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Monday, June 23, 2014

Fantasia’s Rite of Spring as a “Scientific Document”

Fantasia’s Rite of Spring as a “Scientific Document”
         -Edwin Hubble, Julian Huxley, and the Fusion of Science and Art

“The things we show will be beautiful to look at,” Walt Disney would say, “we can draw that stuff and it’s better than a photograph.” In the Rite of Spring sequence from Fantasia (1940), Disney artists would paint a view no photograph had yet to capture: the earth as seen from outer space. As historian John Culhane comments, “No human being had seen this sight in 1940, but Walt Disney was determined to put it accurately on the screen.”
         Rite of Spring was inspired by the ballet of the same name (also known as Le Sacre du printemps), composed by Igor Stravinsky. The piece’s original debut in Paris in 1913 would result in an uneasy response from the crowd, so initially powerful and groundbreaking was the music on the audience of the time, it was “perhaps the greatest scandal in the history of twentieth century music,” as Culhane states. Walt Disney took a keen liking to it after being introduced to such by Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski. It was soon agreed to set the piece to visuals of “a prehistoric theme,” of both the earth and life upon it in their earliest stages of existence, as Stravinsky himself would say, “to express primitive life.”
         From the first frame as we glimpse the faint stars in a seemingly black and endless void of space, the wonders of science are made instantly accessible. Nebulae and dinosaurs are no longer limited to museum halls and bookshelves when the Disney artists bring their imagination to these subjects.
         Commenting on the sequence, Disney artist John Hubley would write, “From the outset, Rite of Spring was conceived as a scientific document…as though the studio had sent an expedition back to earth six million years ago.” In this most unique of sequences from Fantasia, Disney would fuse science and art, what Stokowski would describe as “imagination based on facts.” Rite of Spring embraced the groundbreaking discoveries of modern science like no other had done before. In essence, the sequence would be an artistic impression of evolution.

Research and accuracy were the integral components of Rite of Spring. Great care would need to be taken to depict dinosaurs and swirling nebulae onscreen. Hubley would write, “So intense became this paleontological hunger that contact with museums and Ph.D.’s was established.” Two such contacts were the now legendary scientists, Julian Huxley (1887-1975) and Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). The former athletic opponents in their coinciding days at Oxford University (Hubble a Rhodes Scholar, Huxley a Zoological Fellow) would meet again at the Walt Disney Studio.
Walt Disney, Edwin Hubble, and Julian Huxley at the Disney Studio

Edwin Hubble, one of history’s great astronomers, is credited with the discovery that the universe is expanding, a revelation with as many philosophical implications as scientific. Both Walt Disney and Hubble would spend core years of their childhood on farms in Missouri, Hubble near the town of Marshfield in the south, Walt near Marceline some two hundred miles to the north. In this region, as Hubble biographer Gale E. Christianson states, “the most favored of the fruit crops was apples, whose millions of spring blossoms covered the orchard grounds like giant, perfumed quilts…” This rather poetic description not only emulates the type of scene visualized in Disney’s own film Johnny Appleseed from Melody Time (1948), but it also very much reflects Walt’s own nostalgic remembrance for the region. As he would say, “It was a beautiful farm…it had two orchards, one called the old, one called the new. One variety was called Wolf River apples, and they were so big that people came from miles around to see them.” Though Hubble’s residence in the region predated Disney’s by over a decade, they experienced similar times as young boys let loose in a playground of the imagination. Both would come to revel in their existence in such a place, and both would ultimately find such cut short, as their families packed up and moved on.
         Though this similarity of origin is of interest, it was more than likely not discussed when the two giants met. It does however make a fine case for the positive effects of a wholesome Midwestern upbringing. In either’s own way, both Disney and Hubble were more or less products of the American heartland. When they did meet and tour the Studio, “a pensive Disney explained that he was trying to advance from simple cartoons and dialogue to a higher art form.”

Edwin Hubble
          As a career astronomer at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, Hubble and his wife Grace were active members of the Los Angeles elite social scene, rubbing shoulders with famed celebrities of film, literature, and art. Such acquaintances included the likes of Leopold Stokowski and Igor Stravinsky. Also of sub-interest was Hubble’s friendship with writer Aldous Huxley, brother of noted biologist Julian. In Aldous, Hubble had “finally met his physical and intellectual equal,” and together they were “the reformed Missourian and scion of English high culture.” In the mid-1940’s, Aldous found himself at the Disney Studio, developing a treatment for Alice in Wonderland (1951). Walt would eventually reject his script treatments, part of a long and drawn out development of the story. Connections abound as was common in the collaborative and social mecca of Hollywood.
          After visiting the Studio, and volunteering data, Hubble would report that, “Mr. Disney’s aesthetic intuition has been prophetically accurate.” In Rite of Spring’s opening sequence, space was depicted in a special effects extravaganza. As historian Brian Sibley would explain:
Walt had wanted to create the impression of endless space, but it would have been impossible to animate the number of stars, so the department had to come up with something clever. Their solution: a revolving model of the earth, using a thirty Watt Mazda light globe, eighteen inches in diameter, and painted red, which was suspended at the end of a twenty foot long room. Behind the model earth was a dark screen that was punctuated with small holes that were illuminated from behind. A thirty-five mm camera then took what was referred to as a ‘million mile truck’ through space and an infinity of stars towards the newborn earth.
For a more in-depth study of the intricate effects in this sequence, be to sure to see John Canemaker’s “The Lost Notebook.”

