The History of Disney Animation – Part 3 Fantasia

Fantasia-poster-1940
Wikipedia, Fantasia, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasia_(1940_film)&gt; [accessed 21/5/2017]
Fantasia is a film that seems to be like wine. A weird analogy I know but the film really does seem to get better with age both of the viewer and the age of the film. It is often seen as a ‘new kind of art form’ developing new techniques and technologies and really pushing the boundaries of animation.[1] In the late 1920s, after the success of Steamboat Willie, the Disney Company experimented with action, sound, special effects and colour in a series of cartoons called the Silly Symphonies.[2] Shorts like the Skeleton Dance and Old Mill are notable varieties of this experimentation. This word experimentation is key for Disney at this time. Not only were they pushing themselves to complete Snow White, but there seems to have been a general attitude at the studio at the time for perfection and for pushing the boundaries of animation to sights never seen before.[3]

Whilst the main features were under production, the Mickey cartoons were scarce, with people favouring Donald Duck more.[4] Therefore, Walt wanted to create a Mickey cartoon to keep people interested in the character of Mickey and to sort of revive his standing.[5] So Walt decided to tell a Mickey story to a piece of classical music called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.[6]

But what turned a Mickey short into a full film? Walt Disney met the renowned composer Stokowski for dinner one evening during which they talked about various projects such as the Mickey short.[7] Stokowski seems to have loved it and offered to conduct the piece for Walt.[8] The Sorcerer’s apprentice music was recorded in 1938 with a 100 piece orchestra.[9] However, with such lavishness, the cost of the film began to snowball and became three times as expensive as a usual silly symphony.[10] Because of this cost implication, it seems that in early 1938, it was suggested to turn this short into a larger feature film, the ‘concert feature’, with more shorts set to classical music.[11] Thus the concept of Fantasia was born.

During the early phases, Walt seems to have been quiet in the early discussions, admitting that he had limited knowledge of classical music.[12] Deems Taylor was brought in to help decide on the content of the films and it seems that a lot of these early meetings were sitting, listening to music and debating what story could be told or what could be done with the music.[13] To come up with the name of Fantasia, a contest was held where 2000 entries were submitted.[14] In the end, Fantasia was chosen as the winner.[15] The word Fantasia means ‘a composition in which the composer strays from the accepted form’ or ‘a potpourri of familiar arts’.[16] Personally, the first definition is very apt for what the studios were trying to achieve at that time not only in their attempts to push the boundaries of animation, but also but of their manipulation of classical music in order to create a story that they wanted.[17]

The opening piece is Toccata and Fugue and it seems that this piece was always going to be abstract, being influenced by patterns and shapes.[18] At this time, abstract films were not really done and even then, they were seen more in Europe e.g. Germany.[19] This piece was designed by a mixture of Oskar Fischinger – who used geometric shapes and patterns in his work –  and Cy Young who was influenced by ‘patterns on the edge of a piece of sound film’.[20] There were also plans to make this piece 3D, giving the audience ‘cardboard stereoscopic frames’; but this idea was abandoned during production.[21]

The piece called the Nutcracker Suite rejected the traditional story that we see with the ballet.[22] But for each cell during this piece, it took 3 hours to complete due to the complex colouring, painting and effects for each of the drawings.[23]

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the short that inspired the whole film, is the only piece in the feature which keeps the story the same as the original.[24] In this attempt to regain admiration for Mickey, he was given a makeover by animator Fred Moore.[25] Mickey’s eyes were given pupils, making them more expressive.[26] Furthermore, his head was enlarged and also his body was made into a pear shape which really helped the animators make his movements move fluid and flexible.[27] A fun fact about the designs within this short, the Sorcerer is said to have been modelled on Walt himself.[28]

For the Rites of Spring piece academics and specialists in natural history, palaeontology, even astronomer Edwin Hubble, were brought in order to advise and help the animators in their choices, designs and movements.[29] It is said that this scene, which shows the evolution of the earth and animals like Dinosaurs, contributed to science by depicting how dinosaurs moved.[30]

The Ave Maria piece is said to have been one of the ‘most elaborate single shorts in film history’.[31] It took 9 men, 6 days and nights, to film the sequence on the 154ft long horizontal multiplane camera (this took up a whole sound stage).[32] There were several difficulties in filming this scene however. The first time, the lens was the wrong way round, filming the camera men and not the art.[33] The second attempt saw an earthquake strike halt production work.[34] It was third time lucky with the filming of this scene.

