In 1940, Walt Disney released Fantasia, a film that became a celebrated achievement both in animation art and in the history of motion picture sound. This pioneering film melded classical music, early stereophonic experimentation, and animation for the first time in history.
Fantasia was originally envisaged in late 1937 as a “Silly Symphony,” featuring Mickey Mouse and telling the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and his unsuccessful attempts to contain an ever-expanding army of water-toting brooms. By the time it was completed in 1938, costs had so exceeded projections that they could not be recouped if the film was released as a short. Disney began to imagine a full-length feature using short, separate performances arranged as a single presentation, a “visual musical concert” where animation was no longer just a story-telling device but a kind of new art form that rendered serious music on screen in a way that had not been done before.
Disney turned to famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to help determine the way music would be depicted. They imagined Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony as a story about the Greek gods, and pictured Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” as an animal ballet including hippopotami frolicking in ballerina’s tutus. Walt wanted to incorporate dinosaurs in his film. Deems Taylor, a well-known music commentator and contributor to the project, suggested that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” would be the perfect accompaniment to the extinct reptiles.
Of the many proposals for Fantasia, including extra-wide screens, 3-D, and pumping smells into the movie theater, one that made it past the drawing board was Fantasound (1939). Stemming from Disney’s and Stokowski’s exploration into three-dimensional sound technology, Fantasound was an elaborate and expensive sound system that recorded Fantasia on nine optical recorders using eight music tracks plus a click track for animation timing. For the fist time, a multi-channel soundtrack would surround audiences with a form of stereo separation. Because the sound system required the use of multiple speakers, equipping theaters was expensive, thus limiting distribution. Fantasound was used for the film’s premiere at the Broadway Theater in New York on 13 November 1940, but the government halted the production of the necessary equipment as national defense priorities took precedence when it came to technological development. Fantasia was put into general release with a standard sound track.
Although Fantasia received enthusiastic reviews from a variety of sources, it also stirred controversy among the musical community. People who listened to serious music were offended at Beethoven being accompanied by animation.
Originally mastered on optical nitrate film, the Fantasia soundtrack was transferred in 1955 to magnetic tape, then considered the ultimate in state-of-the-art technology. As nitrate undergoes progressive decay over time (particularly in the sound medium), Disney engineers regularly remastered Disney soundtracks onto magnetic tape as release schedules brought the films back to the public. Today, Fantasia remains a unique accomplishment, surpassing even Walt Disney’s expectations. Considered a genuine cinema classic, it has been in constant reissue since 1969.