Fantasound: in 1940, the ancestor of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X…


Stereophonic sound didn’t wait for the emergence of Dolby Stereo (1975) or its popularization with the release of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) to make its appearance in movie theaters. In 1940, a sound reproduction technology named Fantasound, specially created for the animated film Fantasia, had already introduced the concept. Here is a look back at this feat.

Installation of a Fantasound system in 1940
A sound engineer installing a set of speakers to reproduce Fantasia’s stereo soundtrack, in 1940. – Creative Commons License

The advent of Fantasound stems from two seemingly contradictory yet indissociable aspirations. It is due to the confluence of two fields: on one side, the popular universe of visual entertainment, on the other, the microcosm of classical music. This association, which seems unusual at first glance, is a precursor to contemporary blockbusters.

A history of motion picture sound

This principle would influence Stanley Kubrick in 1968 for the film 2001, A Space Odyssey. It also foreshadowed, among other things, the future collaboration between George Lucas and John Williams (who would be inspired by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Wagner) for the creation of the soundtrack of Star Wars IV: A New Hope.

Mickey and Stokowski in Fantasia
The scene in Fantasiaduring which Mickey goes on stage to congratulate the conductor Leopold Stokowski – Copyright Walt Disney Productions

To entertain and enhance, to merge the ordinary with complexity, these are the foundations of Fantasound. A philosophy that is partly at the origin of pop culture, and without which the popcorn experience offered by our Dolby Atmos and DTS:X home theater systems would probably not exist today.

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Fantasound, or the meeting between Disney and Stokowski

In 1937, Walt Disney was an undisputed star in the world of animation and was becoming increasingly famous. After having triumphed thanks to Mickey, Donald and company, the artist was preparing to release his version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a global hit in the making. In the summer of 1937, the creator went to Chasen’s, his favorite restaurant in West Hollywood. Alone at his table, he spotted Polish conductor Leopold Stokowski nearby. At the time, this prominent figure of classical music, renowned for his sophisticated and spirited shows, had been conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra for 25 years. The two celebrities vaguely recognized each other and ended up talking.

Chasen's restaurant, near Hollywood
A favorite haunt of Hollywood stars (Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra…), Chasen’s had opened some years earlier upon the advice of director Frank Capra. – Creative Commons License

When Walt Disney mentioned to Stokowski that he had just bought the rights to the symphonic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Paul Dukas) and wanted to use it for a short film, the conductor seized the opportunity: he offered to conduct the recording of the score for free. The project turns out to be very interesting. First of all, it allowed Disney to benefit from Stokowski’s notoriety and technical experience. Secondly, it gave Stokowski the opportunity to subtly break into Hollywood. Disney accepted. Two major achievements were born from their collaboration: the experimental film Fantasia and its stereophonic sound system called Fantasound, which was unheard of at the time for a film shown in theaters.

The genesis of Fantasound

Shortly after the meeting at Chasen’s, Walt Disney began the production of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Stokowski joined him in Los Angeles on January 2, 1938 for the recording of Dukas’ composition. The conductor quickly selected 25 musicians and the music was recorded on January 9 in less than 3 hours. Thrilled by this new experience, Stokowski decided to prolong it. Before leaving Philadelphia, he took the majority of the scores from his classical repertoire with him. This is how he approached Disney with the idea of expanding the project into a feature film. Disney saw the possibility of fulfilling his dream of going beyond entertainment to become a legitimate artist. The project was initiated.

Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra
The Philadelphia Orchestra, onstage with conductor Stokowski at the American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. – Creative Commons license

Soon, Bach (Toccata), Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker Suite), Stravinsky (Rite of Spring), Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony), and Schubert (Ave Maria) were added to Dukas. Originally titled The Concert Feature, the film’s title was changed to Fantasia. In a sort of folie de grandeur, Walt Disney invited countless celebrities, including the writer Thomas Mann, to present the outline of what he felt would be his masterpiece. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright saw it as a waste of time, while others were more optimistic. That’s all Disney needed to get started.

Fantasound, a combination of genius and excess

The partnership between Disney and Stokowski proved fruitful. The two men shared a predisposition for extravagance and the avant-garde. When the project began, Stokowski had already been experimenting with stereophonic sound for several years. He participated in the first dedicated recordings in 1932 and in the long-distance live broadcast of multichannel sound in 1933. Better still, in 1937 he recorded a multi-track soundtrack for the film One Hundred Men and a Girl. His knowledge was invaluable. With Fantasia, Walt Disney sought to create a new experience where the music was just as important as the picture. Disappointed by the limited spectrum and the poor quality of the mono standard of the time, the producer wanted the audience to enjoy an immersive sound experience. He wanted them to feel as if they were attending a real concert from their theater seat.

walt disney steamboat willie
Fueled by the unprecedented success of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ($8 million, the equivalent of $100 million today), Walt Disney was on the verge of becoming a megalomaniac. – Creative Commons license

An insatiable visionary, Disney demanded that Fantasia be both artistically and technically innovative, even if it meant going over the top. From then on, nothing was too good for his new movie. The producer planned to develop new projection and sound diffusion techniques. Technologies such as a new projection format (2.20:1 ratio, ultimately used in 1959 for Sleeping Beauty), stereoscopic 3D, stereophonic sound, broom shadows on the theater walls, and even the diffusion of a scent to illustrate the flower segment (The Nutcracker Suite) were in the running. Among all these experiments, only the Fantasound sound system was kept.

