagan were alike in that respect. They each had their philosophies. But in the end, to get things accomplished, to make a movie or pass a law, you have to get to people of not-like minds to agree and compromise and work together. I think there is a similarity there between the two gentlemen that shows part of their greatness.

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D23 presents Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives opens July 6th and runs through April of 2013 at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA. You can get tickets in advance on the Ronald Reagan Foundation website.

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