Fantasia 2000 | The story of the first IMAX feature film

Fantasia 2000
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Before Oppenheimer and Dune: Part Two, Disney made the first ever feature film presented in IMAX. Here’s the story of Fantasia 2000.

Having fought through a creatively difficult period in the 1980s, Walt Disney Feature Animation regained its footing later in the decade with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. A creative and commercial triumph, John Musker and Ron Clements’ fantasy paved the way for what would become known as the Disney Renaissance which flourished in the 1990s, with the likes of Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all enjoying similar acclaim to Disney’s previous animated heyday in the 1930s and 40s.

In the midst of its regained confidence, animation department chairman Roy E Disney began thinking again about Fantasia, his uncle Walt’s bold, borderline experimental 1940 film that used varying styles of animation to visualise pieces of classical music.

Attempts to make a sequel had rattled around the company for years, including the time Roy Disney floated the idea of making a new Fantasia to Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was less than enamoured with the project; it was when Michael Eisner joined the company as CEO in 1984 that resistance to a Fantasia sequel began to soften.

Admittedly, Katzenberg had reason to be cautious. When Fantasia emerged in 1940, critics were bemused by it, and audiences – perhaps similarly perplexed by its lack of narrative – failed to show up in cinemas as they had for Snow White or Pinocchio. Nor did Walt Disney’s initial plans to occasionally re-release Fantasia, with new animated segments replacing some of the old, ever come to fruition: a mixture of an animators’ strike and the outbreak of the Second World War saw that idea wither on the vine.

A new Fantasia therefore offered Disney a chance to continue Walt’s legacy, with original sequences joined by new pieces of animation created by the company’s latest generation of artists.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – one of Fantasia’s highlights. Credit: Disney.

It was when Fantasia was released on VHS in 1991 – and thanks to some enthusiastic marketing, sold some eight million copies – that Disney began to put plans in place for a sequel. As Roy Disney recalled in a June 2000 edition of Cinefantastique magazine, “I wrote to Michael [Eisner] a little note that said, ‘Not only should we do the second Fantasia, but now we can afford it.’”

Work on what was initially called Fantasia Continues began in 1992, with the plan being to release the film in 1997. Some of Disney’s best creators were engaged in the project, with story artist Francis Glebas (Aladdin, The Lion King), director Hendel Butoy (The Rescuers Down Under) and animator Eric Goldberg (Hercules) among those in charge of individual segments.

Don Hahn (who’d just produced Beauty And The Beast) was to direct the starry, live-action introductory sequences between each section, while the project as a whole would be overseen by producers Roy Disney and Donald Ernst.

As work on what would become Fantasia 2000 wound on, however, its plans became more ambitious. Additional new sequences were dreamed up, and segments from the original film were gradually dropped; eventually, the only musical number that remained from 1940’s Fantasia was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the iconic sequence that had done so much to revive Mickey Mouse’s flagging popularity decades earlier.

Not that Disney’s new generation of animators wanted to entirely break with tradition; Francis Glebas, having pitched a segment featuring Donald Duck, did so with the thinking that it would serve as a ‘companion piece’ to Mickey Mouse’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to borrow a phrase from journalist Mike Lyons’ preview in a February 2000 edition of Cinefantastique.

In that same edition, Glebas explained that the Donald Duck segment, set to Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, was originally going to take place at a high school graduation, with Mickey and Goofy also there to collect their diplomas. In a truly extraordinary leap of imagination, though, that initial concept was deemed too complex, and somehow morphed into the biblical story of Noah’s Ark – with Donald playing the part of Noah’s apprentice.

A profoundly nude Donald Duck in Fantasia 2000. Credit: Disney.

“I did this poster of Donald, putting his hand out waiting for a raindrop to fall,” Glebas recalled. “It read, ‘It’s Donald’s Last Round-Up.’ That became the title, which was later changed to Noah’s Duck.’”

So it was that Donald would be given a ringside seat for the Book of Genesis’ watery extinction-level event. In an illustration of just how much time and thought went into each sequence, meanwhile, Glebas recalled a particular scene in which Donald Duck is shown relaxing in a hammock, then jumping out as Daisy Duck approaches with a shirt for him to wear.

“Daisy comes over and gives him a shirt,” Glebas said in that same edition of Cinefantasique. “So a big question came up: ‘Is Donald naked?’ It was a big contention; ‘Can we have a naked Duck?’ What’s funny is, it was considered okay once he puts on his shirt – and yet his bottom is still exposed.”

As work continued, it eventually became apparent that the film would miss its 1997 release date, and plans to call it Fantasia 1997 had to be revised. In the meantime, news stories were beginning to emerge that the film was going over budget as well as over schedule; a Los Angeles Times piece published that August claimed that a record-breaking $100m had been spent on the production up to that point, and that there were still two years left before completion. Gloomy comparisons were made between Disney’s film another recent, expensive disaster, Waterworld.

