The Theming of the Sorcerer's Apprentice

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Someone was curious about what class I taught at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management in Florida. Primarily, I am just brought in once a semester or so to teach a one-hour session (usually to several different classes) about “The Art of Theming,” a topic that ties in directly with students focusing on event planning.

I emphasize that theming is not just storytelling, since many people use those terms interchangeably. Theming is immersive. It is not just the story, but how the story is told to involve all the senses. The concept of theming was not a Walt Disney creation, although someone could legitimately argue that Walt refined it for the 20th century. Actually, theming can be traced back to places like medieval cathedrals where the architecture, design, music, costuming, and more were integrated to create a different temporary reality to immerse people in the overall experience.

My friend Sam Gennawey, the popular writer and owner of the SamLand website, has recently written a book titled Walt and the Promise of Progress City, that has just been made available on Gennawey is an urban planner and his book emphasizes that Walt Disney did not just wake up one morning and slap his forehead because he had suddenly envisioned the futuristic Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The road to EPCOT for Walt was one of years of observation of different environments combined with his instinctual understanding of the needs and wants of people.

Actually, with my credentials in teaching animation, it is clear to me that the Disney concept of theming began with the often-neglected —but extremely talented—layout and background artists on the Disney animated features. Just a glance at the excellent book Walt Disney and Europe by Robin Allan shows the major influence of European architecture and styling, specifically on films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. Gustaf Tenggren’s inspirational sketches were based on actual locations, and it is not unusual to see the character of Pinocchio next to an interpretation of the exterior of a 19th-century hotel in Rothenburg that had been borrowed for another purpose.

While audiences were completely oblivious to this attention to historical detail, there was a connection on an emotional level that this location was authentic and real, something that happens in the best of the Disney theme parks today. One of the finest recent examples of this type of detailing is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando.

Speaking of wizards, I have friends who just collect “Sorcerer Mickey” items featuring Mickey Mouse attired in his magician costume and purple hat from that famous segment of the animated feature Fantasia. Yet, as much as they love that cartoon, they are completely clueless how the theming of the entire sequence makes the fantasy real and makes this Mickey Mouse cartoon stand out from the dozens of others that delighted audiences for decades.

Let’s take a closer look at the setting for "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" and see how, even in 1940, Walt was creating a truly immersive environment thanks to subtle attention to detail. These same techniques were translated to the development of Disneyland and, later, to other Disney theme parks.

In the vast, seemingly never-ending darkness, is a miniscule spark of colored light and wispy smoke as the elderly sorcerer concentrates his attention on an ancient spell passed down to him by magicians of long forgotten times. When his mystical task is successfully completed, soft slivers of light slowly return to reveal that his Sorcerer’s Workshop is not in some lofty castle tower like Merlin or Maleficient nor in some humble secluded woodland cottage but in the cavernous bowels of his impressive castle just like Snow White’s Wicked Queen.

However, this memorable sequence was not the original plan by the Disney animators to first reveal the home of the Sorcerer Yen Sid (the name “Disney” spelled backwards).

A Disney Studio memo from November 29, 1937 provided this description for the beginning of "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" short:

“Following the opening titles, we will have a period of silence during which we will establish the atmosphere of the Sorcerer’s castle. During this footage, we will open with a long shot and establish as much atmosphere as possible by moving slowly through the set up with the camera possibly panning down through the beams and rafters and across stairways.”

It was always intended that the sorcerer lived in his own castle. The term castle originally referred to a "private fortified residence," usually a stone structure of a lord or noble or, in this case, a mighty sorcerer, and is different from a fortress or fortified town, which today are both erroneously called a castle.

A castle’s basement served as a safe-haven storage area for food and water in case invaders held siege against the castle walls. Sometimes an underground well would be in the basement to protect a water supply from being contaminated. During medieval times, the basement was not a dungeon used to torture prisoners who were, at that time, generally imprisoned in one of the castle towers, but it would have provided a secure and distraction-free location for a sorcerer to concentrate on his craft.

The Sorcerer’s Workshop is littered with massive urns on the floor by the bottom of the stairs that most likely did contain grain and other non-perishable food stuffs and there is an immense vat of fresh water in the room that constantly needs replenishing not only as a source of water but for the early training of an eager apprentice in the qualities of discipline, patience and humility.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is the English name of a poem written by legendary author Goethe in 1797. The story was adapted into a symphonic scherzo by composer Paul Dukas a century later in 1897, and served as the foundation for the animated version in Fantasia in 1940 that retained some of the influences of the original poem when it came to the the design of the setting and costuming which accounts for the medieval appearance of these elements.

On November 15, 1937, all 700 members of the Disney staff were provided with a synopsis prepared by Disney storyman Perce Pearce of Goethe’s original ballad, so that they would be familiar with the style to be used in the design of the final film—including the interior of the workshop.

Artistic direction and layouts for the Sorcerer’s Workshop were done by Tom Codrick, Charles Phillippi and Zack Schwartz, with the final background paintings by Claude Coats, Stan Spohn, Al Dempster and Eric Hansen.

“Evocative color sketches were painted by Tom Codrick, who had joined Disney in 1932 and stayed on as a top layout man for 35 years. His small gouache paintings [often no larger than 4 inches by 6 inches] offer, through skillful color and light and shade, the mood of the piece—from the dank spooky cavern of the elderly magician to a watery battle with an army of menacing brooms,” stated animation historian John Canemaker with great admiration.

