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MEET THE SOUNDTRACK: FANTASOUND

Immediately following the intermission of Disney’s FANTASIA (1940), Deems Taylor, who serves as the master of ceremonies within the film, launches into a segment whereby he introduces the audience to “the soundtrack.”  The animation in the film provides viewers with a visual interpretation of what a sound recording actually looks like, i.e. – a single line with fluctuating spasms creating noise, or music.  Walt Disney included this segment in FANTASIA to get the audience to appreciate the film’s sound, to get people to notice that what they were witnessing with their ears was something unique and innovative (Sibley).  In 1940, the manner by which FANTASIA expressed its classical music soundtrack was indeed novel.  Utilizing a multi-channel playback system entitled “Fantasound,” FANTASIA became the first film to be commercially released in stereo.  The development and subsequent failure of the Fantasound system are worth examining – for though Fantasound enjoyed only a brief moment in the spotlight, its existence stimulated new approaches for multi-channel sound recording and playback, including many of the systems that are operated in cinemas today.

FANTASIA began as a collaboration between Walt Disney and world-renowned conductor, Leopold Stokowski.  At its conception, the project was meant to be simply a short film set to the tune of “L’Apprenti Sorcier” by Paul Dukas.  However, Disney and Stokowski soon realized that their enthusiasm for the project could not be contained in one reel of celluloid; thus the notion of a feature-length “concert film” was born (Gabler 295).  The idea behind FANTASIA was to take well-known pieces of classical music and visualize them with animation.  Disney became obsessed with the notion of engrossing his audience in the music.  He toyed with using 3D technology or spraying scents into the theater at certain points during the film (Gabler 310).  More than anything, he sought to create highly immersive sound.  According to his collaborators, he sought the ability to make the violins of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” dance across the screen in picture, as well as in the audio-scape (Garity and Hawkins).

Unfortunately, the means of reproducing sound in a movie theater were, at this time, limited.  Monophonic sound was far from capable of shifting around a theater or coming close to sounding as powerful as a live orchestra.  Printed as one single optical track down the side of 35mm positive film, a typical soundtrack’s range was very confined.  The sound of a particular movie, including its dialogue, effects, and music, all emanated from a single place that was fixed locally right behind the screen.  This gave way to a plethora of different issues, notably that of peaking or clipping when dialogue, music, and/or sound effects all hit highs at the same moment.  These conditions were not ideal for producing the type of sound that Disney so desired (Garity and Hawkins).

Stokowski had been fascinated by the idea of stereophonic sound years before his meeting with Disney.  In 1933, he assisted Bell Laboratories in a demonstration of stereophonic sound.  He sat present in Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. as a live transmission of his own Philadelphia Orchestra was transmitted from Pennsylvania to Washington over multiple Class A telephone lines.  In 1937, Stokowski assisted Universal Studios in recording the 9-track score for their film 100 MEN AND GIRL, though the film was eventually mixed down to mono for its release.  Due to his fascination with, and experience in the stereophonic realm, and feeling that it might allow Disney to achieve his wishes for the film, Stokowski suggested recording FANTASIA in some form of multi-channel sound (Sibley).

Agreeing with Stokowski’s proposal, Disney tasked sound engineer, William Garity, and sound mixer, John N.A. Hawkins, with developing a sound system specifically for FANTASIA (Sibley).  Coincidentally, Garity helped bring sound to the pioneering STEAMBOAT WILLIE in 1928 through use of the Powers Cinephone System (Telotte 26).

The process of developing and utilizing multi-channel technology on FANTASIA began when the classical music score was recorded.  Before realizing that the film would be feature-length, Disney and Stokowski recorded Dukas’ “L’Apprenti Sorcier.”  Because the scoring stage at his Hyperion Studio was too small to accommodate eighty-five musicians, and to allow acoustically for massive symphonic resonance, Disney rented out the recording stage at the Selznik studio (Gabler 299).  Using sound cameras and standard 35mm film, the orchestra was recorded onto six different tracks.  Once it was learned that the film would be feature-length, the rest of the compositions were recorded at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.  During these recordings, the different sections of the orchestra were separated by structures made of double-plank wood.  This way, the sound of the brass would not interfere with the cellos and bass and each section could be recorded as purely as possible onto its own separate track.  In total, there were eight separate tracks – six for different orchestra sections, one control track, and one track that recorded a distant pick-up of the entire orchestra (Telotte 39).

It is important to note that Garity and Hawkins had not yet perfected the Fantasound reproduction system while these recordings were being made.  Once given the Stokowski-approved tracks, they struggled to make them work within the apparatus that they were developing (Plumb).  They soon realized that eight tracks were far too many to maintain control over within an exhibition setting, so they mixed down to four.  Three of said tracks were printed side-by-side down reels of standard 35mm film.  The fourth track (the control track) was printed on the film containing the picture.  Projecting FANTASIA required two projection systems – one for picture and one for sound.  Using a “selsyn interlock system” both the picture projector and the “multi-track film phonograph” could run in synchronization.  In terms of actually producing sound, the multi-track film phonograph used a film drive by which the variable area sound tracks were scanned over a curved gate.  All three soundtracks were scanned simultaneously by a slitless single optical system.  Mounted in a double holder in the left compartment of the sound-head, illumination within the sound projector was provided by a single 10-volt, 5-ampere exciter lamp (Garity and Hawkins).