The creation of Fantasound

In May 1939, the recordings (on eight and nine optical tracks) produced by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra were completed. 42 days, 33 microphones dispersed throughout the orchestra and 145km of tape were necessary. Disney then contacted RCA to develop the new stereo system. The goal was to be able to broadcast six sound tracks simultaneously.

Cinema sound formats
Everything you need to know about cinema sound.

To make this idea a reality, the engineers (under the direction of William E. Garity) worked on an immersive audio system that was unprecedented in the cinema industry. To do so, they had to overcome a series of complex challenges. In particular, they had to bypass the limitations of mono sound systems (limited dynamic range, compression, distortion, unwanted noise…). All these obstacles make it impossible to accurately reproduce symphonic music. Disney wanted to use sound effects in parallel with the orchestral recording, so the challenge was to create a system that simultaneously integrated several audio sources.

Fantasia recording
A team of Disney engineers in the basement of the Philadelphia Orchestra, working to record one of the musical pieces of Fantasia in 1939. – Creative Commons license

Walt Disney studios finally developed a multichannel sound process, the well-known Fantasound. This innovative process included surround sound and was based on a specific speaker configuration (front, side, rear, and ceiling speakers…). This painstaking setup allowed the sound to travel in multiple directions and to rigorously isolate the instruments, with precise volume control of the instruments in the dynamic range. A very similar layout to that found in modern home theater systems.

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To this end, music, dialogue and sound effects each had a dedicated track for the first time, rather than the previous single track. Only three tracks (and a fourth control track) out of the original eight were actually kept in the mix. The control track was used to automatically adjust the volume level of the three main tracks (music, voice, effects). During projection, the four tracks printed on the 35mm film were synchronized to a separate Technicolor film.

Walt Disney, Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski
From left to right: Walt Disney, music critic Deems Taylor and conductor Leopold Stokowski during the production of Fantasia in 1939. – Creative Commons license

In order to test Fantasound installations in theaters, the Disney studio acquired eight Model 200B oscillators from the duo composed of William Hewlett and David Packard, making Mickey’s company one of Hewlett-Packard’s first customers.

Fantasound’s innovations

Thanks to such breakthroughs, the viewer could feel the action and experience the story of the film like never before. Sound traveled from one side of the screen to the other to accompany the movements of a protagonist. A revolution made possible by a three-circuit differential junction network, called a “pan pot” (for panoramic potentiometer).

Promotional poster of Fantasia from 1963
A promotional poster of Fantasia from 1963 when the movie was released in SuperScope (2.35:1).

The Fantasound method of recording and playing tracks opened up new possibilities. The result was an unprecedented flexibility. The speakers were able to reproduce the natural distribution of the music. The left half of the orchestra could be heard on the speakers to the left of the stage. The right half of the musical group on the speakers to the right of the stage, and so on. In addition, center speakers provided a depth or close-up effect in the soundstage. For example, to emphasize the solo instruments. Or to highlight any other element likely to occupy the foreground (protagonist, sound effects…). A concept that would become a milestone and inspire many modern technologies. Of course, among the latter are those developed by Dolby (Dolby Digital, Dolby Atmos…).

A contemporary movie theater
The experience offered by Fantasound in 1940 paved the way for modern movie theaters.

However, the Fantasound system, in addition to being expensive, required very precise logistics. Several sound engineers and technicians had to be present at each show. It even implied a very precise (and limited) placement of the audience members in order for them to fully benefit from it. These restrictions thwarted Walt Disney’s ambitions. As it was too expensive to distribute, the movie was only shown in a handful of American theaters. Among the cities that were able to enjoy this brief tour were New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.

Immersive cinema sound

Fantasound also required that some of the seats be removed in order to optimally position the speakers. Something that was difficult to consider at a time when theaters only had a single speaker installed behind the screen. In 2009, James Cameron would be confronted with a similar problem regarding the 3D projection of his movie Avatar.

The rise and fall of Fantasound

As well as being ahead of its time (possibly too far ahead), Fantasound took on gigantic proportions. So much so that it represented almost a quarter of Fantasia’s budget ($2.2 million). A huge sum at the time. Unfortunately, the movie’s success was not on par with the technical feat and its impact was limited. Perfectionist to the extreme during the creation of the film, Walt Disney had to face the fact that his dream would not come true.