In the animated short, it appears that the only source of light for the underground room comes from the wide open door at the top of the long winding stairway leading to the outer courtyard. When Mickey Mouse slams that door shut, after violently hacking up the offending broom, the color drains from the area into a grayish haze as if all life has also drained from the setting, until he once again opens the curved wooden door and the room is inundated in blinding yellow light.

However, the concept sketches for the animated short clearly show that the mammoth cavern also has another source of light provided from the flickering torches on some of the pillars that create the massive shadows that threateningly appear on the empty stone walls, even though those glowing torches are never actually seen in the final film.

The major piece of furniture in the formidable room is a long rough hewn table that seems puzzlingly sparse of items, especially since the early sketches depicted an even more austere stone table littered with books, vials, an hourglass, and a variety of unknown devices. Even during the swirling watery whirlpool that threatens to engulf the helpless Mickey Mouse, less than a half dozen objects bob frantically atop the churning waves.

While witches and wizards depend upon potions for their magical powers and, so, have a home that resembles an arcane apothecary shop, sorcerers are more in touch with the natural order of things and rely primarily on the casting of spells. In fact, the sole object on the Sorcerer’s bare table is a darkened half-skull to use as a point of focus in more complicated spellcasting as clearly demonstrated in the opening moments of the cartoon.

Beside the desk is a tall, thin, straight-backed chair that resembles an unadorned throne. Made of polished lightly colored wood, the top of the chair ends in a triangle shape pointing to the heavens. The unusual arm rests curve slightly upwards offering little support for the elbows as opposed to typical chairs of this time period. To offer some slight comfort from the hard wood, there are thin, dull greenish colored stuffed cushions both on the seat and covering the entirety of the back. It is apparent the chair was designed specifically for the shape of the tall and lean sorcerer and poor Mickey is dwarfed by the stark angular contour when he falls asleep in its embrace.

Even the most adept sorcerer cannot remember everything so to assist him in his work, he needs an all-inclusive reference source to chronicle his own work and to review the spells of previous sorcerers. When the workshop is flooded, the sorcerer’s huge treasured volume of forgotten lore seems to magically float unharmed by the moisture. For the struggling Mickey Mouse, this thick, oversized volume that has all its edges shielded by thick leather triangles becomes a makeshift temporary life raft for the muddled apprentice. The mystical tome is so filled with numerous notations that the helpless mouse cannot locate the enchantment to stop the brooms no matter how desperately he searches its many pages.

Talented color designer Claude Coats did a gouache inspirational painting that shows the sorcerer’s 3-foot tall, brown leather-bound book of spells was meant to rest securely on a massive carved wood and metal book stand near the chair to not only protect the precious tome from the dampness on the ground but to provide easy access to its countless pages just as similar stands were used in libraries for gigantic publications that were difficult to manage.

Nothing decorates the walls of the subterranean lair like intricate tapestries that would have been typical for the time period nor does the room include unnecessary objects cluttering the area that might distract the stern sorcerer from his work and study that needs to be accomplished with complete concentration.

There is one broom to clean up, its simple wooden shaft ending in a tightly packed bundle of lush golden yellow straw. At one point, animators considered putting a knothole near the top of the pole that would morph into an eye when it became enchanted.

“In the finished film, it looks more threatening [not to have an eye] because it seems to see where it is going all too well without one,” recalled animation historian John Culhane.

In story notes, Walt felt that it added a sense of increased anxiety that even though the broom could not literally see where it was going, it still blindly followed the path to destruction with no regard to any obstacles in its way.

To carry the water from the outdoor fountain to the interior basin, there are two sturdy buckets made with thick wooden slats that are reinforced around the circumference with two metal bands. A curved metal handle rather than the traditional twisted rope handle is firmly attached to the top rim to provide sufficient support for the weighty cargo without breaking.

At the top of the stairs, is a gleaming and sharpened, one-sided axe that must have been polished and maintained by the apprentice as part of his training since there is no indication that the axe has been used to chop wood for a fire and dulled its edge.

The immeasurable workshop has several staircases, including one that leads up to the ample circular stone water vat in the workshop itself and another curved staircase with dozens of carved wide stone steps that leads from the dimly lit den to the bright sunlight filled outside courtyard.

Even the courtyard is utilitarian with no landscaping or lawn to maintain. The ground is covered with stone blocks leading to an uncovered fountain connected to the side of one wall of the castle. This circular fountain has a single step leading up to it as a large overhead spout pours a steadying stream of water into the clear pool down below. The courtyard is the same sandy color as the basement, not only for consistency but to allow audiences to immediately focus their attention on the main characters.

“In preparing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, careful attention was given to the psychological effects of color because color reaches audiences with the speed of light, so it has its effect even faster than sound,” recalled animation historian John Culhane.

The bland color scheme of the shadowy workshop and its exterior was kept to a more neutral tone so that the attention of the audience would be on the primary colors of the royal blue of the sorcerer, the crimson red of the apprentice, and the lemon yellow of the broom.

“Of course, the audience isn’t aware of the planning that goes into such sequences but I think the thoroughness of the design operates on their subconscious and produces a satisfying artistic effect,” said Disney layout artist Ken O’Connor.

The mysterious Sorcerer’s Workshop serves as an ideal location for magic and mischief and transports viewers to a different time and different world where wonderful dreams can become frightening nightmares if it is forgotten that with great power comes great responsibility.

These same lessons that Walt and his artists demonstrated so effectively in the animated features were later transferred to the physical environments that Disney park guests enjoy today. That attention to texture, color, function and more would have ultimately led to Walt’s vision of a themed future city unlike anything ever dreamed.



  1. By jpg391

    This is a very good article!!!

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