Why Frank Lloyd Wright Disliked Fantasia

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

By 1930, Walt Disney realized that his artists did not have the training they needed to do what Walt wanted done including creating animated feature films like Fantasia.

In 1931, barely four years after the birth of Mickey Mouse, Walt made an arrangement with Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard to pay the necessary tuition to send his artists to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles for night classes. It was among the top five art schools in the United States at the time.

Walt was so committed to this training that he often drove the animators to school at night in his own car, returned to his studio to continue working and then drove back to pick them up after classes.

“It was costly, but I had to have the men ready for things we would eventually do,” Walt stated when asked why he was spending thousands of dollars during the Depression on this project. “I hope to stir up in this group of men an enthusiasm and a knowledge of how to achieve results that will advance them rapidly.”

Within a year, Walt decided to hire Don Graham, an instructor at Chouinard, to handle training at the Hyperion Studio itself. The very first class at the Hyperion Studio was on November 15, 1932 with 25 artists in attendance. Instead of just a static model for life drawing, Graham helped develop an “action analysis” approach.

Originally, the classes were held twice a week in the evenings with an emphasis on life drawing, composition, action analysis and quick sketch techniques. Attendance grew so rapidly the program was expanded to five nights a week. By mid-decade, the cost of these art classes was conservatively estimated as costing Walt nearly $100,000 annually.

Some of the guest lecturers included Rico LeBrun, Jean Charlot, Thomas Hart Benton, and Salvador Dali. Walt even had some of his more proficient artists provide lectures on their areas of specialty including Norm Ferguson, Bill Tytla, Ken Anderson, Fred Moore, Ham Luske, and Fred Spencer.

In addition to the justly famous after hours art classes and lectures, Walt wanted to expose his artists to more than just technical art training.

“Walt brought in H.G. Wells, who lectured on story development, and Alexander Woollcott, who was a great short story writer," Disney artist Mel Shaw remembered. "He even had Frank Lloyd Wright to the studio to talk about inspiration and art. Walt was really imbuing all of us with something that made us feel we were part of a movement that could be considered a Renaissance in the animated cartoon business.”

On February 25, 1939, at 11 a.m. in Projection Room IV, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited the Disney Studios to talk to several Disney artists. He brought along a copy of the 1934 Russian animated film, The Tale of Czar Durandai directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano (with a music score by Dmitri Shostakovich) to help inspire Disney’s artists to think a little differently about combining music and animation in a more abstract approach.

Ivano-Vano was one of the founders of Russian animation and eventually was called “the Russian Disney." He was known for experimenting with new technical and artistic techniques to tell traditional Russian folktales. The animation did not use the oval and pear shapes common in Disney animation but was a sharper, more dreamlike graphic design. He continued to animate for more than another half century until his death in 1987.

At the time, Wright was probably one of the best known American architects and had designed dramatically innovative buildings. He was also known for his role as a furniture designer and design theorist and often designed the interior elements of his buildings as well.

“All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable,” he once said. “A physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Over his lifetime, Wright authored 20 books and many articles and was a popular lecturer in the United States and Europe. He had a colorful personal life that often made headlines. In 1991, the American Institute of Architects recognized Wright as “the greatest American architect of all time”.

Born in 1869, he was just a few months shy of his 70th birthday when he visited the Disney Studios. Among those in attendance were musician Leigh Harline, storymen T. Hee and Otto Englander, animator Bill Tytla, layout artist John Hubley, and others.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been widely released to critical and commercial success roughly a year before this talk. The studio was completing work on Pinocchio and Fantasia. Wright had visited Russia the previous year which is where he obtained the Russian cartoon.

In his outstanding book that has a treasured spot on my personal bookshelf, Cartoon Modern (Chronicle Books 2006), animation historian and author Amid Amidi includes an excellent chapter on the Disney Studios graphic experimentations in the 1950s. However, he also explores Hubley’s work at U.P.A. and writes that Hubley recalled the excitement generated by Wright showing this Russian film, especially among the Disney Studio’s more graphically oriented artists. Hubley apparently also remarked that “unsurprisingly” Walt Disney himself wasn’t much impressed with the film in particular because it didn’t explore the character but relied on its striking images to tell the story.

Wright was introduced by storyman Walt Pfeiffer, a boyhood friend of Walt Disney’s: “Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright has been kind enough to come over to the Studio today to meet with us for an informal discussion on the Russian cartoon, Tsar Durandi, which he loaned us. Mr. Wright is an acknowledged leader in his own field and has won great recognition for his revolutionary designs in architecture.”

Wright talked for approximately an hour and a half. Fortunately, besides the traditional role of “ink and paint girls,” women were employed at the Disney Studio not only as secretaries but also as stenotypists, which is similar to a court reporter, who had to transcribe quickly and accurately the rapid flood of dialog that would go on in meetings. Walt began hiring stenotypists several months before Snow White began in earnest, around 1935. As a result, there are mimeographed transcripts that survive today that recount story meetings, talks by Disney artists like Anderson and Tytla and fortunately, some of the lectures of visiting experts, including this one by Wright.

