Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Fantasia

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.” (This post was previously published on the Disqus site)

Title: Fantasia

Year: 1940

Budget: $2,280,000

Gross: $83,000,000

Directed by: direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, and production supervision by Ben Sharpsteen,

Creation: Fantasia came out of the tradition of the Silly Symphonies, and Walt felt that Mickey Mouse’s popularity was waning. He decided to feature the mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. He wanted to transcend the usual slapstick, and considered using a well-known conductor to record the music. He happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1912, at Chasen’s restaurant in Hollywood, and talked about his plans for the short. Stokowski offered to conduct the piece at no cost.

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Disney hired a stage at the Culver Studios in California for the session. It began at midnight on January 9, 1938, and lasted for three hours using eighty-five Hollywood musicians. The expenses climbed to $125,000, several times the ususal cost of a Silly Symphony, and Disney saw the opportunity to try something different.

On September 29, 1938, around sixty of Disney’s artists gathered for a two-and-a-half hour piano concert while he provided a running commentary about the new musical feature. The final pieces were chosen the following morning.

“There are things in that music that the general public will not understand until they see the things on the screen representing that music. Then they will feel the depth in the music. Our object is to reach the very people who have walked out on this ‘Toccata and Fugue’ because they didn’t understand it. I am one of those people; but when I understand it, I like it.” Walt Disney, quoted in Neal Glaber’s biography

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.

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Not much is known about the piece, even when it was written. Scholars give anywhere between 1704 to 1750. The first publication of the piece was in 1833, through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn. It became known for its use in films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Black Cat. “Toccata” is music written to be fast-moving and lightly fingered, and a “Fugue” is based around a theme that repeats.

The piece introduces the concept of animating the music, starting with illuminating the orchestra in vivid colors casting shadows upon the backdrop. The shadows fade into abstract patterns. Preliminary designs included those from effects animator Cy Young, who produced drawings influenced by the patterns on the edge of a piece of sound film. Disney hired Oskar Fischinger, a German artist who had produced numerous abstract animated films, including some with classical music, to work with Young. Fischinger was used to having full control over his work and left the studio before the segment was completed.

The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Although the original production was not a success, the 20-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. The sections include the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, “Chinese Dance”, “Dance of the Flutes”, “Arabian Dance”, “Russian Dance” and “Waltz of the Flowers”

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Disney wanted to continue the idea of dream-like images. “It’s like something you see with your eyes half closed,” he said. Animator Art Babbitt was inspired by The Three Stooges for the dancing mushrooms in the “Chinese Dance” routine. He assigned each mushroom an instrument with the smallest mushroom as the high flute. The studio filmed professional dancers Joyce Coles and Marjorie Belcher wearing ballet skirts that resembled shapes of blossoms that were to sit above water for “Dance of the Flutes”. An Arabian dancer was also brought in to study the movements for the goldfish in “Arabian Dance”. For the climactic dance of spiraling snowflakes, paintings of the flakes were mounted on mechanical gears that were spun in front of the camera; the rest of the animation was added to each frame by means of double exposure.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. The piece was based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem “Der Zauberlehrling”. The piece follows the story with Mickey Mouse, as the young apprentice of the sorcerer Yen Sid (read it backwards). He attempts some of his master’s magic tricks but does not know how to control them.

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Animation on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice began on January 21, 1938. Mickey was redesigned by animator Fred Moore who added pupils to his eyes for the first time to achieve greater ranges of expression. Most of the segment was shot in live action, including a scene where a UCLA athlete was asked to run and jump across one of the studio’s sound stages with barrels in the way, which was used for reference when Mickey traverses through water. Bill Tytla animated Yen Sid.

Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. The original concepts of the piece were primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. However Disney depicted the creation of the Earth through the death of the dinosaurs.

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To gain a better understanding of the history of the planet the studio received guidance from Roy Chapman Andrews, the director of the American Museum of Natural History, English biologist Julian Huxley, paleontologist Barnum Brown, and astronomer Edwin Hubble. Animators studied comets and nebulae at the Mount Wilson Observatory, and observed a herd of iguanas and a baby alligator that were brought into the studio. However, a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Stegosaurus could not have happened, as they lived in different eras.

Meet the Soundtrack An animated sound track “character”, initially a straight white line, changes into different shapes and colors based on the sounds played.

The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. He frequently left Vienna to work in rural locations. The symphony has five movements.

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A mythical Greco-Roman world of colorful centaurs and “centaurettes”, cupids, fauns and winged horses gather for a festival to honor Bacchus, the god of wine. They are interrupted by Zeus, who creates a storm and directs Vulcan to forge lightning bolts for him to throw at the attendees. As the storm ends the rainbow arcs across the sky

The female centaurs were originally drawn bare-breasted, but the Hays office enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code insisted that they discreetly hung garlands around the necks. Originally black female centaurs shining the hooves and grooming the tails of white centaurs” appeared in the film, but this was cut out years later. Since Disney was introduced to three-strip Technicolor he was eager to create a rainbow, which he did, as well as a vibrant sunset.

Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli is the third act finale of the opera La Gioconda. The character Alvise, who heads the Inquisition, receives his guests in a large and elegant ballroom adjoining the death chamber. The music and choreography represent the hours of dawn, day (morning), twilight and night.

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Disney reimagines the piece as a comic ballet in four sections: Madame Upanova and her ostriches (Morning); Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (Afternoon); Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe (Evening); and Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators (Night). The finale finds all of the characters dancing together until their palace collapses.

John Hench was assigned to work on the segment, but resisted as he knew little about ballet. Disney then gave Hench season tickets to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with backstage access so he could learn more about it. The segment was directed by Norman Ferguson, a master of character animation who was responsible for making the character of Pluto come alive in the 1930s. Animators studied real life ballet performers including Marge Champion and Irina Baronova.

Jay Glaber from Classical MPR points out that audiences would have recognized the image of Hyacinth Hippo emerging from the pool of water just like Vera Zorina in a scene from George Balanchine’s 1938 Goldwyn Follies.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert. Mussorgsky composed a “musical picture”, St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain on the theme of a witches’ sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve, which he completed on that very night, 23 June 1867. In 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov published an arrangement of the work. Stokowski stated that he based it on the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement in form and content yet. Stokowski had no copy of the original tone poem from 1867, so he did what he felt Mussorgsky would have done.

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Schubert composed “Ave Maria” as a setting of a song from Walter Scott’s popular epic poem The Lady of the Lake. Ellen Douglas, the Lady of the Lake, has gone with her exiled father to stay in the Goblin’s cave as she sings a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary, calling upon her for help.

At midnight the devil Chernabog awakes and summons evil spirits and restless souls from their graves to Bald Mountain. The spirits dance and fly through the air until driven back by the sound of an Angelus bell as night fades into dawn. A chorus is heard singing “Ave Maria” as a line of robed monks is depicted walking with lighted torches through a forest and into the ruins of a cathedral. The final shot was the longest single shot ever animated up to that date. Disney wanted a 220-foot tracking shot into the cathedral, and shut down an entire soundstage to make room. It took three times to get it right, completing it the day before the New York premiere. To show the spirits rising from their graves drawings were reflected off undulating tin, then overlaid on backgrounds. The film was shot through ripple glass to show Chernabog’s power flowing over the village. Bill Tytla was the lead animator on Chernabog.

Sound Recording: Disney wanted to experiment in more sophisticated sound recording and reproduction techniques for Fantasia. For the recording of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in January 1938, engineers at Disney collaborated with the RCA Corporation for using multiple audio channels which allowed any desired dynamic balance to be achieved upon playback. The stage was altered acoustically with double plywood semi-circular partitions that separated the orchestra into five sections to increase reverberation.

The rest of the pieces were recorded a year later, in April and lasted for seven weeks at the Academy of Music, In the recording sessions, thirty-three microphones were placed around the orchestra that captured the music onto eight optical sound recording machines placed in the hall’s basement. In the forty-two days of recording 483,000 feet (147,000 m) of film was used. Almost a fifth of the film’s budget was spent on its recording techniques.

A collaboration between Disney and David Sarnoff of RCA led to the development of Fantasound. Developed in part by Disney engineer William Garity, it employed two projectors running simultaneously. One had the picture film with a mono soundtrack, the other ran a sound film that was mixed from the eight tracks recorded at the Academy. They were mixed into four tracks: three contained the audio for the left, center, and right stage speakers with the fourth as a control track.

Critical Reception: Fantasia garnered significant critical acclaim at the time of release and was seen by many critics as a masterpiece. Those who adopted a more negative view at the time of the film’s release came mostly from the classical music community. Many took fault with Stokowski’s rearrangements and abridgements. Others disapproved at the premise of the film itself, arguing that pairing the music with visual images would rob them of their integrity.

In the late 1960s, four shots from The Pastoral Symphony were removed. A black centaurette called Sunflower was depicted polishing the hooves of a white centaurette, and a second named Otika appeared briefly during the procession scenes with Bacchus. The edits have been in place in all reissues, including the version currently available on Netflix

Legacy: From 2001 to 2015, the Sorcerer’s Hat was the icon of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Also located at the resort is Fantasia Gardens, a miniature golf course. Mickey’s statue presides over the pool at the All-Star Movies Resort at Disney World. Fantasmic! features Mickey as the apprentice battling the Disney Villains. One can also argue that the film invigorated the popularity of the individual musical pieces such as “The Nutcracker Suite” and “Night on Bald Mountain.”

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For further reading check out Jay Gabler’s series of online articles on Classical MPR, which I used as a source. Also Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler (not sure if the two are related).