What Was Fantasound?

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I often hear people toss around terminology like "Fantasound," as if it should be common knowledge if you are a true Disney fan and, more often than not, I find that most people, even true Disney fans, are completely clueless especially when it comes to things about classic Disney animation like how to estimate the age of an animation drawing by the peg hole configuration.

Fantasound was another of the many innovations developed by Walt Disney personally, and was only used for a brief period of time in one of his animated feature films, Fantasia (1940). So, in this column, here is more than you ever thought you ever wanted to know about Fantasound utilizing direct quotes from the man who helped invent it.

Walt shared an honorary Academy Award for the development of the Fantasound system for use in the presentation of the animated feature film Fantasia. On February 27, 1941, an Honorary Award was given to Walt, William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins "For their outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures through the production of Fantasia."

At that same ceremony Walt was also given the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award awarded to "Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production." Walt was the youngest person to ever receive such an honor.

Producer David O. Selznick presented Walt with the award and praised Walt for his presentation of classical music by Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in Fantasia and stated that it "contributed to the musical education of the public."

Walt burst into tears and told the audience: "Thank you so much for this. Maybe I should get a medal for bravery. We all make mistakes. Fantasia was one but it was an honest one. I shall now rededicate myself to my old ideals."

Walt received a special Academy Award for creating Fantasound for Fantasia in 1940. Originally the film was supposed to never leave theaters, with new sections coming in and keeping the movie fresh.

Walt had experimented with classical music and animation in his series of Silly Symphony theatrical shorts but he was always more ambitious.

From the August 1990 Disney Channel television special, Fantasia: Creation of a Disney Classic:

"One night in late 1937, Disney was dining alone at Chasen's and saw Leopold Stokowski, also alone. Disney asked the famed conductor to join him and mentioned the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' during their conversation. Stokowski offered to waive his fee and conduct the music for the film. Disney accepted. Stokowski also suggested they collaborate on 'a fanta-zee-ah', a full-length feature that would illustrate various pieces of classical music. Disney let that suggestion pass.

"When the cost of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' passed $125,000, it became clear that a short film couldn't possibly earn back that kind of money, and Disney reconsidered Stokowski's suggestion. In February, 1938, they began work on a film tentatively entitled The Concert Feature. Research was done to find suitable musical selections, and Disney's engineers began developing an advanced sound system. Musicologist Deems Taylor agreed to serve as commentator. Stokowski would conduct the hundred piece Philadelphia Orchestra for the film.

"Disney originally planned to keep Fantasia in permanent release. His plan was that as new animation to additional music was completed it would be substituted for one of the original eight selections. The viewer would never see the same film twice. Preliminary work was done for several pieces, including Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries," Sibelius' "The Swan of Tuonela," Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" and Debussy's "Claire de Lune" among others."

Of course, for such an endeavor, Walt wanted a sound system to match the majesty of the music. He stated in a 1941 magazine article, "We know that music emerging from one speaker behind the screen sounds thin, tinkly and strainy. We wanted to reproduce such beautiful masterpieces as Schubert's Ave Maria, and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony so that audiences would feel as though they were standing on the podium with Stokowski."

So everything was recorded on separate tracks. The problem was to mix these different sound tracks into one realistic whole. First the engineers tried multiple speakers fed by a single sound-transmission system. That spread the sound over a wide area, but when the characters spoke, the synchronization of words and lip movements was lost.

The solution was finally found in combining the nine tracks into four; three for "entertainment sounds," such as voices, music, and special effects, and the fourth for a control frequency governing the volume of the other three.

Ten different Fantasound speaker configuration setups were created in total. Each utilized multiple speakers placed at various points within the auditorium, immersing the viewers in sound.

The stereophonic sound reproduction system enabled Fantasia to be the first film commercially presented in stereo (and multi-channel) sound. Fantasound marked the first use of the click track, overdubbing of orchestral parts, and simultaneous multi-track recording.

The late animation historian John Culhane was a fascinating person. Besides being the inspiration for two Disney animated characters ("Flying John" in Fantasia 2000 and "Mr. Snoops" in The Rescuers) and the author of several books devoted to Disney including two on Fantasia, John as a child actually attended a theater showing of Fantasia that featured Fantasound.