Julian Huxley was born the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a noted evolutionary biologist in his own right. Julian would carry this study into the twentieth century, expanding on the original discoveries of Charles Darwin. As scientist Massimo Pigliucci explains, “Huxley was well known and appreciated as a science popularizer.” This description seems Taylor-made for a scientific consultant on a Disney picture. Of course, Huxley was also “a first rate scholar in his own right… There are several other people’s lifetimes packed into what Julian Huxley was able to do in his eighty-seven years of existence.” The same could be said perhaps for Walt Disney’s mere sixty-five years.

Julian Huxley
Photo Source: http://en.wikipedia.org 

The "Huxleyranodon" - A Caricature by an unknown Disney Artist
Image Source: "Fantasia" by John Culhane http://www.amazon.com

       Scientifically, Rite of Spring came in a period of great growth in the study of evolution, studies which were about to expand even more, as genetics and the secrets of DNA began to avail themselves. Huxley himself would say in his seminal work from 1942, “Evolution: The Modern Synthesis,” “a study of the effects of genes during development is as essential for an understanding of evolution as are mutation and that of selection… The time is ripe for a rapid advance in our study of evolution.” Rite of Spring, whose production somewhat paralleled the writing of Huxley’s book, would bring evolution to the people in a way yet unseen.

         Time magazine would report, “The New York Academy of Science asked for a private showing of Rite of Spring because they thought its dinosaurs better science than whole museum loads of fossils and taxidermy.” As Walt did with classical music in all of Fantasia, so too would he allow the intricacies of science to be readily accessible and impressionable in Rite of Spring. One young mind would find a strong impression from such upon Fantasia’s release in 1940, renowned biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002).  He actively recalls seeing Fantasia as a five year old, “the dinosaurs of Disney’s Fantasia panting to their deaths across a desiccating landscape to the tune of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.” Gould would even inscribe the dedication to his collection of essays from 1977, “Ever Since Darwin” with, “For my father, who took me to see the Tyrannosaurus when I was five.” Gould was a gifted writer, and now and then even the realms of Disney would meet the subject of his pen (stay tuned to this blog for future writings regarding such). If such a noted scientist as Gould can explicitly trace his career aspirations to Rite of Spring, we can only think of countless more scientists of all kinds, from paleontologists to astronomers, who have likewise been influenced. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Rite of Spring, a deep practical influence on future generations. There is more to the timelessness of Disney cinema than pure narrative or fairy tale inspiration.
Stephen Jay Gould

Photo Source: http://www.nytimes.com
Brian Sibley would comment, “The science is brought to life in a way that no textbook could possibly do, which is why the Rite of Spring is often subsequently shown in science classrooms.” Disney is by no means intending to flaunt ideology or morality with such a presentation as Rite of Spring. As Gould would write, “If nature is nonmoral, then evolution cannot teach any ethical theory at all. The assumption that it can has abetted a panoply of social evils that ideologies falsely read into nature from their beliefs…” It is apt that such a statement comes from a scientist originally inspired by Rite of Spring. Continuing with Gould, if “nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms,” then Rite of Spring is pure artistic expression, art for art’s sake.
The filmmakers of Fantasia, however, were certainly conscious of the delicate socio-political arena they were entering when evolution is involved. John Culhane thoroughly explains:
Disney had originally intended to carry his screen story beyond the death of the dinosaurs, through “The Age of Mammals and the First Men” to “Fire and the Triumph of Man.” But the fundamentalists, according to John Hubley, threatened to make trouble for Fantasia if Walt connected evolution with human beings. Disney thereupon decided that Fantasia might have enough trouble getting accepted by the general public- as indeed it did- without courting a creationist boycott.
It seems Rite of Spring might have evoked Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in more than just its depictions of space, but also that of prehistoric humans.  
Did Walt Disney have a social or ethical agenda with Rite of Spring or Fantasia as a whole? More than likely the answer is no. He did however, have a strong artistic agenda. “In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of color, sound, and motion,” Walt wrote in the Fantasia program, “Fantasia represents our most exciting adventure.” Indeed with Rite of Spring, such an adventure was expeditionary, a journey deep into the past and up into the heavens via the factual wonders of scientific discovery.
Walt Disney was not a scientist. He would describe his vision for Rite of Spring in more layman’s terms, “We could base it on the ‘dog eat dog’ idea all the way through. We could have a battle and build it to a grand climax. It is the fight for life.” He would see the narrative possibilities within things, as he does here. But Walt, like many scientists, was also a visionary, with his mind always thinking to the future. As Pigliucci explains of Julian Huxley, “it is fascinating to experience how modern Huxley’s thinking was…” So too was the case with Walt. And indeed, in the ensuing decades to come, science and technology would return to the realms of Disney cinema, whether in  the True-Life Adventures, or the space films of the 1950’s. Rite of Spring, however, remains the wholly artistic piece in its presentation. The practical inspiration would come as a product of the film. Rite of Spring does not spew scientific fact in an expository manner; rather it adapts them for artistic expression.
Hubble Space Telescope Image

