Lauren Gaylord is one of our participants in our Year in the Life series, which follows new archivists in their first professional position. We will be following Lauren for a year. You can read her previous posts here.
As we collectively look ahead to a new year, I’m feeling especially reflective, both personally and professionally. Earlier this month I wrapped up processing Art Department materials from Monsters, Inc., a project I’ve been working on since July. What originally started as 25 drawers of flat files of unprocessed artwork eventually resulted in 78 boxes of organized, cataloged, and neatly labeled folders (and consequently lots of excitement in the archives).
Here’s a snapshot of some of the tasks that this project involved:
- Assessing the existing unprocessed envelopes, folders, binders, and loose materials
- Building special housing for an artist’s visual development notebook
- Deciding on formal names for subjects such as Scare Simulator or Simulator Room
- Corresponding with original Monsters, Inc. crew members to identify artwork
- Transferring materials to acid-free folders and boxes
- Labeling folders with subject, artist, production, and folder/box number information
- Printing and applying box number and content labels to all 78 boxes
While some of these tasks might seem familiar to the veteran archivist, processing at Pixar is unlike any other archives I’ve worked in or any theories I learned in school. As a corporate archive, it bears more similarities to government archives and records management than it does to the multitude of manuscript collections found at university archives.
For instance, much of the guesswork in determining the series and subseries of a collection is removed. Productions tend to produce standard types of materials, such as visual development art, concept art, and model packets, so it can be much easier to identify where a certain folder or group of artwork belongs intellectually in the collection. While archivists must understand archival theory, it is also crucial for us to know the production pipeline and the context in which materials are created, whether it’s a gag session to generate humorous bits, or table scraps from an art review meeting, or final design model packets handed off to technical departments. Each of these examples is a different type of material and consequently belongs in a different series or subseries. Intimate knowledge of how our movies get made is essential to processing activities.
Because of the many secondary uses of our art, including legal evidence, publishing projects, and franchise development, we capture much more information at the folder-level than other archives and thus exclusively use a database to track materials, rather than traditional finding aids. At minimum we note the subject, artist, and date range of each folder, though we may also capture the types of media for preservation purposes. Our database also provides places to record a folder’s hierarchical information, such as the production, department, series, and category under which the folder is organized (e.g. Monsters, Inc. – Art Department – Concept Art – Environments – Monstropolis). All of this information tells us something significant about the context of creation. It can’t, however, be captured in a single handwritten folder label. Thus, we use an internal database, rather than a finding aid, to make the collection accessible. Our database captures information at the box-level, in addition to listing the folder contents, and makes finding materials much more straightforward. Whereas searching multiple finding aids usually devolves into a full-text guessing game, databases are built for advanced searches, even across productions or collections. Archivists can easily conduct searches via a single field or multiple fields, thus simplifying and expediting our process of locating materials for our clients.
Perhaps the most shocking divergence from traditional processing methods is our decision not to adhere to original order in the Pixar archives. Outsiders often assume that we organize production artwork according to date or scene, but such an organizational schema is neither true to the design process or helpful in retrieving the art. Thus concept art is arranged by the broad categories of character or set, and then by subject and artist. Though we recognize original order’s importance as a principle and maintain it where feasible, the nature of our archives means that we are likely to rearrange materials from how they are first given to us. One reason for this is that production departments often hand off the materials while the film is still being developed, thus complicating what “original order” means. Is it the order in which the materials were given to the archives? Or the order in which the department organized them? Or the order in which digital scans of the artwork were kept on the server? Or by artist name? What about materials that were never organized together because of the length of time between their creations but intellectually belong together? All of these questions, and our role as a part of the creating entity, complicate our interpretation of original order. We also forego original order because we process based on both past and anticipated use. Understanding that we will soon be retrieving materials for an upcoming book, theme park, or film project at the studio, we rearrange items during processing to meet these future needs.
After 5 months of processing Monsters, Inc. artwork, the end still doesn’t feel quite real. While people wrapped their holiday presents and placed them under trees, I finished putting items in boxes and arranging them on shelves. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that something that was essentially impossible to find can now be located with ease. Isn’t that, at its core, what we do as archivists? We bring things out of obscurity. What was “lost” can now be found.
Stay warm and see you in the new year!