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Artists Recall the Making of a Classic : 'Fantasia': Walt Disney's ground-breaking combination of animation and classical music has been restored for re-release on its 50th birthday.

October 05, 1990|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | Szymanski is a regular contributor to Valley Calendar. and

Half a century ago, a team of young pioneers gathered in Burbank for an unheard-of artistic task. They were asked to interpret music by using moving paintings--from bouncing abstract lines to ballet-dancing ostriches to topless female centaurs--in a new art form called animation.

The result, "Fantasia," became a classic that helped lay the groundwork for all cartoons to come.

Three of the 1,000 people who worked on the movie still live in Valley neighborhoods surrounding Disney Studios, where they drew themselves into animation history. Today, the studio is releasing a restored version of "Fantasia" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its original screening.

Realizing that they were on the verge of a new art form, the creative crew worked directly for Walt Disney--the man behind the studio. All three animators had worked on "Snow White" and "Pinocchio," Disney's first feature-length animated films, before the adventurous experiment of "Fantasia."

From their imaginations sprang the wicked queen in "Snow White," the crystal coach in "Cinderella," the expressive wooden face of "Pinocchio," Baloo, the be-bopping bear of "The Jungle Book," and countless magical animated moments.

Although they nit-pick about the new, improved "Fantasia" that took two years to restore--longer than it took to make the original--these curmudgeonly cartoonists welcome the resurgence in quality animation sparked by Disney Studios' drive to restore all its cartoon classics.

"They mucked up a few things in this restored version: The ice fairy cobwebs were made a brighter yellow, the torches in the 'Ave Maria' sequence are too orange, and two of my ostriches were cut off on the sides," said Ken O'Connor, 82, an art director who still employs the same hypercritical attitude that Disney instilled in his staff. "But it's certainly still enjoyable."

O'Connor directed one of the funniest scenes in "Fantasia," in which ostriches, elephants, alligators and elegant Hyacinth the Hippo in a tutu all very earnestly perform a ballet to Amilcare Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours."

"The reason why it turned out so funny is that the animals were so serious about getting it right," O'Connor said. "A hippopotamus pirouetting would probably have her tutu slip a little bit, and it looks ludicrous, but it's realistic."

Striving for realism in the improbable ballet, Disney took O'Connor and his staff to the nearby Los Angeles Zoo to collect ideas and set them to music--like synchronizing the swallowing of whole pieces of fruit down an ostrich's neck. New York City Ballet master George Balanchine, who was fascinated by the beastly ballet, applauded it at a private screening.

An Australian-born journalist, O'Connor switched careers in 1935 and worked 46 years for Disney. Among the memorable moments from a dozen feature films and 100 shorts he worked on, O'Connor is responsible for creating the pink elephant dream sequence when Dumbo the flying elephant gets drunk, the evil fox in "Pinocchio" and the Siamese cats in "Lady and the Tramp." In the early 1960s, before man landed on the moon, he designed interplanetary spaceships.

But O'Connor's most notable contribution to cartoon history was creating Cinderella's sparkling coach. At his home only a few blocks from Disney Studios, he displays the original wire and plaster model of the pumpkin turned coach, which he said he hesitantly presented to Walt Disney.

"I was nervous because Walt was a tough critic," O'Connor said. "But after he studied it for a while, the only thing he asked was how I soldered those spiral wheels onto the coach."

"Fantasia" is a collection of cartoons set to classical music with no dialogue. The artists had free reign to unleash their imaginations.

Animator Ollie Johnston participated in the most fanciful section in which unicorns, flying horses and fairies flit about accompanied by Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony." Quickly flipping pages of a meticulously drawn sketch pad at his La Canada Flintridge house, Johnston showed a scene he drew of a cherubic Cupid making a hat out of birds for a voluptuous, topless half-girl, half-horse.

"At one point, we worried about the Hayes Office coming in to censor us, because we had full-breasted centaurettes exposed in the movie," Johnston said. "But we kept them very innocent, not seductive, and we got away with things we never could have if they weren't drawings."

More than 3,000 blips and crackles in the soundtrack have been deleted in the new release, but it doesn't compare to the original Fantasound equipment that made the music "feel like it was boiling down the aisles of the theater," Johnston said. "However, it is much better than the slashed version with Dolby Sound that wasn't in sync with the movie," he said, referring to a 1980s release. "That just ruined it."

If Johnston, a 77-year-old, balding man with a bristly mustache, looks like Captain Hook's sidekick Mr. Smee in "Peter Pan," it's because Johnston modeled the character after himself.

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