Animation historian John Culhane is 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."

"Fantasound" was an early stereophonic sound process developed specifically for "Fantasia" by engineering wizard William Garity (who also helped develop Disney's first multi-plane camera while Ub Iwerks was gone from the Disney Studio). "Fantasound" is quite literally the father (or grandfather) of what we know today as "surround sound."

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 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 of

Advertisement
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.

However, John told me that the theater he saw "Fantasia" had "Fantasound" and one of his fondest memories is hearing rushing water seemingly flooding along the walls of the theater and crashing on the screen during "The Sorcerer's Apprentice".

Since some folks seem to enjoy those excerpts on "Technicolor" that I found in those old issues of the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (that's where that excerpt "Growing Pains" by Walt Disney first appeared), here are some segments about "Fantasound" from those dusty old volumes.

Here's an excerpt from William Garity, one of the primary designers of Disney's "Fantasound" system for "Fantasia" from the August 1941 issue:

"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, Garity had more to say about the early recording of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice":

" '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, Calif., 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."

And -- with the addition of those "other musical selections" -- Well, that's where "Fantasia" came from. The film that eventually helped us all hear movie music & sound effects in a whole new way.

But the "Fantasound" story doesn't end there. I'll be back with even more Disney movie music-related stories in future editions of "Wednesdays with Wade."