Our two biggest references for this podcast series on Fantasia are VERY MUCH WORTH YOUR TIME!
Fantasia Box Set A three disc Fantasia collector’s set, featuring two different audio commentaries, unseen animatic, unused sequences, SO MUCH production art from both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000!
Fantasia by John Culhane The definative book on Fantasia – and available in good second hand condition for a VERY low price!
The Nutcracker Suite is the second section of Fantasia. It has been called by John Canemaker the most exquisite expression of fantasy that came out of Disney and a special effects tour de force. Let’s find out why it’s so highly spoken of!
Sequence Director: Sam Armstrong (Snow White background artist) He oversaw a team of 53 artists )only 22 recieved credit in the program of the Fantsia performances)
Story Director: Dick Huemer – He was in charge of this entire section – making sure the scenes ran well together, doing daily checkins with everyone under him, as well as Walt.
Continuity Development: Jerry Brewer
Storyboard Artists: Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Bianca Majolie, Ethel Kulsar, Norman Wright, Albert Heath, Graham Heid
Character Designer: John Walbridge (concept sketches), Elmer Plummer (the mushrooms in color) and Ethel Kulsar (the thistle dancers), Curt Perkins, Herman Schultheis
Art direction: Robert Cormack, Al Zinnen, Curtiss D. Perkins, Arthur Byram and Bruce Bushman
Background painting: John Hench (later SVP at WED, the company founded to design the Disney parks after working on Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice), Ethel Kulsar and Nino Carbe
Animation: Art Babbitt (and his assistant, Bill Hurtz), Les Clark, Don Lusk, Cy Young, Robert Stokes (responsible for the distinctive skip-stepping of the frost fairies), Ugo Dorsi, Don Lusk, Sandy Strothers, Brad Case, George Rowley (responsible for the falling snow sequence)
Choreography: Jules Engel (head of the graphics and animation department at CalArts until his death in 2003)
Layouts: Bruce Bushman
Earliest known production date: Ballet Des Fleurs – 1935
A note on Sylvia, Bianca and Ethel – they are particularly known for picking flowers in the lots around Disney studios, bringing them back and then painting them until they morphed into the creatures that would populate this section of the movies. As a bit of a girly girl and as an artist, I can’t say that I can think of a much cooler job than this. Huemer recollected their work and sense of fun fondly.
I also want to take a second to point out that women were an essential part of the Disney Studio. A google search will lead you to many examples of rejection letters that Disney Studios sent to women in this era, telling them they could not be accepted into specific departments because they weren’t jobs that women did, so we don’t want to romanticize the facts of the era or the studio, the truth is that Walt Disney employed women in areas that required craftsmanship and artistic abilitiy – and the women he emplyed were very, very good at what they did. Mary Blair is perhapts the most famous of them, but here’s a link to an article published my the Walt Disney Family Museum called “Worth as much as man: Cracking the celluloid ceiling”
Is from a ballet called The Nutcracker composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. What you are hearing on Fantasia is the Nutcracker Suite – Suite being a musical terms for shorter movements selected from a larger work to be performed on their own. The Nutcracker ballet tell a very specific story of a young girl from a Dickensian era called Clara, who receives a Nutcracker as a gift for Christmas who comes alive, has a battle with the mice and rats who live in the house, and then takes her on an adventure to the land of candy.
It’s a very specific story – and Disney wasn’t interested in adhereing to it. Tin Soldier piece that would make it into Fantasia 2000 had been in development since the original Fantasia, so it would have been two similar concepts – or maybe Disney just wanted to do his own thing.
Let’s put this in contex of the music history of the time. The Nutcracker was a ballet first, but at the time of Fantasia’s making it was not in production anywhere as a ballet – only as a concert piece. It wouldn’t be revived byt the NYC Ballet as a Christmas piece until 1954 – but it has stayed in production there ever since!
“This type of cartoon did not rely upon telling a story, but rather it attempted to create an emotional response in the audience by using form and color in motion to interpret fine music.” Disney, The Story of the Animated Drawing Nov 30, 1955.
In many ways, Nutcracker Suite was the punctuation to a decade long artistic endevour by the Disney animation group to explore and vitalize nature int he medium. There had been a Silly Symphonies episode for each season of the year put out from 1929-1930, and an unevolved form of what would eventually be developed into the Nutcracker Suite called Ballet de Fleurs was in preproduction as early as 1935 (technically making it the earliest known production of anything relating to Fantasia, although not the official earliest date of any work done for the movie itself.)
