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How Animators Created the Elaborate “Ave Maria” Sequence for ‘Fantasia’

You know what doesn’t help an already challenging multiplane camera set up? An earthquake.
Fantasia Ave Maria Sequence
By  · Published on January 30th, 2021

Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a bi-monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains why the “Ave Maria” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia was one of the most challenging filmmaking moments in animation history.

Fantasia was Walt Disney’s greatest and weirdest experiment. Conceived as a technical playground unfettered from linear narrative, the 1940 film is as much an artifact of Disney’s relentless desire to innovate as it is a glimpse into what feature animation could have looked like had the film been a success. Conceptually, Fantasia was to demonstrate what the studio, and the medium of animation itself, could accomplish. Nearly a century later, Fantasia remains the most surreal, phantasmagoric, and ambitious feature film Disney has ever produced.

Fantasia consists of seven sequences set to classical music arranged by Leopold Stokowski. The lights go down and our master of ceremonies, music critic Deems Taylor, warmly introduces us to the premise of Fantasia itself.

Soon, the concert hall fades away and Stokowski’s famous free-hand conducting takes on a grand and patently cinematic aspect, his fingers arcing with the purpose and power of an especially fearsome magician. And so, by Stokowski’s back-lit machinations, we are transported: to impressionistic miasma, to the dawn of life, to a mythic past, and to a final act that sees life and hope triumph over death and chaos.

Disney Leopold Stokowski

After the most comedic sequence in the film (a ballet parody set to Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”), Disney takes us to Hell. Or rather, to Bald Mountain. Directed by studio-mainstay Wilfred Jackson, the sequence begins with an interpretation of a symphonic poem by Modest Mussorgsky. “Night on Bald Mountain” depicts the awakening of a Slavic deity known as Chernobog, whose awful majesty and deliciously articulated hands tear the earth asunder to reveal a Boschian frenzy.

At a fever pitch, dawn breaks. and the dark god recoils. Bells give way to strings as the denizens of Hell return, pallid and compliant, to their graves. In one of Stokowski’s great tricks, the swoop of a harp effortlessly transitions the soundtrack from Mussorgsky to Franz Schubert. “Ave Maria” (D. 839) begins, and Chernabog’s once forbidding mountain fades into the cool, soft fog of daybreak. For the first time in the film’s score, we hear voices. And the blissful choir signals the arrival of a never-ending parade of figures whose orange candles light the way through stained-glass forests towards the warm glow of sunrise.