“Look, this film is considered a national treasure,” a source told the paper. “You figure they want the best directors working on it, and the top animators get about $350,000 a year, plus fringe benefits. If they’re working on it for several years, that could run as high as several million dollars on one animator alone.”

The reality, at least according to Roy Disney, was more prosaic. The new Fantasia was taking so long because it wasn’t being made like other Disney animated films such as Hercules, which was then also deep into production.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 provided the backdrop for Fantasia 2000’s abstract opening sequence. Credit: Disney.

“There was no urgency to [making] the film,” Roy Disney told Cinefantastique. “There was the ability to slide people off one show and have them for a little while then slide them into the next show, without everybody else missing a beat.”

As Fantasia 2000’s December 1999 premiere date neared, one of the production’s more intriguing creative decisions was over its presentation: it would be formatted and shown in IMAX cinemas, at least for its initial run. This would make it the first feature film to be presented in that format; previously, the Japanese animated short Tiger Child had been shown in an early form of IMAX cinemas in 1970. Since then, the gargantuan screens and its 65mm film projectors tended to be used for experimental, short-form animation (1999’s The Old Man And The Sea), similarly brief documentaries (1982’s Hail Columbia, about NASA’s Space Shuttle), or concert films (1991’s Rolling Stones: Live At The IMAX).

In February 1999, it was announced that Fantasia 2000 would screen exclusively in IMAX cinemas worldwide for a total of four months, beginning on 1st January the following year. Dick Cook, the boss of Disney’s Motion Pictures Group at the time, was quoted by Variety as saying, “The exclusive 90-minute IMAX engagements offer us the opportunity to enhance the moviegoing experience and present the film as the visual and audio sensation that it is meant to be.”

As well as its use of IMAX, Fantasia 2000 also broke new ground in terms of computer animation. Although Disney had used CGI sporadically in the 1980s, then increasingly in the 1990s, Fantasia 2000 marked its most extensive use of computer graphics up to that point. One segment featured a pod of flying computer-generated whales, for which a custom particle-generation tool had to be written. Another sequence, based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, featured complex 3D animated characters, including a tin soldier and a ballerina with simulated hair. Initially, the work was going to be handled by the more experienced Pixar, before the decision was made to tackle the scene in-house.

Whales take flight to Respighi’s Pines Of Rome in Fantasia 2000. Credit: Disney.

Meanwhile, a team of technicians at the VFX firm Cinesite worked on restoring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which by then was over 50 years old. The process required painstakingly removing dirt and scratches from each individual frame – with the footage being blown up to IMAX scale, even the slightest blemish would have been about a foot high. As it stood, the restored version retained much of the grain from the original print – something that critics often complained about when Fantasia 2000 eventually emerged.

“In some ways I wish it were [less grainy],” Roy Disney told Deseret News in 2000, “but on the other hand, it is what it is, and it’s a miracle that it looks that good in certain ways. I think partly the preservationist instinct in us kind of makes us not try to overly clean it as we probably could. I think it has to show its age a little bit, kind of as respect for the people who made it.”

Before its IMAX run, Fantasia 2000 had its premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1999. The film’s mix of abstract, comic and occasionally dark images were accompanied by a live performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and by all accounts, it went over without a hitch. That glitzy premiere marked the end of a production that had lasted years, and had been floated around as a concept for decades longer.

Fantasia 2000 wasn’t, however, a huge success for Disney (like its 1940s predecessor, it lost money, at least theatrically), perhaps in part because its initial four-month IMAX release meant it was only available to see at 70 cinemas worldwide. And while its mix of hand-drawn cels and CGI was criticised for being uneven in quality, the film, in retrospect, marked an artistic midpoint for Disney as an animation studio. When work on Fantasia 2000 began, the Disney Renaissance was in full flow; by 1999, Tarzan had appeared, which is today generally considered the last film in that cycle of much-loved classics.

Thereafter, Disney began to drift away from hand-drawn animation, as rival studios had scored hits with CGI films like Shrek and Ice Age. As recorded in directors Bay Dariz and Phil Earnest’s documentary Pencils Vs Pixels, Disney’s pivot from 2D to 3D was rapid and, for the traditional artists who struggled to make the leap to working with computers, brutal. Disney eventually came out with such CG hits as Tangled and Frozen, but largely at the expense of a hand-drawn tradition which had existed at its studios since the early 20th century.

Fantasia 2000 is therefore a time capsule made by a studio in a state of flux. But it also anticipated a coming century of big-budget, IMAX-powered blockbusters by several years; in 2008, Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister decided to shoot parts of The Dark Knight with an IMAX camera, starting a trend which, via the likes of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen and First Man, led to the Oscar-winning Oppenheimer (the first film to be shot entirely on IMAX stock) and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two (shot on IMAX-approved digital cameras).

In its own, flawed way, Fantasia 2000 succeeded in capturing more than a sliver of the late Walt Disney’s pioneering spirit.

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