The Music of Fantasia

fantasiaIn the 1930’s walt had been working on an animated short starring Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. While this project was in the works, Walt had a chance meeting with conductor Leopold Stokowski at Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood. They had dinner together and Walt explained his latest project. Stokowski was fascinated and said he would love to conduct it.

Leopold Stokowski was immensely popular in the 30’s having already been conducting for over 20 years. He was well known amongst the public, even those people who didn’t really listen to classical music, because he was a showman. He had a very striking look and charisma. He became known for grand gestures during concerts such as throwing the sheet music to the floor to show he didn’t need the score to conduct. In 1929 he made some history when he ceased the use of the traditional conductor’s baton preferring instead to use just his hands.

Stokowski is also credited as the first conductor to adopt the seating plan that is used by most orchestras today, with first and second violins together on the conductor’s left, and the violas and cellos to the right. He was constantly moving around the sections of the orchestra to get the best sound. He is most famously known for having been the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and developing the warm “Stokowski sound” or what came to be known as the “Philadelphia sound.” This was in part due to his encouraging the practice of free bowing by the string section, though this is rarely used today even by the Philadelphia orchestra.

Stokowski was now very interested in the project and Walt’s mind was stirring with even bigger ideas. This was no longer going to be a short, this was to be a full feature length film. This was a collaboration of two cultural giants, one in Movies and Animation, the other in classical music, coming together to create something quite big that no one had ever really seen before.

Stokowski was a big believer in classical music and he was a big proponent of contemporary classical composers from his time (mostly from the Romantic Period) who were alive while he was conducting such as Stravinsky, Saint-Saens, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky. Stokowski saw the idea of Fantasia as a great way to bring classical music to the masses through animation.

Walt envisioned Fantasia as a concert in the form of a feature motion picture. During its development, the working title for their Concert Feature was “The Concert Feature.” However, the title “Concert Feature” would never work as the actual title as it was too mundane. Dozens of other titles were considered but ultimately Fantasia was chosen as the title of the film. The word fantasia is actually a musical term that means a freeform of music.

In 1938 Walt, Stokowski, and others had a three week long meeting in which they basically sat around listening to classical music and tossing around ideas for what could work and what they could animate with the various pieces. During the selection meetings they brought in a gentleman named Deems Taylor. Taylor was not only a composer but also a popular music critic of the time. It was soon decided that Deems Taylor would also have an on-screen role as the master of ceremonies in the feature, introducing the pieces and giving context to them for the audience.

The first piece that was selected to open the concert was Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Walt envisioned the animation for this to be completely abstract. In its finished form it wasn’t entirely abstract. For example, it would have basic lines moving up and down in the abstract, but they would then turn into violin bows in time with the music. Walt was keen to have his abstract art, but at the same time didn’t want to be so avant-garde that he scared off the audience. It had to be understandably abstract.

Next up was Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” Here was a very popular ballet piece that the audience knew well for its familiar story. Walt was quite brave here in abandoning the original story of The Nutcracker, and instead used the music to tell the story of the changing of the seasons. However, while he did get rid of the story of the Nutcracker ballet, the piece in Fantasia does still live on as a ballet, but here it is a ballet of nature with dancing leaves, flowers, and snowflakes. 

The centerpiece of the film was the film’s catalyst, “The Sorcerers Apprentice,” composed by Paul Dukas, it is the only piece in the film in which the on screen artwork does tell the original story intended by the composer. The only caveat, of course, is it stars Mickey Mouse as the apprentice of a sorcerer for whom magic goes out of control.

The “Rite of Spring,” which had only recently been composed by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, was meant to be a ballet of a series of primitive dances. Disney instead chose to tell the story of the origins of life on earth.

The Next piece was “The Pastoral Symphony.” Originally, they had intended to use “Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied” by Gabriel Pierné, but it wasn’t big enough for what they had planned so instead they chose to use Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony no. 6.” In the original animation for the Greek Mythological segment, the female centaurs were bare-breasted, but the Hays office, which enforced the Motion Picture Production code insisted that garlands be hung around the necks to hide their female anatomy. Likewise, the male centaurs were also toned down to appear less intimidating.