We’ve said that Disney wanted to tell a differnt story than that of the original ballet. The decision was made to cut the first two movements of the Nutcracker Suite (the Overture and the March) and theme the selection around nature almost at the same time, although each decision supports the other one. The concept of ballet never left the project, and throughout this piece plants of all kinds dance – not just actually as in the Russian Dance or the Chinese Dance, but interpretively, as in the Arab Dance, and symbolically, as the leaves blown by wind in the Waltz of the Flowers. You dont have to be an artist (or six years old) to look at flowers and see decorative skirts where the petals are!
The Nutcracker Suite section of Fantasia is about fifteen minutes long, and it consists of six of the eight movements of the Nutcracker Suite section of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, animated around the theme of nature. The Nutcracker (the ballet) is a modern Christmas favorite, but as it appears in Fantasia, winter only briefly makes an appearance, and religion not at all. The changing seasons of a year are described, starting with plants waking for spring, and ending with ice covering and snow falling. We see a lot of fairies in this section, far predating Tinkerbell’s appearance in Peter Pan. You can also see similarities between the goldfish in this section and the goldfish in in Pinocchio. The underwater scenery clearly inspired the underwater decor of the Little Mermaid.
Audience response has indicated that this section is the most delightful to the viewer.
The original idea Disney had had was to bring the sprites seen in this section in every section of Nutcracker Suite. In fact, the concept of the fairy- born of the Sugar plum fairy – was the only concept from the story told in the original ballet that came forward, but the desire was to very much to set the whole Nutcracker Suite in the setting of fantastical nature. This was a huge trend of the era I think, although Roy Disney has said that part of the reason that sort of thing isn’t as popular anymore is because we’re a more urban society, so we’re not as aware of what nature looks like as we were even in the 1930’s. I’ve seen a lot of examples of flowers and fairies being a part of storytelling in art in the 1800’s – the beautiful work of Mary Cicely Barker comes to mind – but the trend tend to die out with the globalization of the 1950s and 1960s.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. About minute and a half long, this sequence shows a multitude of faries bringing spring to the world. In the blue light of what could both be the early morning and the last cold snap of winter, delicate fairies the color of early flowers spread light and dew across a natural landscape, encouraging flowers to bloom, and bringing low level light to small area. Just to drive the point home, one sleepy warm-yellow fairy is woken when another fairy’s misfired dewdrop catches her on the head. The land is waking up from winter, and it’s time for all the ice to melt! The sequence ends when several fairies collide in a shower of dewdrops, which drift down to the mushrooms of the next sequence.
This sequence was produced after the concept for the Russian dancers as thistles had been developed by Ethel Kulsar. because of her success, Disney sent four artists, including Ethel to an actual nature preserve to develop sketches for this section. The most interesting thing that I learned about this section of Fantasia is that in terms of development, lots of the theories of abstraction crossed over into this first piece to follow on the Toccata & Fugue section. In order to decide what elements of nature belonged in what section of the Dance of SugarPlum fairy, Disney sat in a dark room, listening to Sugar Plum and having the concept art that Ethel and her coworkers brought back from their trip to the nature preserve played on a big projector, so he could decide what imagery belonged with what part of the music. Does a drwing of a front fairy belong here? Yes. Does the color orange belong in this part of the music, no, no … Should milkweed be a plant you see with this phrasing? Maybe … Frankly it sounds awesome. I want to sit in a dark room, listen to classical music and look at beautiful art!
The fairies were designed to move like hummingbirds by Les Clark. The decision to do that may not seem a big deal to the viewer, but it was one of the subtle ways in which this piece was so carefully designed to create a specific atmospheric effect.
The Chinese Dance. About a minute long. Seven anthropomorphized red and white mushrooms perform a short dance. The youngest is both the focal point and the clumsy child trying to keep up – one of the many moments of comic relief sprinkled throughout Fantasia. The original program calls them “Hop Low and the Mushroom Dancers.” Possibly the most succinct expression of the principles of animation that has ever been made. Roy Disney stated proudly that they sold a lot of mushroom salt and pepper shakers because of it!