Despite significant critical acclaim, audiences didn’t flock to theaters, as they were put off by Fantasia’s newfangledness. It would take re-releases for viewers to rediscover and warm to the feature film (in the 50s, 60s and 90s). Moreover, the war raging in Europe considerably affected the plans of the Disney studios. Another setback: once RKO was authorized to distribute Fantasiain 1941, it hastened to remix the soundtrack in mono. Thinking only of limiting the film’s exploitation expenses, the distributor sabotaged Walt Disney’s vision.

Broadway-like theater
A contemporary view of the inside of a movie theater, similar to those found on Broadway Avenue in Manhattan (New York).

For Fantasia’s premiere on November 13, 1940 in New York (Broadway Theatre) 36 speakers were placed behind the screen. Another 54 speakers were placed around the orchestra seats and the balcony. The select few that attended the premiere described a gripping experience. And for good reason: the sound was much more powerful and elaborate than with conventional movies. This novelty was all the more impressive given that sound films had only been shown in theaters for a little over a decade.

Depending on the means of the cinemas and theaters projecting the movie, between 30 and 90 speakers were implemented. Placed behind the screen, around the edges of the hall and on the ceiling, they required an average expenditure of $85,000 ($1.5 million today). Each time, the installation involves a precise configuration carried out by Disney’s engineers. A meticulous operation that unfortunately did not provide exactly the same experience from one screening to the next. With such expenses, Fantasia did not make a profit upon initial release.

Walt Disney, Fantasia premiere
Walt Disney and his wife Lillian (foreground) in 1940 during the premiere of Fantasia at the Broadway Theatre in New York. – Creative Commons license

This flop that didn’t stop Walt Disney, sound engineer William Garity, mixer John N.A. Hawkins and the RCA manufacturing Company from winning an Academy’s Honorary Award in 1942 for their use of sound in motion pictures. Thanks to Fantasound, Fantasia was also the first commercial movie to be released with several soundtracks (four).

Fantasound’s legacy

Disney was the spearhead of a revolution, well before the golden age of stereo sound. A technical and artistic anomaly, almost futuristic for the time, whose splendor was only matched by its ephemerality. It was not until the spectacular release of Star Wars (1977) that it re-emerged.

Signs for the release of Fantasia
The resources deployed by Disney in 1940 to promote Fantasia are worthy of James Cameron’s blockbusters.

Although very quickly forgotten, the innovation introduced by Disney and its teams thanks to the Fantasound is immense. It would have an extraordinary influence on sound reproduction in cinema. The audio concept implemented in Fantasia is still used today in the audio systems of movie theaters (IMAX, etc.). It even continues to be used by individuals equipped with Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Atmos or DTS:X compatible home theaters.

Famous for their exemplary standards in sound and picture quality, THX labels are developed by George Lucas’ eponymous company.

Now a lot more sophisticated and easy to set up, the speaker configurations are still the same. Moreover, a few durable inventions introduced during the production of Fantasound can still be seen today. An example is the click track used in recording studios (a synchronization tool). Not forgetting the overdubbing of the orchestra pieces, and simultaneous multi-track recording.

The Jungle Book reboot end credits
A screenshot of the end credits of The Jungle Book (2016), where you can see the Fantasound logo. – Copyright Disney Enterprises

In 2016, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) stated that he rigorously followed the Fantasound formula to develop the audio experience for his film The Jungle Book. The entire mix of the Dolby Atmos track in the feature film is based on the process imagined by Disney and RCA for Fantasia. Moreover, the Fantasound logo appears in the end credits.

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The speakers in the Elipson Infinite range offer a comprehensive solution for home theater integration. The Elipson Infinite 8 and 14 speakers can be mounted on a wall or built into a partition, as can the Elipson Infinite S12 passive subwoofer.The Elipson Infinite INF6 and Elipson Infinite INF8 are designed for in-ceiling installations for a Dolby Atmos, DTS:X or Auro 3D reproduction.

There is no doubt that the momentum created by Walt Disney’s stereophonic system is ongoing. This technique, conceived by engineer William E. Garity and mixer John N.A. Hawkins, continues to influence today and current surround sound reproduction systems are proof of this. Technologies whose sensory immersion continually expands the realm of possibilities.

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Après quelques années dans la presse ciné (La Septième Obsession, L’E.F.…), j’ai rejoint l’équipe de Son-Vidé en 2021. Mordu de musique (rock, soul, jazz…) et de septième art (Herzog, Kubrick, P.T. Anderson…), je découvre l’univers de la hi-fi et du home-cinéma entre curiosité et fascination. En attendant de trouver la place pour profiter de mes vinyles (Zappa, Talking Heads…), je peux compter sur mes enceintes Sonos One. L’occasion d’explorer les plateformes de musique dématérialisée, à la croisée souvent de PJ Harvey et Coltrane.


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