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FANTASIA
Excerpted from the article by
Richard Holliss

The Burbank Studio opened for business in May 1940, at a total cost of $3.8 million. Already well into production, Walt's next film "Fantasia," was the first to make use of the new Studio's impressive technical facilities including two multiplane cameras.

Throughout this upheaval, the Studio was still busy producing countless cartoon shorts starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. The "Silly Symphonies," meanwhile, were a tremendous springboard for trying out new concepts that could be used in the feature films. After initially considering and then rejecting the suggestion that Dopey would be the star of what he saw as the ultimate "Silly Symphony," Walt decided that Mickey Mouse should instead play the key role in an animated special featuring the music L'Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) by French composer Paul Dukas.

When, a short while later -- Walt met the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, the maestro was so enthralled by the project that he offered to conduct it. Walt confirmed the arrangements in a letter to Stokowski's New York representative in 1937 -- "..Just at this time, and before getting very far on 'Bambi,' it will be possible for us to put the finest men in the plant, from color men down to animators, on 'The Sorcerer'" he said. James Algar, who was to later helm the 'True-Life Adventure' series, was chosen as the film's director.

With an orchestra of handpicked musicians, Disney hired a soundstage at the Selznick Studio in January 1938. But, 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' ran well over budget. Its cost of $125,000, was three or four times more than that of a "Silly Symphony."

From these spiraling costs, which far outweighed the short's box-office potential, came the idea for a full-length film comprising eight different animated sequences accompanied by classical music. Stokowski was so intrigued by the project, that he returned to the Disney Studios in September 1938, in order to suggest possible additions to a movie that Walt was calling -- "The Concert Feature."

Musicologist and broadcaster Deems Taylor, was chosen to host the film and proved influential in helping Walt and Stokowski select the various musical pieces. "The Love of Three Oranges" by Prokofiev and "The Firebird" by Stravinsky were rejected as early as September 1938. While "The Ride of the Valkyries" by Wagner and "The Swan of Tuonela" by Sibelius were prepared in story sketches for further discussion. Works such as "Clair de Lune" by Debussy and "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" by Rimsky-Korsakov cropped up in later Disney films such as "Melody Time" (1948), with either new or jazzed-up scores.

From these numerous possibilities, Walt and Stokowski agreed on just seven other pieces, each of which was re-edited to fit the running time of the visuals. "Music has always been a prominent part in all our productions, from the early cartoon days." Walt later remarked. "So much so, in fact, that I cannot think of the pictorial story without thinking about the complimentary music which will fulfil it." Walt was, therefore, particularly proud of the contribution made by his artists and technicians in the creation of "Fantasia," none of whom were professionally trained musicians.

Eager to recreate the feel of an orchestral concert, Walt instructed Bill Garity, the Head of the Studio's Technical Department, to experiment with the film's soundtrack in such a way as to surround the audience with music via a series of speakers. Stokowski, who had a remarkable understanding of how music could be improved using improved sound techniques, decided to record the music for "The Concert Feature" (now retitled as "Fantasia") onto nine optical soundtracks at the Philadelphia Academy of Music at a cost to Disney of over $400,000.

Already a controversial figure in music circles, due to his flamboyant approach to conducting, and his daring Bach transcripts (considered by many to be a contempt for tradition), Stokowski divided the Philadelphia Orchestra into self-contained sections: woodwind, brass, percussion etc, in order to recreate a stereophonic effect.

Aside from stereophonic sound, other innovations Walt considered were widescreen, and 3D. "…you look through a pair of spectacles, which is part of the program", he told his technicians, "and then you get the effect of two images...it looks like it's coming right at you." Unfortunately, both processes proved unworkable. Walt and Stokowski even discussed the possibility of pumping various scents into the auditorium to accompany appropriate sequences.

The first of the eight pieces chosen for "Fantasia" is a surrealistic journey through expressionism and colour accompanied by Stokowski's own orchestral version of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor."

Shimmering spiders' webs, twirling snowflakes, and dancing mushrooms are then brought vividly to life in groundbreaking animation to Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite." Walt gave inspirational artists Bianca Majolie, Ethel Kulsar, and Sylvia Moberly-Holland free rein over this sequence, because he felt that they contributed to the animation business in a way that "men never would or could."

Walt also insisted that his effects technicians devise a way of transferring Chouinard art teacher Elmer Plummer's preliminary drawings into animation. After various attempts were rejected, they finally came up with stipple cels on which the painted characters had a delicate pastel look. Considerable live-action footage was shot of Joyce Coles and Marjorie Belcher (who had modeled for Snow White) -- in long ballet skirts to simulate the movements of the blossoms for "The Dance of the Reed Flutes."

It's Mickey Mouse's turn next in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In the scene when he falls asleep and dreams that he's atop a promontory conducting the elements, Walt suggested that not only should Mickey be seen controlling the tides and wind, but the stars and planets as well.

For a change in mood, Walt had inquired of Deems Taylor, during an earlier story conference, as to whether there was any music on which he might build something with a prehistoric theme. Taylor replied that "Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring") by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, would be something of that order." Walt was very enthusiastic about the idea, particularly after hearing the music. "There would be something terrific in dinosaurs, flying lizards, and prehistoric monsters." he told them. "There could be beauty in the settings." Originally, Walt and his colleagues thought that "The Rite of Spring" was so powerful that it should provide the climax to the picture.

Instead, Stravinsky's discordant music was chosen to round off the first half of the program. To get a better understanding of the startling facts behind the first stirrings of life on Earth, with volcanoes and earthquakes shaping the continents, and prehistoric animals battling for survival amid a primeval landscape, Walt engaged the help of the Director of the American Museum of Natural History, Roy Chapman Andrews. Other experts in paleontology consulted for the picture included authors Julian S. Huxley ("Evolution"), Barnum Brown (contributor to the Annals of the New York Academy of Science), and Edwin P. Hubbell ("Explorations in Space").