The utilization of four separate soundtracks provided tremendous potential.  If a film in the future had dialogue, sound effects, and music, all three could be mixed onto their own track; thus, the potential for clipping and peaking decreased.  Garity and Hawkins also found that the musical sound could be much purer and louder if spread across multiple tracks.  Music with the volume turned way up on one speaker was prone to distortion.  However, music divided amongst four tracks was more evenly divided and smooth.  Despite the breakthroughs that the Fantasound system offered at this point, Garity and Hawkins still had a creative task to solve – the task of getting sound to seem like it was moving across the screen.  Again, Disney wanted Bach’s violins to sound like they were floating about the theater (Garity and Hawkins).

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The first version of the Fantasound system to be manufactured by RCA was entitled “Mark VII (Fantasound).” Within this version of the system, each sound track had a corresponding patch, or area, of the theater to which it sent frequencies.  One track sent sound to screen left, another to screen right, and another to the center.  The final track served as a control track.  It was found that by fading from one speaker to another, the illusion of a moving sound could be created.  Unfortunately, fading between multiple speakers proved far too complex a job for a projectionist or sound mixer to do manually during a showing of FANTASIA; thus the mechanical “brain” of Fantasound was created – the “Togad,” or “tone-operated gain-adjusting device.”  Utilizing a “variable gain amplifier,” the togad could be used to isolate specific tracks while muting others.  This can be seen in the finale of the film when “Ave Maria” gradually pushes out the scary sounds of “Night on Bald Mountain (Garity and Hawkins).”

As innovative as Fantasound may have been, it would never catch-on as a standard practice, nor would a massive audience get to hear it.  Leo Enticknap, in his book Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital, continuously makes the statement that a specific moving image (or sound) system will not take hold unless it can be applied rather inexpensively to the technology that already exists in cinemas and exhibition spaces (Enticknap 26).  Fantasound, in all its wonder, was simply too expensive and complex to be made standard.  Despite its positive reception at the Broadway Theater in New York in November, 1940, FANTASIA lost a great deal of money.  That the film posed a great financial risk caused Disney’s usual distributor RKO to back out, forcing Disney to distribute the film himself.  Because the technology needed to produce Fantasound was bulky, complex and pricey, the film had to be exhibited as a road show (Sibley).

In his essay in the SMPE Journal about his experiences road-showing FANTASIA, William Garity notes that the complete Fantasound package needed forty-five packing cases, weighed nearly fifteen thousand pounds, and took up half a freight car (Garity and Jones).  “Of the theaters in which it was eventually installed, six had to have new power lines run, three needed the projection room enlarged, and in every case some of the equipment, particularly some of the eleven rack amplifiers, had to be placed outside of the projection booth,” says J.P. Telotte in his essay, “Sound Fantasy”.  For every theater where FANTASIA played, it cost Disney anywhere between $45,000 and $85,000 to install Fantasound.  With World War II looming in the distance and causing damage to the European markets, there was no way that FANTASIA could sustain itself financially.  RKO eventually agreed to take on the distribution rights in April of 1941, but decided to mix the film down to mono, so that it could be shown in conventional theaters (Telotte 40).

Some might call the Fantasound system a failure, but composer and musical conductor for the Disney studios, Ed Plumb, in his essay “The Future of Fantasound,” believes that the technology’s success or failure should be measured in the level of innovation that it brought to the cinematic sound process, rather than in its financial gains or losses.  He states that FANTASIA is a unique film in that it required the mixing and reproduction of mostly symphonic music.  Other films, he says, can profit from Fantasound’s advancements in the area of separating tracks.  That under a system like Fantasound, the dialogue, sound effects, and music can each exist on separate tracks, Plumb sees as a huge step forward for the presentation of movies (Plumb).

According to Plumb’s assertions, does today’s presentation of Disney’s WRECK-IT RALPH in Dolby Surround 7.1 owe something to the invention of Fantasound?  The answer is somewhat hard to gauge.  What is evident, however, is that being introduced to “the soundtrack,” by studying Fantasound and its technical intricacies, one can learn a great deal about how sound has functioned, and continues to function within the exhibition of moving images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CONSULTED

Enticknap, Leo. Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital. London: Wallflower

Press, 2005. 25-27. Print.

Fantasia. By Brian Sibley. Walt Disney Productions, 2010. Blu-Ray Commentary Track.

Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Vintage,

2006. 299-347. Print.

Garity, William E., and J.N.A Hawkins. “Fantasound.” Journal of Society of Motion Picture

            Engineers 37.8 (1941): 127-146. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/sound/fantasound1.htm

Garity, William E., and Watson Jones. “Experiences in Road-Showing Walt Disney’s Fantasia.”

Journal of Society of Motion Picture Engineers 39.7 (1942): 6-15. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/sound/fantasound2.htm

Plumb, Edward H. “The Future of Fantasound.” Journal of Society of Motion Picture Engineers

39.7 (1942): 16-21. Web. 27 Jan. 13.

http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/sound/fantasound3.htm

Tellotte, J.P. “Sound Fantasy.” The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology. Urbana:

University of Chicago, 2008. 23-41. Print.