Not only was the concept ground breaking, but also there were some key technical revelations that made this picture stand out. Special effects wise, they really pushed themselves to create a variety of events. For example, to create smoke effects for the volcanoes in the Rites of Spring sequence, engineers turned paint cans upside down in water and filmed the paint flowing out.[35]

Another key technological breakthrough, specific to this film is Fantasound. Co-created by Bill Garity, this is an early form of stereophonic sound which Walt wanted in order to really make viewers feel like they were in a concert hall, doing the music justice.[36] It is quiet complex to understand but it seems to have been 2 projectors running simultaneously, one with the film and the normal soundtrack, and the other with up to 8 tracks running and put out through different speakers.[37]

Fantasia was finally release on the 13th November 1940 and it was very much wanted to be an event, or as is commonly said a ‘roadshow’.[38] RKO, the usual distributor for Disney films, did not have a lot of faith with the film and so the studio had to distribute the film itself.[39] But I feel this allowed Disney to make it the event he wanted. People had to buy a ticket, which had a reserved seat, just like a theatre.[40] Furthermore, staff at the venue were trained to direct people to their seats and viewers were given a lush programme for the show.[41] It all builds up into this idea that it was more than just a movie, it was an event on par to that of concerts or theatrical events. But despite this lavish production, it took $85,000 and 2 days to fit each theatre with the equipment needed for Fantasound and only 12 venues in the whole of the US could accommodate the equipment.[42] Furthermore, because of war in Europe, the chance of releasing the film in Europe was immediately cut.[43] It seems fitting that people look back and say that the film was ‘destined not to make money’.[44] RKO did take back control of the distribution in 1941.[45]

In all, what happened with all of this effort? Firstly the critical response, personally, seems mixed. Critics at the time did not know whether to review it as music or film and it seems that what was written in the reviews was confused too.[46]Bosely Crowther said that it was ‘motion-picture history’ and that it was ‘simply terrific’.[47] However Virgil Thomson, a music critic and composer, said that ‘much of Fantasia distracted from or directly injured the scores’.[48] Personally, it seems that those from the music world were more likely to be against this film, perhaps because it was trying to do something new with classical music. This idea of democratization, may have made classical music lovers worry that it was debasing the art form. Clague seems to agree with this perspective too in his article.[49] But in the end, Fantasia did make a loss and did hurt the company and Disney himself. The film only made $1.3 million on its first run; a loss of $15 million in modern currency.[50] It seems that critics too, scoffed Disney, seemingly accusing him of being pretentious.[51]

But this is the critical response. The popular response seems to be just as complex. Some say that ticket demands were great that more receptionists were called in to deal with calls.[52] Furthermore, the film ran for a year in places like LA and New York.[53] However, some writers have argued that there was apathy at the box office, with the film eventually being cut from 124 minutes to 81 minutes and that some parents didn’t want to pay the high prices for tickets because the Night on Bald Mountain sequence frightened their children.[54]

With such a mixed opening, it is difficult to see how this film would have fared in the years after. It had been intended by Disney for the film to be constantly evolving, with new elements being adding, replacing different segments and so some new segments were already being developed when the film was first released.[55] For example, Claire de Lune had been developed.[56] Although it was not used in Fantasia, this sequence became the Blue Bayou and was placed in Make Mine Music.[57] Disney did try in the 40s to make some shorter package music films like Make Mine Music and Melody time but these were not on the level of Fantasia.[58] The film was not totally dismissed at the time of release as Disney, although not getting a nomination for best picture in the 1941 Oscars, he and Stokowski did get a special Oscar in 1942 for their ‘contributions to advancing the art of sound motion pictures’ with the film.[59] But the film itself continued to be reissued in every decade of the latter 20th century and finally on video and DVD.[60] It was through these re-releases that the film gradually gained a fan base and the recognition that perhaps Walt Disney wanted. With the growing fan base, the uncut version was eventually restored in the 1990s.[61] The film began to make money, ultimately earning $76 million and becoming the 22nd highest grossing film of all time.[62] In 1990, the film was preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film registry and in 1995, the Vatican named it as one of the top 45 films in the art category.[63]

There has also been more subtle influences of the film. The short, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice has had a huge influence as, I am sure you may have seen, it is very common to see Mickey in his Wizard’s hat.[64] Furthermore, because of the special effects used for the film, it was an early form of ‘imagineering’, something that would play a huge part in the development of Disneyland and its rides in the 1950s.[65]

But there has been some negatives about the film. The main one is the racial insensitivity around the Sunflower character in the pastoral scene. This was a centaurette which had ‘exaggerated black features’ and is seen as racist by a modern audience. Thus it was cut from the film in the 1960s.[66]

So this is why I compared Fantasia to a wine. Some liked it new, but its influence and following has built up with re-releases as time has gone by. It may not be in my personal favourite Disney films, but as a piece of art, I too can only praise it.