When I spent time with him as an animation instructor at the Disney Institute, he shared with me the memories of his experience.

"As you sat there, you were quite literally immersed in sound all around you," Culhane said. "For the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' sequence, I remember clearly the sound of a massive amount of water in the back of the theater and it rushing along both sides of where I was sitting and it crashing on the screen in front of me.

"I've never experienced anything else like it. If Walt had been able to install that system in all the theaters that showed the film, it would have been a huge success when it was first released."

Installing the 96-speaker Fantasound system in the 12 theaters (one of which was the Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood) in which the film opened cost an additional $85,000 per theater. The other theaters were in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

Imagineer John Hench, who animated on Fantasia, told me in 1990:

"I remember opening night at the Carthay Circle Theater. It was a terrific thrill. We had seats to ourselves and we sat there nervously waiting for the audience's response. The full impact of the sound system was totally unexpected as the Fantasound traveled from screen side to side with the action, as well as from the back of the theater.

"The opening scene, where the orchestra is being assembled was projected on the stage main curtain with house lights still on and most of the audience didn't realize that the film had started. I heard someone say, 'I think the picture's started' and his companion said, 'No, that's just the orchestra filing in'. They thought it was a real orchestra! What a wonderful, sneaky way to begin the picture.

"None of the animators had seen or heard it all put together before. We sat there in amazement, especially during Ave Maria when the voice kept moving in from various directions. We realized that we had been part of a milestone, and that nothing like it would ever be done again."

Fantasound was an early stereophonic sound process developed specifically for Fantasia by engineering wizard William Garity who also helped develop Disney's first version of the multi-plane camera while Ub Iwerks was gone from the Disney Studio working on his own cartoons like Flip the Frog.

"Bill Garity is an unsung hero of Disney history," said Disney Archivist Dave Smith. "With his pioneering efforts in sound and camera techniques, he helped set Disney Studios apart from others, while his planning and supervisory expertise resulted in the building of a highly efficient Studio in Burbank."

Garity always credited Walt: "We've done things...most of them Walt's ideas, that looked impossible at first."

Fantasound is quite literally the father (or grandfather) of what we refer today as "surround sound" like Dolby Digital, Digital Theater Systems and Sony Dynamic Digital Sound.

In the January 1941 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine, the article Mickey Mouse Goes Classical stated, "(Walt) knew that means must be found to spread sound throughout the theater, that 'point sources' must be concealed from the ear. The sound recordings must be such that each and every instrument or voice would be heard clearly and distinctly in its proper proportion to the whole orchestral effect.

"The recording alone for Fantasia took almost eighteen months. Approximately 3,000,000 feet of soundtrack from individual takes, prints, and remakes were condensed into the final 10,778-foot, four-track negative."

Like most things at the Disney Studio, the idea was Walt's himself and he then tossed the challenge of making it a reality to the people working at his studio. Fortunately, Garity (who was made a Disney Legend in 1999; he had died in 1971) and his team were up to the challenge of using different microphones to record different parts of a performing orchestra on separate tracks.

They also developed the system of using multiple speakers set up around the perimeter of the theater ceiling to play back the sound so that the audience literally felt it was in the middle of the orchestra.

Disney purchased eight Model 200B oscillators at a cost of $71.50 each from Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard for use in this Fantasound system and thus became one of the very first customers of Hewlett-Packard.

However, RKO who were distributing the Disney pictures didn't want to contribute to the extra expense rigging up each theater with the extra audio equipment nor did the theaters themselves. In addition, war time needs prevented the Disney Studio from obtaining the materials it needed for such systems in multiple theaters.

Here's an excerpt from William Garity himself from the August 1941 issue of the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers:

"The art of sound-picture reproduction is about 15 years old. While an engineer familiar with the complications of sound reproduction may be amazed at the tens of thousands of trouble-free performances given daily, the public takes our efforts for granted and sees nothing remarkable about it.

"Therefore, we must take large steps forward, rather than small ones, if we are to inveigle the public away from softball games, bowling alleys, nightspots, or rapidly improving radio reproduction.

"The public has to hear the difference and then be thrilled by it, if our efforts toward the improvement of sound-picture quality are to be reflected at the box-office. Improvements perceptible only through direct A-B comparisons have little box-office value.