The next segment, “Dance of the Hours,” was meant to be a parody of the highbrow dance segments that had made their way into many of the cinematic features of the time. Disney wanted to present animals performing a caricature ballet sequence with comedic “slips.” To get a better understanding of how the animals moved, the animators visited Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles. Animator John Hench was assigned to work on the segment, but resisted citing the fact that he knew very little about ballet. Walt Disney then gave Hench season tickets to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with backstage access so he could learn more about it. Walt even added classical ballet performers to his studio for the animators to observe in order to better animate the ballet.

Two pieces form the finale of Fantasia. A clash of good and evil begins with Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and was paired with Shubert’s “Ave Maria” to finish off the movie.

These competing pieces took the audience from the profane to the sacred leaving them with a sense of hope. Walt intended “Ave Maria” to provide a sense of a hopeful relief to the intimidating images in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence.

The Procession of the Faithful from this final segment is one of the most elaborate single shots in history having been filmed continuously by nine men over six full days and nights. It used a single horizontal multiplane camera set up across the 154 foot length of the Disney Studio soundstage. The film concludes with an image of hope – the sun rising.

The sound for Fantasia had to be better than it would be for any ordinary film. Instead of recording in Hollywood, they went to the Philadelphia Academy of Music to record with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its home. This location in the Academy of  Music would provide the necessary sound and acoustics Walt needed.

In trying to create an immersive audio experience, the sound engineers ended up creating Fantasound. Today we know this as audio in stereo surround sound. So the listener would get different sounds left, right, and center to recreate the feeling of hearing the music in a concert hall. This form of sound had never been heard in a movie theater before. Almost a fifth of the film’s budget was spent on its recording techniques and approximately three million feet of sound film were used in the creation of Fantasia.

Walt didn’t necessarily view Fantasia as an ordinary motion picture. It was even described in some marketing as a new type of screen experience. And it wasn’t sold like a regular movie was either. It was dubbed a roadshow. One had to even buy tickets in advance for reserved seats, just like you would if you were going to a concert or a musical.

The show had programs, and they even trained theater staff to properly take the patrons to their seats. It was an event. It was an experience. Fantasia ran for over a year in New York’s Broadway Theatre and Los angeles’ Carthay Circle theater where after 28 weeks it broke the record of longest running film to date (a title which had previously been held by Gone With The Wind). Only 12 venues were ever equipped to show the picture in Fantasound at a cost of $85,000 (in 1930’s money no less) to fit a theater for Fantasia’s Fantasound.

Walt envisioned it as a perpetual concert that would be released with new segments being added as others were removed. Walt was developing additional segments for the new musical additions including “Swan of Tuonela” and “Ride of the Valkyries.” In fact “Claire de Lune” was even fully animated, however it was cut prior to theatrical release to shorten the length of the picture.

Disney outsourced subsequent releases of the film to RKO where it was cut from 124 minutes to 81 minutes dropping the “Toccata and Fugue” and most of the live segments featuring speaking portions and the orchestra.

It wasn’t until its release in 1969 where it finally started to make a profit on its initial budget of 2.28 million dollars. For the 1982 and 1985 releases Disney presented Fantasia with a completely new soundtrack recorded in Dolby Stereo. To replace Stokowski’s recordings, Disney used the conductor Irwin Kostal directing a 121-piece orchestra with a 50-voice choir at a cost of $1 million.

For its fiftieth anniversary in 1990, Fantasia returned to 550 theaters nationwide in October of that year. This performance included its live action scenes with Deems Taylor and the original Stokowski score. The film underwent a two-year restoration process which began after a six-month search to piece together the original negatives that had been in storage since 1946. The 1990 reissue of Fantasia went on to gross $25 million domestically.

Fantasia was not without controversy. In the 1960s, four shots were removed that depicted two characters in a racially stereotypical manner from “The Pastoral Symphony” segment in which a black centaurette was shown polishing the shoes of a white Centaurette.

Fantasia’s legacy continues to live on in the parks. Mickey’s sorcerer hat was a prominent park icon of Disney’s Hollywood studios and the movie was featured in the park’s Great Movie Ride until that ride was retired in 2017. Characters from Fantasia such as Chernabog and others are portrayed in the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Fantasia was highlighted in the greatest nighttime parade the Walt Disney company has ever produced, SpectroMagic in the section titled “The Imagination of Fantasia.” This was a section of the parade featuring four parade units dedicated to the film including an animatronic Chernabog float (Chernabog was the demon of Bald Mountain) that rises and spreads its wings to a stunning 38 foot span over Main Street, U.S.A.

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