Seven facts for seven dwarfs!

  1. Because of complexities in shooting the scene, the Ave Marie scene reel arrived at the theatre just 4 hours before the film was due to premiere.[67]
  2. The dancing mushrooms in the Nutcracker segment was said to be inspired by the 3 Stooges.[68]
  3. The Sorcerer in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was based on Walt Disney. Especially his eyebrow being raised. In fact, the Sorcerer’s name is Yen Sid – Disney backwards![69]
  4. This was the first film where the animators could chose the colours they wanted.[70]
  5. The musicians you see on the screen are actually staff that worked in the Disney studios and not real musicians.[71]
  6. ‘This is the only Disney film to have an intermission’.[72]
  7. It is also the longest running Disney film at 2 hours 5 minutes long.[73]

Bibliography

Biography, ‘Fantasia’s’ 75th Anniversary: Behind the Scenes of the Disney Classic, <http://www.biography.com/news/fantasia-75th-anniversary-facts&gt; [accessed 20/5/2017]

Clague, Mark, ‘Playing in ‘Toon: Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940) and the Imagineering of Classical Music’, American Music, 22:1, (2004), pp. 91 – 109

Classical, Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ at 75: Why there’s still nothing like it, 2015, < http://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2015/01/30/disney-fantasia-75&gt; [accessed 21/5/2017]

Finch, Christopher, The Art of Walt Disney Animation: from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom, (London: Virgin, 1999)

Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia, <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Fantasia&gt; [accessed 20/5/2017]

Movie Fone, ‘Fantasia’: 15 things you (probably) didn’t know about this Disney classic, <https://www.moviefone.com/2015/11/12/fantasia-disney-facts/&gt; [accessed 20/5/2017]

Oh My Disney, 9 things you didn’t know about Fantasia, <https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/11/13/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-fantasia/&gt; [accessed 21/5/2017]

Smithsonian.com, Disney’s “Fantasia” Was Initially A Critical And Box-Office Failure, <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/disney-fantasia-critical-box-office-failure-180956963/&gt; [accessed21/5/2017]

Youtube, The Making of Fantasia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xns6ZDKxSQ, [accessed 20/5/2017]

[1] Mark Clague, ‘Playing in ‘Toon: Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940) and the Imagineering of Classical Music’, American Music, 22:1, (2004), p. 91.

[2] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xns6ZDKxSQ, [accessed 20/5/2017]

[3] Ibid.

[4] Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney Animation: from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom, (London: Virgin, 1999)

[5] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid; Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia, <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Fantasia&gt; [accessed 20/5/2017].

[12] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[13] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[14] Biography, ‘Fantasia’s’ 75th Anniversary: Behind the Scenes of the Disney Classic, <http://www.biography.com/news/fantasia-75th-anniversary-facts&gt; [accessed 20/5/2017]

[15] Biography, ‘Fantasia’s’ 75th ‘.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Clague, ‘Playing in ‘Toon:’, p. 97.

[18] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia; Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[19] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[20] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia; Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[21] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[22] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[30] Clague, ‘Playing in ‘Toon:’, p. 98.

[31] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Biography, ‘Fantasia’s’ 75th ‘.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Clague, ‘Playing in ‘Toon:’, p. 97.

[50] Movie Fone, ‘Fantasia’: 15 things you (probably) didn’t know about this Disney classic, <https://www.moviefone.com/2015/11/12/fantasia-disney-facts/&gt; [accessed 20/5/2017]; Smithsonian.com, Disney’s “Fantasia” Was Initially A Critical And Box-Office Failure, <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/disney-fantasia-critical-box-office-failure-180956963/&gt; [accessed21/5/2017].

[51] Smithsonian.com, Disney’s “Fantasia”.

[52] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[53] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[54] Ibid; Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[55] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[56] Movie Fone, ‘Fantasia’.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Youtube, The Making of Fantasia.

[59] Movie Fone, ‘Fantasia’.

[60] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[61] Classical, Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ at 75: Why there’s still nothing like it, 2015, < http://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2015/01/30/disney-fantasia-75&gt; [accessed 21/5/2017]

[62] Movie Fone, ‘Fantasia’.

[63] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Clague, ‘Playing in ‘Toon:’, p. 96.

[66] Movie Fone, ‘Fantasia’.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Oh My Disney, 9 things you didn’t know about Fantasia, <https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/11/13/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-fantasia/&gt; [accessed 21/5/2017]

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Disney Wikipedia, Fantasia.

[73] Ibid.

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