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How Disney conjured up a live-action version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

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How Disney conjured up a live-action version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

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The tale of the Sorcerer's Apprentice and The Walt Disney Company have been intertwined ever since Walt Disney invited famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to come join him for dinner at Chasen's. Which is where the old Mousetro supposedly asked the Maestro if he'd be interested in working with Disney Studios on a new short which would be animated to the tune of Paul Abraham Dukas' "L'apprenti sorcier."

As any good Disney history buff will tell you, Leopold immediately said "Yes" to Walt. But by the time Stokowski finished recording this scherzo in January of 1938, these two now had far bigger plans in the works. You see, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was no longer going to be a stand-alone short. No, Walt and Leopold were now planning on producing a feature-length celebration of classical music. An ambitious project that - for most of the time it was in production -- was known simply as "The Concert Feature." But was eventually released to theaters in November of 1940 with a far more magical-sounding name, "Fantasia."

Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

Now flash forward 60 or so years. When Nicolas Cage has already starred in a number of hit films for the Mouse House (among them "The Rock," "Con Air," "Gone in 60 Seconds" as well as the two "National Treasure" films ) and is casting about for a new project.

Well, as it turns out, Cage's favorite film is "Fantasia." And Michael Singer recounts in his new making-of book, "The Answer is Yes: The Art and Making of The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (Disney Editions, June 2010), Nicolas is quite passionate when it comes to this particular animated feature:

The cover art of "The Answer is Yes The Art and Making of Disney The Sorcerer's Apprentice<a mce_thref=
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

"I think that 'Fantasia' might have been the first movie my parents ever took me to. It was my introduction to the movies, to Walt Disney animation, and also, naturally, to classical music. The imagery throughout the entire film just transported me, and even at that young age, I think it influenced my life ... To me, it's the most beautiful movie ever made."

And given Nicolas' passion for this production ... Well, is it really such a surprise to hear that Cage -- along with his friend Todd Garner -- eventually decided to do a live-action version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Gregory Hill's illustration of Michael Kaplan's costume concept for Balthazar Blake
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

But what was the proper approach for this project? Should Cage & Todd stick with the original time, place & setting that poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had dreamed up for "Der Zauberlehrling" ? Or should they go with Walt's take on this material? As Nicolas and Todd struggled to translate "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" into a live-action fantasy adventure, they persuaded Cage's frequent collaborators -- megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer and blockbuster director Jon Turteltaub -- to come on board.

To Turteltaub's way of thinking, there was really only one way to go with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  Which was to modernize this material (i.e. take this timeless tale of sorcery and then reimagine it for twenty-first century audiences) while -- at the same time -- honor the spirit and inventiveness of "Fantasia."

Visual-effects supervisor John Nelson and London-based Double Negative Visual Effects demonstrate how the Fantasia sequence transforms from the green guys moving brooms and  mops to a magical cavalcade of objects moving of their own will
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

As Turteltaub told Singer:

" 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' has such a great Disney pedigree to it. And I knew right away that I'd be dealing with something that had to be excellent, had to be special, had to live up to its important role within Disney and the the history of film. That piece of 'Fantasia' is as iconic as any eight minutes of film that has ever been created, so to be part of that was really exciting."

Mind you, the live-action version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" doesn't slavishly mimic the animated original. But there are a few sequences in this film (as the photographs above imply) that do pay tribute to "Fantasia."

Illustrator Tani Kunitake envisioned Chernabog for the film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, although ultimately the demonic character from Fanstasia is not seen in the final version
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, not all of the references to "Fantasia" that Cage, Turner, Turteltaub and Bruckheimer originally wanted to fold into "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" made it into the final version of this film. And among the things that got cut over while this Walt Disney Pictures release was in development was an extended cameo by Chernabog.

So why didn't the star of "Fantasia" 's "Night on Bald Mountain" make it into the live-action version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" ? As Jon explained it to Michael, the filmmakers ultimately felt that they weren't doing this character justice.

"Chernabog was such an iconic Fantasia character, and we were sort of just sticking him in (our) movie ... Then we all felt, wait, this guy's too great and important, so let's pray the movie does well so we get a chance to make another one and give Chernabog a better part."

Morgana in the flaming fountain filmed in Bowling Green park
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

Which is why -- in order to give "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" a truly unique look & feel -- Cage, Turteltaub and Bruckheimer shot this entire movie in NYC. Using iconic places like Bowling Green (i.e. the first park ever created in the United States. This is also the spot in lower Manhattan where New Yorkers pulled down a statue of King George during the American Revolution) as the setting for the ultimate wizards showdown.

The filmmakers also took other well-known elements from New York City and reimagined them. Take -- for example -- those gleaming metal eagles that guard the corners of the Chrysler Building. Turteltaub took these gargoyles and turned into Balthazar Blake (i.e. Nicolas Cage's character) preferred form of transportation in the Big Apple.

Tani Kunitake's beautiful illustration of the Chrysler eagle soaring over Manhattan
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

And because one of the main themes of this movie is how closely science and magic are interwined ... Well, Singer uses "The Answer is Yes: The Art and Making of Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to reveal much of the hard science that was used to create all this movie magic. Take -- for example -- the huge animatronic version of the Chrysler Building's eagle gargoyle that was built so that Cage would then have something real to bounce his performance off of.

Nicholas Cage filming against a green screen for The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All Rights Reserved

As you page through this 144-page hardcover, you'll learn all sort of things about this Jerry Bruckheimer production (which opens at a theater near you a week from today).

So if you're waffling about whether you should buy Michael Singer's fun new making-of book, "The Answer is Yes." You should definitely pick up a copy of "The Art and Making of Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Which not only celebrates the poem, scherzo and short that provided inspirational material for this project but also reveals how this magical movie was actually made.

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