Here are some excerpts from Wright’s observations, in particular about the approach to Fantasia:

“Walt Disney is something unique. He is what he is. I think that he happened to stumble upon the future development of the cinema. I don’t think it was his fault. He happened in on it with this peculiar gift of his, which I think is precious. It shouldn’t be violated. He shouldn’t become too art conscious. That is what makes me feel that Mr. Stokowski is coming in here with this type of music, which is picture music, to have you extra-illustrate the music. I think you should have the type of music that was in the Russian cartoon. The music was abstract, just as it was abstract drawing—the whole theme was an abstract thing.

“I was regretting that you take picture music and illustrate it rather than doing something with music—having the two things made one. Haven’t you got some guys to write the music? Even though it is crude and simple, it would be good. You shouldn’t take Clair de Lune’and these things which are not good music anyway. I don’t care what Stokowski says. I wish he were here. He knows better. He’s got some Russian blood in him himself. I can’t believe he would imagine that you seriously are doing your best when you are merely extra-illustrating pictorial music.

“In this film [the Russian cartoon] you must have seen perfect correlation between music and design. The whole thing is design—instinctive design, which is perfect design. There is no reason you boys can’t do that.

“If you drive a modern car in front of a Colonial house, you insult either the car of the house every time you do it.

“There will always be those people [who like old fashioned music]. They are dead people. They live in the past, not in the present or the future. They are gone. We should treat them tenderly and with consideration, and have the caskets ready.

“But you fellows—there has never been anything like this. You’ve got a clean spread. If you get it all mixed up with these sentimentalities, God help us. The more nearly you can strip the things you’re doing clean, and establish this simple child-like correlation between things and make a child-like thing out of it and not get too sentimental about it, the better, I think.

“There’s one thing that distresses me in your productions, and I think people think the same about it—one can emphasize the senses quite with impunity. It’s desirable. The moment you emphasize sensuality it becomes disagreeable. There is a touch of what I would call vulgarity that creeps into your films sometimes. I guess it’s box office and it gets a horse laugh from the worst element in the audience. I think you should be a little shy of that. Old Gray Head speaking.

“When I was here before, I told Walt Disney that the introduction of the two condors was the thing that was, to me, the most remarkable thing of the film. It prophesied something greater that might come. Didn’t they give him the prize in the East, and didn’t they mention the fact of the two condors?

“The thing you are in is as fresh as a daisy. Don’t let it get bawled up with those sentimentalists. Tell Stokowski if he can’t come in and write music for you that has the proper quality and appropriate to the thing you’re doing you don’t want him at all. Stokowski isn’t running the show, is he? Put him on the spot. When you take music as one thing, your animation is another, your story is another thing, there you’ve got a division that is fatal right at the beginning. It’s unison between the three and making those three one that is the only road to anything you might call worth the name of art or worth the name of entertainment.

“You would be surprised and I have been continually surprised at the amount of intelligence possessed by people you wouldn’t think had it. You would be surprised how ‘almost as intelligent as we are’ most people are. I have great faith in that.

“Why have you got modern architecture today? It isn’t an accident. Somebody stood there. Somebody asserted the fact of the thing. It’s no different from you. We’re all alike. Our reactions would be very similar to almost anything. It takes a little character and guts and a stand-by to see it through. That’s all.

“People are very much, as people, like sheep. If you begin to temporize and pat them on the back and cater to their idiosyncrasies, you’ll never get anywhere. This commercialization of things, commercialization of everything, I think that’s what the matter with the country.

“The public doesn’t know what it wants. If the public is paying your bills, it’s entitled to have you stand up to the thing you do because you alone know. The public doesn’t know. I think you’re going back on your public when you try to find out what the public wants and give it to them. No public knows. As compared to the fine thing they might have. They don’t know what they miss. Show them that thing which they miss. Explode once or twice and see what the reactions are.

“Don’t let this idea ‘Box Office’ and this idea of what pleases people bother you. Concern yourself with the best and finest thing, by God, that you know and do it to the top and give it to them to the hilt and you’ll go places and you’ll never lose.

“If the moving picture industry, acquired by Paramount and MGM and Fox had had that faith in life, and had that faith in the American people the cinema wouldn’t be going down and out now. You’re going up. That’s what makes the difference.

“Wherever you’re playing best together—having fun and putting in the music where it belongs in the picture—getting the effect, you ring the bell. That’s what is going to make your success. Where you’re trying to be artistic and thinking of the fellow in front and trying to please him you’re going to lose out. I’ll bet my head on it. I know from my own experience. It’s a veteran sitting here talking to you. I’ve been there.”

They ran the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence for Wright and he commented, “The music is all sentimental right from the beginning. It’s all off key from the beginning. There’s something wrong about the whole thing.”

Then they ran Sequence 11 from Pinocchio for Wright and he commented, “There is a lot of good stuff in there. Why can’t you take that sound and make it into music. It doesn’t take much to make it almost music. I don’t mean that sentimental music. You can do it. It’s great stuff. I do like it better than Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I think this is more nearly it. The other is just an attempt to take picture music and make a picture to fit the picture music.”

Decades later, Walt wanted to recreate this same type of multiartistic training experience with the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif.

“It’s the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures," Walt said. "If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.”