"While dialog is intelligible and music is satisfactory, no one can claim that we have even approached perfect simulation of concert hall or live entertainment. It might be emphasized that perfect simulation of live entertainment is not our objective. Motion picture entertainment can evolve far beyond the inherent limitations of live entertainment."

And, almost a year later in the July 1942 issue of the same journal, Garity had more to say about the early recording of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence:

"Fantasia was the result of an idea that grew over a period of three years from a standard one-reel short to a multi-million dollar road show that required the largest outlay of sound equipment that has been used commercially in the theater to date. Many new methods and procedures were found necessary to achieve the results that were desired for the final product.

"These new methods and procedures applied not only to the sound technique but the pictorial aspect as well. In order to appreciate fully the amount of artistic and engineering work that was expended on Fantasia it is interesting to review some of the highlights of our experience over a period of about three years prior to the premiere of the picture in New York on November 13, 1940.

"During the latter part of the year 1937 Walt Disney conceived the idea of making a cartoon 'short' using as a basis some well known musical selection that lent itself to cartoon animation. A serious effort was made to interpret the composer's musical ideas pictorially as well as to record music that would blend into the picture and provide a combined, indivisible form of entertainment.

'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' was chosen for the original, and was recorded in January, 1938, by 100 musicians conducted by Leopold Stokowski. 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' was recorded at the Pathé Studio, Culver City, California, on a production stage that was altered acoustically for the occasion.

"Our theory was to make a multiple-channel recording that would have satisfactory separation between channels so that suitable material would be available from which to obtain any desired dynamic balance in re-recording the original material. In the effort to obtain satisfactory separation between channels, a semicircular orchestra shell was constructed in the stage.

"The shell was then divided into five sections by means of double plywood partitions. Two difficulties were encountered with such a set-up; one was poor low-frequency separation; the other was the inability of the musicians at the rear of the sections to hear the music from the other sections, to such an extent the tempo was impaired. This condition was improved, at a sacrifice in separation, by having the musicians move nearer the front of the shell sections.

"As work progressed on the animation and re-recording of the material, Walt Disney decided to add other musical selections and to present a full-length presentation that would be outstanding in its scope. It was at this time that discussions first took place regarding special equipment for the showing of the picture.

"The goal that we hoped to reach was the reproduction in the theater of a full symphony orchestra with its normal volume range and acoustic output as well as the illusion that would ordinarily be obtained with a real orchestra. Many ideas were investigated, equipment was designed, and tests made of various combinations of equipment that would give the ultimate in a sound and picture entertainment."

Why wasn't Fantasound incorporated into every theater that showed Fantasia? According to Garity:

"The outstanding success of Fantasia in its limited number of runs with Fantasound has demonstrated the value of this means of increasing the dramatic value of a picture.

"The primary reasons for the discontinuance of the use of Fantasound:

  1. The amount of equipment required and the time necessary to make the installation.
  2. Because of the time element attractive theaters were not available to us, as the first-class houses in the various communities had established policies and the installation of the equipment would generally require darkening the house for a few days.
  3. The advent of wartime conditions precluded the possibility of developing mobile units that would have lessened installation time and costs.
  4. The variation in the regulations throughout the country, both as to operating personnel and local ordinances, materially affected the operating and installation costs.
  5. Space factors of the projection room in particular were problems of major importance.

"We are convinced that, with greater simplification of equipment in keeping with the available space in the theater, the elimination of the separate selsyn sound-track reproducer, and the combining of the multiple-track on the composite print, future sound reproduction will employ multiple-track reproduction with automatic volume control, and, something that was not used in Fantasound, the automatic change of frequency-response with volume."

So while Fantasound actually inspired many other developments in sound for movies, Disney's own live action version of The Jungle Book (2016) had director Jon Favreau along with composer John Debney trying to recreate the Fantasound experience in Dolby Atmos.

Favreau said, "we isolated instruments when we could. And in the sound mix, we created a Fantasound mix. If you see the film in Atmos, you will feel that there are instruments that move around the theater." Favreau even included a mention for Fantasound in the closing credits for the film.

If things had been different, Fantasound would have ushered in a new method of sound for theatrical films but, unfortunately, the time and circumstances prevented that from happening in 1940 and it would be decades before audiences would be able to hear Fantasia as Walt originally meant it to be heard.