A Fantastic Fantasia Fantasy

I always liked Fantasia, but since I’ve been watching it as a kid, I had no idea just how significant the movie was to both Disney and the history of motion pictures in general. Did you know that it was the first movie ever made featuring stereoscopic sound? Or that the original showings were supposed to be more like a symphony performance than a movie and that the audience was expected to wear formal wear and sit in assigned seats? It’s also the only Disney movie to extend over two hours in length. While many of us may fondly remember Fantasia as an interesting movie, the behind the scenes of this breakthrough animation are equally fascinating. So throw on your favorite classical album and enjoy this detailed look at one of Disney’s most inspired creations. Image via Lauren Javier [Flickr]

A Shared Vision

The inception of Fantasia started with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Disney wanted to do a special Silly Symphonies episode based on Goethe’s poem Der Zauberlehrling. The animation would be completely voiceless and set to the music of Paul Dukas’ L'apprenti sorcier. He wanted it to star Mickey Mouse, who was losing popularity against many other cartoon characters of the time, even Donald Duck was proving to be more profitable. Disney saw this as an opportunity for a Mickey comeback. The studio immediately set about making this a notably high budget version of Silly Symphonies. Mickey was updated with a more modern look with more weight and this is the first time he was seen to have pupils (because the creation of Fantasia took so long, four new cartoons featuring this new version of Mickey were released in the meantime). The animation was slated to run two minutes longer than most of the cartoon shorts seen at the time, running a full nine minutes.

As animators started working in the studio (basing the unnamed wizard on Walt himself and nicknaming him “Yen Sid” –Disney backwards), Disney happened to run into the second most famous conductor in America at the time, Leopold Stokowski (above), at a restaurant. He talked to Stokowski about the project and was shocked when the composer said he loved the idea and offered to conduct the music for no charge. Stokowski quickly collected over 100 musicians in Los Angeles to record the score for the animation, making it the only section of Fantasia to not feature the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Budgetary Inflation Leads To Expansion

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was one of the animation department’s most ambitious projects up until that time. Every bit of the film was done with the utmost attention to detail and it wasn’t long before the animation ended up costing $125,000 –an outrageous amount for a single short. Disney’s most profitable short up until that time only brought in $60,000, so he knew he couldn’t make the money back releasing it as a Silly Symphonies cartoon like he originally proposed.

Stokowski proposed that Disney expand the short into a full concert feature with several music pieces and animations. Disney loved the idea and cast musician and critic Deems Taylor (above) to provide live action narration between each of the pieces. As The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was approaching completion, the studio geared up to start working on the additional cartoon and musical segments, which received every bit of the same level of detail given to the first cartoon. The movie used a total of eleven directors, sixty animators and twenty background artists. By the time the writers, designers, inkers, drawers, special effects artists, sculptors, sound engineers and modelers were added in, it took almost a thousand people to finish. It wasn’t long until the film ended up reaching a budget of $2.8 million, making it the most expensive hand drawn animation ever -an investment the studio didn’t recoup for almost 30 years.

Cranking It Up

After The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Stokowski hired the orchestra he conducted for, the Philadelphia Orchestra, to record the music for the remaining songs. During the filming, Stokowski  kept using a word that meant “a medley of familiar themes with variations.” The word? “Fantasia.” It wasn’t long before Disney started using the word to describe the movie. Although Disney thought the orchestra was playing great when he heard it live, he thought it sounded too tinny and flat when played back on tape.

He asked his engineers to see what they could do about the sound. They came back with a multi-channel sound format, making the movie the first major film to use stereoscopic sound. The film also was the first to use a click track, to overdub orchestral parts and to use simultaneous multi-track recording. They called their creation Fantasound. With all the innovations in the sound mixing process, it’s not entirely surprising that a full fifth of the budget went towards sound editing.

The End Result

Fantasia starts out with Toccata and Fugue In D Minor, the most abstract of all of the film segments. The first part of the song shows the orchestra playing with strange light patterns and heavy shadows. It’s worth noting that the orchestra in the movie isn’t the one on the score, it’s a few local musicians and Disney employees pretending to play the songs already recorded. Union and budget concerns prevented the Philadelphia Orchestra from actually appearing on screen. To show how impressive the Fantasound was, the first few parts of the piece are each played on different sound channels moving from right to left. After this, the song flows into an animation piece inspired by German abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, who worked on the segment for a short time. The animation then fades back into the live action performance.

