'Fantasia’s' 75th Anniversary: Behind the Scenes of the Disney Classic

Celebrate the 75th anniversary of “Fantasia’s” U.S. premiere with a look at the making of this groundbreaking animated movie.
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Catherine McHugh
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Celebrate the 75th anniversary of “Fantasia’s” U.S. premiere with a look at the making of this groundbreaking animated movie.
Fantasia Photo

"Fantasia" represents one Walt Disney's boldest experiments, blending animated imagery with classical music in a groundbreaking film that celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. (Photo: Disney)

Bring on the pirouetting hippos! And don’t forget the psychedelic fairies, the blooming flowers, the dancing mushrooms, the cavorting centaurs (and topless centaurettes!) along with the dinosaurs, the gods of Olympus and, of course, Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney’s Fantasia is marking its 75th anniversary on today and to commemorate this milestone, the film is currently being screened in theaters across the country for a limited time. 

By bringing to life his vision of blending animated imagery with classical music, Fantasia represents one Walt Disney's boldest experiments. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s superstar conductor Leopold Stokowski and composer and radio personality Deems Taylor, Disney sought to introduce American audiences to classical music and a whole new way of looking at animation. Disney asked his artists to use any colors they wanted to create their own interpretations of the music, which included: Toccata in Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Franz Peter Schubert's Ave Maria

Fantasia helped lay the groundwork for all cartoons to come, and even those who are not typical fans of classical music can appreciate this unique achievement—as well as these fun, behind-the-scenes facts about this seminal film.

Born Out of Silly Symphonies

Walt Disney’s studio began producing Silly Symphonies in the 1920s and beginning with Ub Iwerks’s innovative Skeleton Dance, they served as a forum for Disney animators to experiment and explore the potential of their medium. Fantasia began as an idea Disney called The Concert Feature, to tell the familiar story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and his futile efforts to control an ever-expanding army of water-toting brooms. 

Fantasia Photo

Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer and one of the army of water-toting brooms in "Fantasia." (Photo: Disney)

Fantasound: The Birth of Surround Sound 

In many ways, Walt Disney can be considered the inventor of surround sound. While Fantasia was still in development, Disney met with conductor Leopold Stokowski to discuss the film's classical music score. Stokowski suggested that Disney contact the engineers at Bell Labs, who were working on multiple-microphone stereo recording technology. Intrigued by the technology, Disney thought it would be wonderful if, during the movie's "Flight of the Bumblebee" segment, the musical sound of the bumblebee could be heard flying all around the audience, not just in front of them.

Walt Disney Leopold Stokowski Photo

Walt Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski review music and art for "Fantasia" in a publicity still from the film.

Putting his engineers to work on the challenge, Disney created the proprietary Fantasound technology to create a surround sound field with left front, center front, right front, left rear, and right rear channels. The main soundtrack incorporated only the front three channels; the two rear channels were recorded on a separate reel of film, and "steered in" separately when needed.

Unfortunately, the additional equipment necessary to reproduce Fantasound was too costly to roll out on a widespread basis. Only two Fantasound systems were sold to theaters: New York's Broadway Theater and the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. However, it did win special certificates at the 1941 Academy Awards for Walt Disney, technicians William Garity and John N. A. Hawkins and RCA, and for Stokowski and his associates (for unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualized music).

Fantasia Photo

Technicians operating eight optical sound recording machines in the basement at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia during the recording of the "Fantasia" soundtrack. (Photo: William E. Garity, John N. A. Hawkins [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Name Game

To choose the film’s title, Disney management held a contest for its employees. More than 2,000 entries came in, and Fantasia got the most votes. Although it may seem as if someone just made the name up, "Fantasia" actually means two things: a composition in which the composer strays from the accepted form, and a potpourri of familiar arts. Both definitions apply to the film.

Vatican Approved

In 1995, Pope John Paul II noted the film industry’s “remarkable ability to influence public opinion and culture across all social and political frontiers.” He established a pontifical commission to provide an important reference point for Catholics interested in assessing the cinema’s “many worthwhile productions during the first 100 years of its existence” — a list of 45 films that has come to be known as the Vatican film list. Made up of three categories, “Religion,” “Values,” and “Art,” with 15 films in each of the three categories, the list includes Fantasia among the “Art” choices. That may seem surprising until you consider that along with the well-known favorites It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis also made that cut. 

Photo Finish

The filming of the "Ave Maria" sequence, which caps the movie, was plagued by a series of mishaps. To achieve the effect of movement through the scene, several panes of painted glass were used. The whole setup was more than 200 feet long, and had to be redone three times. The first time, the wrong lens was placed on the camera, and the film showed the workers running around the artwork. The second time, an earthquake struck the studio, which shut down shooting. The next morning, the shot was redone, the film was shipped to the lab, processed, and couriered to the premiere at New York City’s Broadway Theatre where it was spliced into the final print with only four hours to spare.

Box-Office Bomb to Eventual Blockbuster

The film’s production cost more than $2 million (about four times more than an average live-action picture), initially failed at the box-office (partially due to the expensive installation of the "Fantasound" sound reproduction equipment in theaters). However, when the studio released the picture in later decades, its popularity increased. (Its cult status was assured when the members of the 60's drug culture adopted it as a favorite hallucinatory experience.)

One thing to keep in mind if you’re planning to attend a screening this month: Even in this sophisticated day and age, Disney still gets complaints that the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence terrifies some children. Not bad for a septuagenarian film!