With limited animation in the traditional sense (save the consummate long-shot of the pilgrims) the sequence is predominantly a multiplane effect constituted of long takes and a series of hazy cross-dissolves. Supported by a custom-built crane, the studio’s horizontal multiplane camera was built to photograph 3 x 4-foot planes of painted glass. These were mounted on moveable stands, like Baroque set dressings, and moved as required to produce the illusion of a tracking movement.
The “Ave Maria” sequence concludes with one of the most elaborate single shots in animation history. The final shot of the sequence, and incidentally of the film itself, ran for two-hundred and seventeen feet of film, the longest shot in animation at that time. The single zoom begins in darkness and approaches a sliver of vertical light, which gradually reveals itself as the mouth of a clearing overlooking a wide valley.
As John Culhane details in his book
Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the scene was filmed continuously by a crew of nine technicians over six full days and nights. A special camera rig was specifically constructed for the final shot and spanned the forty-five-foot wide soundstage.
The sequence had to be shot three times. Not because the animators were exactly satisfied with the final take, but because, quite simply, it was the final take out of necessity. During the first take, the technicians accidentally used an incorrect lens, capturing subjects beyond the glass planes. With limited time left before the premiere, the technicians began working on the second take. Three days into the reshoot, an earthquake hit. Unable to determine if the earthquake misaligned the equipment, the take was scrapped.
The morning after the earthquake, the animators tried again, and the third time proved the charm. On November 13, 1940, an audience at New York City’s Broadway Theatre saw the first-ever screening of
Fantasia, unaware of how close they came to not seeing the completed film. The finalized footage only arrived four hours prior to the screening. There’s coming in under the wire, and then there’s Disney frantically processing and couriering a physical print across the continent. What’s the precedent?
Fantasia is both the artistic and practical extension of the a series of seventy-five animated musical shorts produced by Walt Disney Productions between 1929 to 1939 (animation began on Silly Symphonies, Fantasia early in 1938). Disney (the man) conceived of the Silly Symphonies as a platform for animators to experiment with different processes, characters, and artistic styles. More to the point, the shorts were to pave the way for the studio’s foray into animated feature filmmaking.
Because of the
Silly Symphonies, artists at Disney were able to test out a wide array of techniques and technologies. For instance, after securing limited exclusive rights to three-strip Technicolor, 1932’s became the first animated film to use a full-color Technicolor process, which proved, to put it mildly, massively successful. Flowers and Trees
Silly Symphonies also allowed for the testing of a critical technical innovation that would prove instrumental in Disney’s quest to achieve a more “cinematic” style of animation: the multiplane camera.
Early forms of the multiplane camera had been kicking around since Lotte Reiniger’s
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). However, the most famous multiplane camera was created by William Garity for Walt Disney. The camera was specifically created for use in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But the technology was first tested in a 1937 Silly Symphony called , which was directed by who else but “Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” director Wilfred Jackson. The Old Mill
The multiplane camera was eventually rendered obsolete by its digital equivalent in the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) process. But the obsolescence was, poetically, not unrelated to the demise of
Fantasia. If not the film, then the ethos behind it. Walt Disney had originally planned to keep Fantasia in a permanent state of release. The idea was that new sequences would intermittently replace old ones, yielding a cinematic experience that would never look or feel the same way twice. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped due to the project’s unwieldy scope and Fantasia’s unreceptive critical response, which admonished the film (among other things) for debasing classical music in an attempt to elevate cartoons.
To boot, screening
Fantasia itself was inordinately difficult. The film holds the distinction of being the first commercial motion picture exhibited with stereophonic sound. And while the Disney-patented “ Fantasound” was revolutionary, it was also cumbersome, prohibitive, and hilariously expensive. This, coupled with the fact that the film couldn’t premiere overseas because World War II was happening, resulted in disappointing box office numbers. Even after the film found commercial success in its many re-releases, Fantasia’s reputation as a flop persists to this day and haunts all extant (and future) imitators. And so Fantasia remains: utterly alone, a corpulent relic of ambition, and a lonely genre unto itself.
I doubt that Disney will ever attempt anything as creatively ambitious and financially perilous as
Fantasia ever again. The cynical, risk-averse approach that now defines the studio seems especially antithetical to the very of-a-time idea Fantasia represents. Namely: to take risks, and in so doing, expand the scope of what animation can do. In a 1940 review, The New York Times described Fantasia as “something which dumps conventional formulas overboard and boldly reveals the scope of films for an imaginative excursion.” It is difficult to reconcile that comment alongside Disney, as it exists today.
Animation, Disney, Fantasia Film Festival, How'd They Do That?
Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.