Wolfgang Reitherman remembered how Walt had instructed him to animate the lumbering Stegosaurus like a dinosaur might have walked. It was a challenge for any artist. It was as if "the Studio had sent an expedition back to the Earth 65 million years ago," Walt proudly said of the results.

Unlike the other composers represented in the film, Igor Stravinsky was still alive and later expressed a certain amount of hostility over the treatment of his work, most notably Stokowski's tampering with the original score. In contrast, fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev was so impressed by "Fantasia" that he offered Walt the opportunity to make an animated version of "Peter and the Wolf." Originally planned for inclusion in a later version of the film, the sequence finally appeared in the compilation feature "Make Mine Music" (1946).

After the terrors of "The Rite of Spring'," light relief was provided by a humourous "conversation" between the film's soundtrack and Deems Taylor, before the second part of the program began with Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony -The Pastoral." It's a fascinating, if somewhat incongruous interpretation of a peasant revelry transferred to the slopes of Mount Olympus. Instead of nymphs and shepherds, its characters are the centaurs, cupids, and flying horses that legend tells us inhabited the Elysian landscape. When Beethoven summons up a storm, "Fantasia" offers striking images of the mighty Zeus hurling giant thunderbolts.

The film's most accessible sequence is a wickedly clever ballet performed by elephants, hippos and alligators, to Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours." Ostrich ballerinas limber up with graceful arabesques, while Hyacinth Hippo emerges from a pool amid pirouetting elephants. The sequence ends very energetically with the arrival of Hyacinth's unlikely suitor, Ben Ali Gator. To better appreciate how a dance between an alligator and a hippo could be successfully transferred to the screen, detailed maps and models of the "cartoon set" were constructed, while members of the Ballet Russe modeled for the overweight ballerinas.

In the film's tremendously powerful finale, the evil Chernobog summons up demons and ghosts for a frenzied dance atop his mountainous home in Moussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain." Demonic characters were nothing new in Disney cartoon shorts but they were usually of the more humourous variety. Walt wanted a more terrifying approach to the animation of Chernobog and chose one of his most talented artists Vladimir Tytla (who had worked on Stromboli) to bring the villain to life. "We want to go beyond those obvious things we have done..." he told his artists, "First they are worshipping the devil - the figures begin to dance - sort of ritual... the devil throws out his hands as a signal to stop, it could be made to show his absolute control. "

In complete contrast to the horrors that preceded it, the powers of good finally triumph over the powers of evil with Franz Schubert's immortal "Ave Maria." As hooded pilgrims journey through a forest of towering trees, a stunning multiplane shot of a sunrise above the distant hills heralds the film's final moments.

At a story meeting in 1940, Walt rejected the drawings that depicted a more realistic approach to the figures and backgrounds for 'Ave Maria'. "When we get into the church," Walt told his storymen, " I would like to see abstract stuff, rays of light that suggest a church, and the gothic effect.... I would like to combine in this some of the abstract things we were trying to do in the 'Toccata and Fugue.'"

The innovative stereo system, created by the Studio's technical department and christened "Fantasound," was interlocked with the film at the moment of projection and relayed to three speakers behind the screen and 96 surround speakers placed throughout the auditorium. The cost ($45,000 per theatre) proved to be too expensive for the film's general release and as a result was used in only 14 key theatres. It did, however, win special certificates at the 1941 Academy Awards, for William Garity, John N. A. Hawkins, and the RCA Company.

At a cost of $2,280,000, "Fantasia" was premiered on November 13th, 1940 at the Broadway Theatre in New York. With his distributor RKO Radio Pictures, being less than enthusiastic about releasing what they referred to as a "longhair musical," Walt set up a separate distribution deal in order to encourage more prestigious theatres to showcase the film. But, the high price of admission, necessary to recoup the "Fantasound" installation costs, badly affected the film's box-office performance.

RKO Radio Pictures eventually distributed the film, but their concern about how to market such an unusual venture resulted in a request to cut the running time from 125 to 81 minutes. Disappointed by the public's reaction to "Fantasia," and unable to edit a film on which he'd spent so much time and effort, Walt gave RKO the go-ahead to release an abridged version. It would be some years before Walt had the opportunity of restoring the film, and any plans he had to incorporate all-new sequences including "Clair de Lune' and "Invitation to the Dance" by Weber (using characters from both "The Pastoral" and "The Nutcracker Suite") were sadly abandoned.

Aside from RKO's lack of faith, music purists were also quick to criticize Disney and Stokowski for offering what they saw as nothing more than abridged versions of the music accompanied by some garish illustrations. But in complete contrast, David Low writing in the New Republic magazine called Walt Disney "the most significant figure in graphic arts since Leonardo (Da Vinci)." And not surprisingly, the editorial for the Studio's own in-house "bulletin," commented rather optimistically that - ".... barbers, bakers, and taxi drivers throughout the nation will whistle while they work, random themes from Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach."

"We have worlds to conquer here." Walt told a group of his artists and storymen at a meeting in 1938. "..we've got an hour and 45 minutes of picture and we're doing beautiful things with beautiful music." At the time of the film's release he added, " At last we have found a way to use in our medium the great music of all times and the flood of new ideas which it inspires."

Related articles:

FANTASIA: A Multimedia Panel
FANTASIA: Walt's Thoughts in Audio


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Richard Holliss is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster, whose work includes a number of film related documentaries for BBC Radio. The author of numerous articles, seminars, and retrospectives, Richard is also the co-author (with Brian Sibley) of three books on the work of Walt Disney including "Mickey Mouse: His Life and Times," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Making of the Classic Film," and "The Disney Studio Story."



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