On November 3, 1995, the New York Times reported that, “The dramatic new scenes captured by the Hubble Space Telescope [named in honor of Edwin Hubble] might be called Dawn of Creation.” The article further describes such images in a rather Disney-esque fashion, “These remarkable views of a kind of fantasyland of powerful cosmic forces…” Over fifty years before such images were glimpsed, the Disney artists were creating their own. Spurred on by the music of Stravinsky, and studies of those like Hubble and Huxley, they gifted many a viewer with their first view of the cosmos, their first view of our little planet in the vastness of space. Today, with the gifts of the Hubble Space Telescope, we can almost take for granted such a view. But no one could have in 1940, when such a thing had never been gifted before. Yet another of many gifts which we must thank Walt Disney and his artists for. “We’ve always wanted to do something like this in a symphony,” Walt would say, “where we can let nature be something.”

-Canemaker, John, and Herman Schultheis. The Lost Notebooks: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Walt Disney Family Foundation, 2014. Print.
-Christianson, Gale E. Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1995. Print.
-Culhane, John. Walt Disney's Fantasia. New York: Abradale/H.N. Abrams, 1987. Print.
-Devorkin, David, and Robert W. Smith. Hubble: Imaging Space and Time. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2013. Print.
- Fantasia. Dir. Ben Sharpsteen. Perf. Brian Sibley, Audio Commentary. Walt Disney Studio, 1940. DVD.
-Gould, Stephen Jay. Ever since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. New York: Norton, 1979. Print.
-Gould, Stephen Jay. "Nonmoral Nature." Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: Norton, 1984. 32-45. Print.
-Hubley, John. "Rite of Spring a Jaunt 6,000,000 Years Back." Bulletin 15 Nov. 1940: n. pag. Walt Disney Archives.
-Huxley, Julian. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.
-Sampson, Wade. "The Disney Alice in Wonderlands That Never Were." Mouse Planet. N.p., 30 June 2010. Web. 16 June 2014. <http://www.mouseplanet.com/9308/The_Disney_Alice_in_Wonderlands_That_Never_Were_>.
-Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York, NY: Hyperion, 1994. Print.


  1. Amazed no one has commented on this fantastic account of one of the most amazing sequences of animation ever made. As a child the highlight of each year was going to see Fantasia which was shown each year around that time at one movie house in London.
    I was aware of how Disney went for accuracy but it was news to me that Julian Huxley was involved. The book that put me on a career path to biology was the "Science of Life" written by Huxley, HG and GP Wells. This described in a way that made it exciting how life evolved and so if it were reprinted now the perfect addition would be to include a sleeve with the Rites of Spring in it. On reflection why be mean and not include the whole film.

    Have shown Fantasia to children of varying ages and initially they take some time to get use to the slowness of scene changes compared to modern electronic animation which is technically wonderful but does not give children (or adults) time to actually absorb what is on display. Sure Fantasia will last and still be viewed for the rest of human evolution. Lets hope that if a final chapter is added it shows a world in harmony and peace, with rhinos, and gorillas in forests and whales in the sea. Not to forget the giraffe. My sons first saw these in push chairs before they could walk and their eyes just lit up and their necks curved in wonder at these wonderful gentle creatures looked down on them and they actually speechless and made a happy almost moaning sound in wonder.

    Philip Monro ((born 1946)

    So one complaint about Fantasia: There were no Giraffes. looked down ris th uns for t f any mfor the they s m,ation mimation animannpared to schene hFantasia no g m that ws to me that

  2. The alice project ._. I understand now.