How Disney’s Fantasia changed our Movie Experience with Sound Design

How Disney’s Fantasia changed our Movie Experience with Sound Design
A famous footage from Fantasia, featuring Mickey Mouse

A famous footage from Fantasia, featuring Mickey Mouse

In the Era of Streaming, how is it possible for the movie theater to survive? The answer is high quality video and audio features that compete and perform better than home devices! We still enjoy going to those old fashioned cinemas with the big blank canvas and rows of chairs to watch new releases because it makes us feel more involved with the plot we are watching! Is it possible to feel immersed in the movie and often so close to the scene that is enough to convince us to return to the cinema time after time? The answer is not in the quality of the image - which we can easily obtain at home with HD screens and projectors - but in the impressive quality of the audio!

So sit down and let me introduce you to the beginnings of sound experience!

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Silly Symphonies

While Walt Disney was considering the relaunch of the popular Iwerks' Mickey Mouse, Disney met the Philadelphia Orchestra’s director Leopold Stokowski in a restaurant and proposed that he conduct the soundtrack for his new Silly Symphony.

The Silly Symphonies are a series of animated short films made by the Walt Disney Company with the images and music synchronized, such as the notorious Three Little Pigs or The Wise Little Hen, with the first appearance of Donald Duck.

The idea was to represent Goethe’s Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) with the score of Paul Dukas’ inspired by the same poem and featuring the famous mouse. Stokowski took the offer so seriously that he contacted Disney Studios himself, demanding no fee in exchange.

Here is where the magic of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice took place! Instead of recording the whole Orchestra with the commonly used monophonic or the experimental two channel recording system, the acclaimed director, with the assistance of Bell Laboratories started developing a three stereophonic channel record as a precursor for Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They presented their results on April 9th 1940 at the Carnegie Hall, the same hall that consecrated jazz as an artistic form with Benny Goodman’s live concert.

It wasn’t enough for the ambitions of Walt Disney! He didn’t wanted the sound to move in front of the audience, but to involve the whole room, crossing from behind and turning around the spectator! How could it be possible, in a decade with no stereo knowledge?

From left to right: Walt Disney, Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski

From left to right: Walt Disney, Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski

A brief overview upon stereophonic imaging.

Before looking at the innovations Fantasia brought to cinema, let’s talk about audio imaging: when you live your everyday life, sounds surround you, modelling the places you’ve been. If someone sings near you, you almost immediately know where the singer is located. If this person starts moving, you can follow his tracks by locating the direction of the song with your ears; your brain can go even further and capture the surroundings through the reflections of sound waves on the surfaces around you. Sound changes in larger spaces or bounces differently off one material as opposed another, so singing under the shower will certainly be more suitable than singing in an Opera House for most people (and I’m not talking about the audience’s expectations).

In audio engineering the information of space is stored in stereophonic view, that gives you different sensations of space thanks to the division of sound on different sections placed on different sides. We usually listen to music in stereo-form, so some instruments are located on your left earplugs, while others are projected from the right. This is a modern achievement, in the forties it was still in its experimental stages. Most of the audio was monophonically recorded, so the audio was perfectly split between left or right speakers, more than often, there was just one speaker in use!

For movies the audio direction is even more complicated, it is designed so that sound gives us the impression of 3D audio; in other words, if a ball drops the speakers should make you feel the location of the sound.

Get a clearer idea of stereophony in movies, put your headphones on and locate the ping pong ball!

From Silly Symphony to a feature film.

Now for the big task Disney and Stokowski wanted to accomplish: how could they record music and manipulate sound, so the music could replicate the images on the screen? The biphonic surround sound wasn’t enough, it could just cross the stage without giving the impression of the surroundings all the while leaving an enormous gap in the center of the room. The triphonic sound fixed the transition between left and right, but there was no feeling of place. Quadraphonic sound seemed to be a good idea, but the movement couldn’t cross the room with a natural fade, since it was unnatural at its center. After a lot of research, they decided to try a new method, that consisted of five speakers, three in the front (left, right and center) and two behind (left and right), so the sound could rotate around the audience giving the impression that the whole room was involved in the show! They decided to call this new technology Fantasound, a great name for the most famous cartoonist ever, Walt Disney!

Of course this was no easy task: they knew how to distribute the sound but they had to record a whole orchestra! At the time the only way to record sound was in monophonic form and changing a ‘mono’ record from one speaker to the next gave a horrible effect due to audio bugs like phase problems and distortion from the record technologies of the time. So audio engineer William E. Garity invented a knob that could fade the sound between the speakers without gaps or overlapping sounds, this resulted in the Pan Pot (Panoramic Potentiometer), still used in every studio today. He found the solution to another problem as well: everytime the gain of the audio was increased, so did the hums and buzzes of the records, creating a really unpleasant sensation. That’s why he invented the grandpa of the moderns mix-down systems, the ‘Togad’, a tone operating gain that changed the record volume to reduce background noise and interference during studio recording!

Of course all this experimenting and the recordings with a huge orchestra divided everything into more sections (more than one hundred musicians were required!), this broke the expected budget of a nine minute long animated movie. Disney decided to extend the project and do a feature called The Concert Feature.

An article about Fantasound, November 1940

An article about Fantasound, November 1940

The Concert Feature became Fantasia!

For this reason Walt Disney and his brother Roy, who managed the finances of the studio, decided to transform the short film into a collection of short movies based on the scores. Walt decided not to chair the first part of the new project, the choice of the music, since he claimed he had an instinctive and uneducated music culture. He entrusted with the task Stokowski, Deems Taylor - who was chosen as the frontman of the movie -, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. They selected some topics that could be interesting to be projected on the screen and discarded some first ideas, like using Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird as soundtrack for a “prehistoric theme… with animals!”.

They considered to use pieces from Paganini (Moto Perpetuo), Rachmaninov (Prelude in G minor and Troika), Debussy (Clair de Lune) and others. The last thing they had to decide was the title, since The Concert Feature wasn’t very catchy. They tough thousands of different titles, like Bach to Stravinsky and Bach or Hybrowsky to Stokowski, but at the end they opted for the iconic Fantasia!

The final selection of the music and plots was composed with seven part, with some digressions and presentations between all the segments:

  • Toccata e Fuga in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach presents the Philadelphia Orchestra and an incredible overview of Fantasound, showing abstract images and stylized musical instruments movements.
  • The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky represents fungi, flowers, and fishes dancing in their environment like the dancers of the original ballet.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, as we already said, features Mickey Mouse trying to bewitch brooms to stack off from his cleaning duty.
  • The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky offers a quick overview of earth and animal evolution, from earthquakes and volcanoes to the dinosaur reign and fall.
  • The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven scores a mythological and greek inspired short.
  • The Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli makes elephants and crocodile with strange names (such as Hyacinth Hippo for an hippopotamus and Ben Ali Gator for an alligator) dance together in the revolving day.
  • Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Peter Schubert close the movie with a terrifying Devil with loads of smaller monsters dancing all around the mountain since dawn chase them and a procession of monks with Schubert’s music cross the landscape holding candles.

It was the 13th of November 1940 when Fantasia finally was released in the Broadway Theater of New York, while World War II was devastating Europe and USA was still out of the combats. Since then, a lot of water under the bridge passed, and technologies improved. Now we have new kind of audio surrounds that involve us in astonishing effects such as the THX and the Dolby Surround.

When you go to a cinema, always remember that the involvement you’re experimenting comes from the ambitions of a few persons, with a lot of hard work and perseverance!

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