After each performance, Deems Taylor appears on screen to segue into the next song by providing an introduction that describes the composer’s original intention of the song. This is cut out of most of the versions released all the way up until 2000. The second song is a selection of pieces from The Nutcracker. It starts with the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” showing fairies sprinkling dew on the flowers. Then a cluster of little mushrooms starts dancing in a Chinese-styled dance. Next, blossoms that look like ballerinas perform the “Dance of the Flutes,” and then a school of goldfish perform an Arab-inspired dance. Thistles and orchids are then seen performing a Russian-styled dance, and lastly, autumn fairies decorate everything in brown and gold before frost fairies add an icy layer, all to the tune of “Waltz of the Flowers.”

I’m sure I don’t need to repeat the plot of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for you, but watch the wizard and notice his thick gray eyebrows that are directly inspired by Disney. When he’s mad at Mickey near the end, he even raises one eyebrow –an expression the animators saw an angry Walt make all too often. In the original version of the movie, Mickey and Stokowski shake hands and the orchestra applauds them, but this is cut out of most versions.

The next musical number is the Rite of Spring (although the order of the arrangement is changed for the purposes of pacing the animation), which is set to a shortened version of Earth’s history. It starts with the creation of the planet and quickly moves on to the age of the Dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are notable for being the inspiration for the “Primeval World” diorama seen from the train at Disneyland.  At first, Disney wanted to transition from the dinosaurs ruling the Earth to man and his discovery of fire, but he later decided against that in an effort to not offend fundamentalists. Videos of part one and two can be found here and here.

After the Rite of Spring, the audience was given a 15 intermission from the 124 minute experience. After the break, the orchestra performs a little jazz, which transitions into the Meet the Soundtrack sequence. This short bit shows the audience how sound is rendered in waves. Taylor narrates this segment and an animated line that portrays an equalizer bar helps give the music and instruments visual appeal, and a personality.

The Pastoral Symphony is the only one of the films to be cut due to content and not length. The segment featuring centaurs, cupids and Bacchus also included a black servant centaur with minstrelized lips and hair. The scenes with her were first abruptly cut from the film and as technology improved, they simply zoomed in on the frames with her in them so she was out of the shot. Interestingly, Bacchus has two African American zebra centaurs serving him, but these two are not cut from the film. The segment also opens up to topless female centaurs bathing, and despite complaints from conservatives, this part was not censored or removed. If you want to see the original version of the film, with the controversial servant girl, here it is:

The next segment, Dance of the Hours, is probably the most famous piece in the film, outside of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It is the delightfully fun cartoon showing ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators gracefully dancing ballet together. The main creatures in this part are some of the only ones in the entire film. The main ostrich is Madame Upanova. The lead elephant is Elephanchine. Best known though are Hyacinth Hippo and Ben Ali Gator, who fall in love through the course of the story. Part one can be found here.

The only part of the film to include music from two different composers is The Night on Bald Mountain.  The segment not only includes music from the title track by Modest Mussorgsky, but “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert. The star of this segment is Chernabog, who is based on a Slavonic god, although Disney has referred to him as “Satan himself.” The demon was originally to be based on Bela Lugosi, but after he was brought in as a model for the animators, lead animator Bill Tytla found him to be unsuitable and he later had a colleague from the studio fill in instead. Strangely, Chernabog has a direct relation to Super Golden Crisp’s Sugar Bear mascot –they were both created by Tytla. In the animation, Chernabog  scares up demons, harpies and other spirits until the sound of the Angelus bell scares him away. The camera then pans from Bald Mountain to show a line of robed monks carrying torches, as they walk through the forest towards the ruins of a cathedral.

