Walt and Mickey at Disney World

The eccentric engineer: How Mickey Mouse and ‘Fantasound’ revolutionised film music

Image credit: Kenrick Mills on Unsplash

The story of how mid-1930s’ Mickey Mouse made music with a hundred-piece orchestra and started the ‘Fantasia’ revolution.

The history of sound engineering is intimately tied up with the history of the movies and the desire to make the experience of a film as real as possible, so it’s perhaps not surprising that modern recorded music owes a great debt to a certain fictional mouse.

The mid-1930s were a tough time for Mickey Mouse as the animated star’s popularity began to wane. Disney’s response was to look for a new type of show, a bigger, better cartoon set to classical music, so well recorded that the audience would feel as if the orchestra was there with them. A musical masterpiece where the sound was all around.

The result was ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, set to Paul Dukas’ famous score and recorded with a hundred-piece orchestra at Culver Studios in January 1938. Yet recording an orchestra for the silver screen proved no easy matter. The single tinny speaker behind the traditional movie screen worked fine when the person in the centre of the screen was talking, but in an orchestra sounds come from different parts of the auditorium. Disney’s solution was to make the first movie multi-track recording, placing wooden partitions between orchestra sections to separate the sounds.

Despite this revolutionary idea, the result was not as good as expected. Hindered by wooden baffles, sections drifted out of time with each other, while the lower frequencies leaked from section to section. The entire methodology of recording sound needed rethinking.

Most importantly, costs were mounting up and with the budget now over $125,000, it was clear that ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ would never earn its money back as a short, but would have to be part of a full movie. That movie would become ‘Fantasia’.

The whole recording operation moved to the conductor Leopold Stokowski’s home orchestra in Philadelphia, where Disney set up a nine-channel recording system. This allowed individual recording of each section of the orchestra plus a mix of those recordings and an overall central recording. To prevent sound leakage, each microphone was controlled by an engineer reading the score who would mute their microphone when their section wasn’t playing. Levels were controlled using oscilloscopes. To keep the orchestra in time, one of the tracks was given over to the world’s first 'click track', which acted as a metronome.

Over 42 days, 90 miles [150km] of optical soundtrack was recorded on nitrate film. This was then mixed down at Burbank Studios to four tracks – three for music, special effects and narration, plus one for volume.

The resulting ‘Fantasound’ track was revolutionary, but now the system would have to be, too, because Disney wanted sounds to move around the auditorium. For this, chief audio engineer William E. Garrity and his team created the panoramic potentiometer, or ‘panpot’. The team also invented the tone-operated, gain-adjusting device or ‘togad’, which increased the overall volume during loud sections and quietened it in softer ones.

However, Disney’s problems were not over yet. Fantasound required complete refitting of movie theatres and Disney’s distributor RKO baulked at the idea. Nor did its executives believe a modern audience would sit through a two-hour show that had an intermission. Instead, ‘Fantasia’ was released as a theatrical roadshow in selected theatres, opening on New York’s Broadway in November 1940.

Due to the cost of installing the Fantasound system - and theatre owners’ dislike for the long ‘get-in’ times - ‘Fantasia’ only showed at 13 theatres. Despite running for over a year to full houses and great acclaim, it struggled to make money, largely because of the $85,000 Fantasound set-up cost in each theatre. In the end, Disney broke its loan covenants. With war approaching, the Fantasound experiment came to an end and all but one of the sets of equipment was handed over to the war effort. Only now did RKO relent and take on the distribution of ‘Fantasia’, but cut to 80 minutes for movie theatres and screened in mono.

The ideas behind Fantasound lived on. It had been the first-ever use of a click track in recording and the first simultaneous multi-track recording and overdubbing of orchestral parts. It witnessed the invention of the pan-pot and togad and placed sound at centre stage in a movie for the first time.

‘Fantasia’ became a classic, being re-released many times, but not in stereo again until 1956. Later reissues abandoned the Fantasound track, preferring new recordings. It was only in 1990 that the Fantasound score was restored and remastered for theatrical release.


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