Originally planned as dancing lizards, commanded by a frog Mandarin, using mushrooms as background details. Designer Walbridge – under Armstrong’s direction – created the mushroom creatures for their bit parts of lamplighters. The inspiration for translating the mushrooms into a symbol of the east is said to have come from a member of the Disney Camera Club who had a bound book of mushroom photos kept in the studio – but we weren’t able to find the name of that photographer. John Walbridge was the first artist to interpret the the mushrooms into characters on paper. (DATE HERE) Brewer’s original vision included has the dance being “Chinese, Japanese, Javanese or Siamese: with “decorative headdress, short, tightgt skirt, and curled toed shoes … before a background of swaying oriental girls.” The animation was developed in this direction for a year, with the mushrooms as background characters, until (DATE) when Brewer brought the animatic to Disney, who looked over things such as a Frog Mandarin, saw the mushrooms and fell in love with them. He told Brewer that less is more, to keep it simple, and that the mushrooms were all that was needed to make the point. Walt was not a man afraid to say that it was time to give up everything that had been developed in a year and going back to an earlier stage of development. Sam Armstrong took over this piece from Brewer at this time, and it was at this time that the idea of having the big mushrooms moving with the ‘big’ part of the music (INSERT MUSIC SAMPLE) and Hop Low moviing with the ‘little part of the music’ (INSERT MUSIC SAMPLE)
In the version that made it to the final cut, Art Babbitt drew inspiration from the three stooges when he was setting up the choreograpgy – especially Curly’s leg movements. He’s spoken of Hop Low as a warm sympathetic character, and said that while he didn’t know a lot about music, the musical phrase that is made and repeated in the music allowed him to create the architecture of the piece. He kept the score at his desk, so he could visually see the melodies of the piece, and relate actions to every line in the music. Babbitt’s ability as an animator, often spoken highly of (Culhane referrs to him as “A Camera with brains and a pulse”), can be exemplified by the fact that the only direction he was given by Walt was to have Hop Low’s final bow come a moment too late for the timing, emphasizing his childlike inability to keep up.
We’ll have a pick of his jump sequence for Hop Low on the website. If you’re an animation student and want to learn about squash and stretch, look at it. In fact look at it anyway – in a minute’s time, one character with no words and practically no faces communicates to the audience everything they need to know about him!
The art in this, to a modern eye, relies pretty heavily on some stereotypical imagery. To put this in the context of the time, keep in mind that Fantasia was worked on just prior to WWII, when US sentiment about many China wasn’t that great, and much more negative depiction than this was pretty standard. See some of the WWII political cartoons of Doctor Seuss for example!
Dance of the Reed Flutes. About a minute and a half long. Chaplin once told Disney not to be afraid to make his audience wait for things. This is advice he took specifically to this section. Falling blossoms dance on the surface of a brook. Love the animations of flowing water. If the previous section belonged to Art Babbit, this one belonged to Cy Young – who was an animator as well as a special effects artist. This section is so lovely, so light and delicate. I love especially how the cenral flower, when she stars danceing, she turns one way , then back, then back again, and her petals swirl like skirts – continuing to move in the other direction even after she’s stopped turning. This sequence looks like it must have been so labor intensive – so many moving pieces!
Arab Dance. 3 minutes – the longest of the Fantasia sequences. Filmy-finned goldfish dances underwater. The most sinister (for lack of a better word) music of this section, coupled with the alternating shyness and seductive (again, for lack of a better word) approaches of the fish leave the viewer with the unsettling and accurate sense of the true forces of nature being beyong our reach and out of our control.
If you listen to this piece of music with no for knowledge fo the story or association with Fantasia, it comes across as beautiful, and probably feminine, but a little bit sad and a little bit sinister – which makes sense, because Disney wanted the piece to communicate what you saw in video travelogues of Harems at that time.Disney used a lot of specific words that refelct this when he was describing his desires for this sequence. Suggestive, voluptuous, shadowy, transparent, fascinating, graceful, coquettish, and my favorite: ‘almost like a hootchie-cooch.’ He also drew connections between the natural patterns of exotic fish and the lingerie fashion designs of the era. Naughty! Remember that the original context of this dance within the story of the Nutcracker ballet is that Clara is being entertained by the old-fashioned stereotype of a harem girl. I would go so far as to say that there are many aspects of sensuality being explored through this piece – there are fish that get startled and run away when they realised they’ve been seen, and there are groups of fish moving together pretending they don’t see you watching them, then there is the final performace from a fish who makes this very sultry eye contact with the watcher, clearly moving around in a ‘see how beautiful I am?’ kind of a way.
These are some sexy fish!
Keep in mind when you watch this sequence that the animation team was doing multiple exposures on one set of film – Frank Thomas has been quoted on some of the scenes taking up to 20 exposures. No room for mistakes – one mistake and everything’s ruined. Think about that, especially when the water flurries the scene in and out of focus!
The whole thing is totally child appropriate of course, but if you’re an adult, you look at this and it brings to mind what we think burlesque entertainment was like back then. The whole scene is laid out to channel that harem feel – the idea of private, enclosed entertainment (we never see the surface of the water), the bubbles rising constantly like inscence smoke (or perhaps the smoke of something stronger.)