Disney was originally going to have them going to a church, but he decided he didn’t want the animation to appear religious, so he instead opted to have a cathedral of the forest. Because the animation required one long shot near the end that showed much of the entire background, the scene had to be painted on connected glass panes that stretched over 200 feet long and the monks had to be painted incredibly small, meaning the camera had to be only an inch away from the glass. It took three attempts to film the shot because the first attempt used the wrong lens and an earthquake took place during the second try. This was also the last of the scenes to be shot and was actually only completed on the morning of the movie premiere, November 13, 1940.

A Pitiful Reception

Because Disney’s distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, backed out before the release, Disney decided to exhibit the film as a roadshow. This ended up being a major problem because every theater required an immense level of set up in order to equip them for Fantasound. Before the studio had a chance to develop a more portable solution, WWII broke out and most of the sound systems ended up being scrapped to support the war effort. In the end, the roadshow was only shown at 12 theaters and there were only 16 Fantasound-equipped prints created. Even if they could have shown more of these roadshows, the film received mixed reviews with critics and audiences were wary of the film, thinking it would be too highbrow since it involved classical music. RKO eventually did pick up the movie for mainstream distribution, but the cropped the movie from 124 minutes to only 81 minutes. They also redid the film’s soundtrack so that it could be played in mono at theaters around the country. Unfortunately, the movie still didn’t attract many fans (largely because the war left people of the time anxious for action films), leaving the studio in serious financial strain. They decided to immediately push out Dumbo as a result, knowing it could be a low budget film that would still bring in a wide audience. The movie wasn’t seen in stereo until it was rereleased in CinemaScope in 1956. By this point, there was only one Fantasound-equipped print that had survived and all of the sound negatives had deteriorated beyond repair.

It wasn’t until 1969 that Fantasia finally made a profit. By this time, the film started to develop a cult following amongst college kids and teenagers who thought it was pretty trippy and sometimes even watched it while getting high. The studio rereleased the film again (this was the first release where the black centaur was removed) and promoted it with a psychedelic-styled poster that helped bring in the crowds. In 2000, Disney released the original, uncut roadshow version of the film for the first time since 1940. Unfortunately, Deems Taylors’ narration was only preserved on original copies of the film, meaning the sound was too deteriorated to use. The studio hired Corey Burton to record all of Taylor’s lines for him. Although this release is uncut, it is still edited and you will not see the black centaur in this version. Image via Loren Javier [Flickr]

Making A Lasting Impression

Although it took 30 years to become profitable, Fantasia has become one of the most successful films of all time, ranked #21 of all movies in terms of gross profits. Even when it was released, the Academy Awards recognized the contributions it made to the industry and William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins won a special academy award for their “contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures.” Leopold Stokowski also won a special academy award for “unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualized music, thereby widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form.” In 1998, the American Film Institute named it the #58 movie of the last 100 years and in 2008, they proclaimed it to be the #5 animated film of all time. Image via ShootsNikon [Flickr]

Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, Amps, IMDB

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For those of us who are classical musicians, it is a real treat to watch the film. I first saw it in the late 70's when it was re-released and I was in high school and I can say it was a major part of my development. Yes, it was dated, but what sound, what colors....even then, some of it was ahead of its time. I can see WHY it is the #5 animated film of all time and something that Walt should have been proud of!
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In the "Meet the Soundtrack" sequence, that's not an equalizer bar, that's a fanciful depiction of the squiggly line of the optical soundtrack printed on the film.


Look at the picture in the above link. The two squiggly lines on the right of the picture are the optical soundtrack (in stereo, not the single squiggly line of the mono soundtrack they depicted in the film). The width of the peak correspond to the loudness of the sound; how often the peaks occur, the frequency.

By the way, there are three digital soundtracks on the film frame in the picture, too.
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To add to the copy editing game, here's another typo (they are sometimes pesky and hard to catch!)

It’s worth nothing (should be "noting", not nothing) that the orchestra in the movie . . . etc. in the section called "The End Result."

Otherwise, great article (and I caught the error calling Stokowski a composer instead of a conductor, too).
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"Bacchus has two African American zebra centaurs serving him"
Since Bacchus wasn't American, shouldn't it be African or Black zebra centaurs?
I guess asians weren't upset about the slant eyed mushrooms, or nobody cared enough to rewrite history for them.
Minor points, overall an excellent lesson, Professor Harness... thank you. ;o)
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