Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jamming the Soundtrack: Fantasia’s Intermission

Fantasia was conceived as a concert; indeed, its working title was The Concert Feature. Concerts of classical music had, and still do have, intermissions. It follows then that The Concert Feature had to have one as well.

But Disney conceived of his intermission as more than just a break in the program where people could stretch their legs, go to the restroom, or chat with companions. He also provided a film segment that played the role of intermission. This comes between the fourth and fifth musical selections on the DVD. When Fantasia was first shown in theatres it came, I presume, after the actual break, which would have been at the same point in the program.

People are sitting in their seats, the curtain opens, and the film rolls. What the audience sees is pretty much what they saw at the beginning: an empty stage with a podium, music stands, and risers. Gradually, as at the beginning, musicians enter and take their places. There’s a bit of tuning up, and then things become quite different.

Before Deems Taylor appears, and certainly before Stokowski mounts the podium, a bass player sets a riff, plucking the strings rather than bowing them:

Fant Inter 1, bass

He’s quickly joined by a clarinetist and a violinist:

Fant Inter 2 clarinet fiddle

Pretty soon most of the orchestra’s merrily riffing away, playing a little swing music, the popular music of the day.

Disney’s now waltzed into one the standard tropes of films and cartoons from the 30s into the 50s, the tension between classical and popular music. Any number of cartoons and live action films were built on this conflict. Fantasia, of course, is grounded in it, if only obliquely. The music, except for this little bit, is classical. But the film medium itself is popular; the notion of film as high art was a bit in the future.

Fant Inter 3 taylor

The music’s still riffing along as Deems Taylor walks on stage. But, as musicians notice him, they stop playing, all but our riff-happy clarinetist. Taylor mutters “Oh yeah”, gives a little cough, and that’s the end of, well, intermission riff.

But Taylor doesn’t go right into the next selection, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. He has a little interlude of his own prepared. Observing that “every beautiful sound also creates an equally beautiful picture”, he introduces the sound track:

Fant Inter 4 sound track

The sound track sidles in from the left, needing a bit of coaxing, and takes position at the center of the screen, scintillating softly away. Taylor asks him to make a sound, and he does, producing a so-called “Bronx cheer”, with appropriate visuals.

Not quite what Taylor had in mind.

But, an more to the point, just what are ‘appropriate visuals’? That’s THE question about the whole film, no? Each segment consists of iamges that are said to be appropriate to the music. There’s no claim that those images are uniquely appropriate. In some cases other possibilities are explicitly mentioned, as in the introductions to the Nutcracker Suite and the Rite of Spring. But this intermission segment is different. Disney isn’t presenting whole compositions, just the sounds of individual instruments, in order: harp, violin, flute, trumpet, bassoon, and percussion.

The notion here is that the images we’re seeing ARE, in some sense, also the sounds we’re hearing. There’s no pretense of science about this, as though we’re being let in or a Deep Mystery. It’s all done with a bit of humor. Thus the trumpet cracks a high note (a well-known hazard of the trade) and the percussionist can’t help but break into a swing solo on trap set, another intrusion of pop music into the classical temple. But we ARE told that the images we’re seeing are somehow intrinsically the expression of the sounds we’re hearing.

And I for one find the demonstration a plausible one. Consider these three frames:

Fant Inter 5 harp 1

Fant Inter 6 harp 2

Fant Inter 7 harp 3

These are all from the segment given to one of the instruments I’ve listed above. Which one? Similarly, these three frames are from the segment for a different instrument:

Fant Inter 8 perc 1

Fant Inter 9 perc 2

Fant Inter 10 perc 3

Again, which of the six is it?

I’d be enormously interested in knowing how people make the identifications. While I don’t expect that everyone would get them correct, I would expect that, in a large enough population, correct answers would be above chance. I’d further expect that, among the wrong answers, there’d be some pattern. That is, that when people make the wrong identification for the first three, that those mistaken identifications aren’t evenly distributed over the other five possibilities. They’re going to be biased toward a subset of those five. And the same with the second three.

Now, let’s make the identification task a bit easier. One of those sets is from the percussion segment and the other is from the harp segment. Which is which?

I’d expect a high percentage of correct answers on that one. Further, if we worked through the whole set of six, forming all possible pairs, I’d expect a high percentage of correct answers in all cases. Whether or not the percentage would be the same for all pairs, I don’t know. But if it’s not the same, well, maybe I’d be interested in that too.

[In fact, I’d prefer to run the trials with actual animated segments, minus the sound tracks. But that’s a different matter.]

What I’m suggesting, of course, is that there are systemic correlations between the qualities of sounds and the qualities of the images Disney’s animators used to express those sounds. Where do those correlations come from? What’s their basis?

Beats me.

In the case of the two sets of frames we have here, there are some obvious differences between the two sets. The first set consists of smooth curves against cool background colors (blue and blue-green) while the second set consists of angular lines against warm backgrounds (reds). The first set of patterns seems somehow looser than the second set, nor are they quite so symmetrical (look at the third frame).

There ARE systematic differences between these sets of frames. As there are throughout the six segments. But where they come from and how they’re related to sound, that’s a mystery. And THAT’s the mystery that’s at the heart of Fantasia. For each segment, the sound and the images DO GO TOGETHER.

That’s what this medium, animation, is about, the correlation between image and sound. Yes, animation existed in the days of silent films, and some of it was brilliant (Winsor McCay for example). But it didn’t take off until Disney had the idea of synching the images to music on the sound track. That brilliant stunt had people lined up around the block for weeks waiting to see Steamboat Willie. That’s what made Disney’s little two-bit operation into a major force in the entertainment industry and the art form, animation, into a major force, not only in popular culture, but in culture at large.

While Fantasia, in the large, is about the world, human and non-human, from very small to very large, in this one little segment it’s about the mind. For it’s the mind that puts image and sound together thereby presenting the world. This little segment is thus the toy in the Cracker Jacks box, the key to the treasure, and it’s hidden in plain sight, right in the middle of the film.

* * * * *

Oh, you got it, the first three frames are from the harp segment, the last three from the percussion segment.

No comments:

Post a Comment