Technically speaking, a lot of the things learned from the fish in Pinnochio were brough to this piece. As we hear over and over again, something was invented specifically for this purpose by Disney studios – transparent paints.
I love this sequence!
Russian Dance. One minute, fifteen seconds. Dancing thistles do a traditiona Russian dance, with flower women playing their partners. Disney saw this section almost as energetic as a tumbling act, and that’s carried through in the opening jumps from the thistle dancers. Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Biance Majolie, Ethel Kulsar are credited with developing this segment entirely, picking wildflowers near the set and sketching them into cossacks and peasant girls. We’re still in summer flowers and colors here, as we were in the Chinese Dance and the Dance of the reed flutes. The major animator on the piece was Art Babbitt again.
John Canemaker once asked Babbitt how he managed to work this scene so that there was no confusion at all about what was going on. His response was that he used a lot of subtle stretch and squash drawing, and overlapped action in a discrete way that makes it impossible for the viewer to not pay attention to what’s going on.
Waltz of the Flowers. About 4 and a half minutes. Winter comes, with a return to the fairy and flora motif in the dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. He was concered about this sequence repeating something that had already been said, which is why the colors and patterns of autumn and winter became the drive behind this piece, rather than the summery stuff that had already been explored. They continued with the theme they’d been exploring throughout the Nutcracker Suite section of Fantasia, the dance that a ballet dancer would do is performed by leaves, petals, seeds and other elements of nature being carried by wind and water. Green becomes gold, accompanied perfectly by the sound of harps strings and deep woodwinds. There was suposed to be a sequence in Bambi where the two last leaves of fall converse before dying and falling off the tree – which would have taken its roots from the dance duets of the two orange maple leaves that takes place here. As in the first sequence, fairies are helping the season change, and my favorite example fo this is when one fairy opens a milkweed pod, and all the fluffy seeds slowly are carried away by the wind, looking for all the world like deliacate ladies in fluffy ballet skirts. Putting it in perspective, each individual drawing of each individual milkweed ballerina took AN HOUR or more to complete due to the complicated coloring process which involved the standard inking and coloring, but also the ubtlest puff of airbrushing, AND THEN drybrush texturing! This whole sequence can be seen in action in the film “The Story of the Animated Drawing,” a 1955 Disney Television film about the history of animation to that point. You can see selection of this film, as well as Ethel’s beautiful thistle-men drawings, the unused frog-mandarin from the Chinese Dance section, and some lovely concepts of ent-like tree creatures, some sexy fish drawings that are frankly, hilarious, and some very sultry flower fairies on the Fantasia DVD box set we keep talking about. Canot say enough how great that thing is!
Then we get frost sprites, bringinf frost to the plants and ice to the water. The snow starts to fall, and the snowflakes themselves are faries. Here we see some of the background effects that we saw int he Toccatta and Fugue sequence. This part reminds me of the Tom and Jerry episode where Jerry floods the house and freezes it so he can go skating. The fairies ancing on the ice were clearly modelled after real iceskaters.
Lets’ talk about the falling snowflakes. The process for this was another multiple exposure, but the exposure that had just the snowflakes on them worked something llike this: scientifucally acurate drawings of actual snowflakes were created and colore int he susual way, but instead of being filmed rotating by hand, they were mounted on rotating cogs which in turn slowly moved down a curved track. The machinery was covered in balck velvet (the greenscreen of it’s day) and the flackes were filmed that way. Mind blown yet?
Disney wished he could have done the whole thing as a ballet in the air, and he got very close to it. It’s so beautiful!
Suz: There’s a lot of water aanimation in this section of Fantasia. Animating water (and horses) are two of the hardest things to do in animation. To give you an idea of how hard water is, I first saw Ratatouille in the theatres with an animator who actually cried in the falling down the sewer sequence in the opening of the movie because the water had been animated so well. And yet here, 70 years earlier, is water refelcted naturally and beautifully, and done by hand, in one shot takes. It absolutely blows you away!
Not relevant to this part specifically, but I just found this out – Christopher Lloyd based part of his performaces as Doc Brown in Back to the Future on Leopold Stochowski!
Disney said that you really had to lose yourself in music, almost fall asleep to it, and let it in through the skin. He really described the act of listening to music in a way that makes it sound like he thought of it as a transcendental experience. The man said of himself that he didn’t know anything about art apart from he knew what he liked, but he sure sounds like someone who knew how to appreciate the stuff!
It’s worth picking up the Fantasia book by Culhane just to read the story about a dancer who came in to do reference dancing for the Arabian Dance section!
Guess what’s next in the Fantasia series …