Center for Visual Music
Fischinger at Disney, or Oskar in the Mousetrap
by William Moritz, 1977
The Disney Corporation's official account of the origins and making of Fantasia has appeared many times, but the name of Oskar Fischinger does not figure large in any of them. It should have. Oskar Fischinger was a year older than Walt Disney. Even before sound film became available, Oskar synchronized his abstract films to phonograph records and live musical accompaniments, because he found that the analogy with music (i.e., abstract noise, a well-developed and widely-accepted non-objective art form) helped audiences to grasp and accept the nature and meaning of his "universal," absolute imagery. Oskar never meant to illustrate music, and often screened his "sound" films silently for already sympathetic audiences.
Fischinger enjoyed a moderate international renown, with his black-and-white Studies playing as shorts with features from Uruguay to Japan, and cited at film festivals in Brussels and Venice. By 1935 Oskar had made at least 30 abstract animated shorts, and he stated as his New Year's wish in the Berlin trade paper Film Kurier that he wanted most to create an animated feature composed entirely of non-objective imagery and diverse music (he had used jazz, toyed with experimental electronic music and his own synthetic drawn soundtracks as well as classical music). The Nazi government, however, banned abstract art as degenerate, and luckily Paramount arranged for him to come to America. Unfortunately he spoke no English so he encountered tremendous, frustrating difficulties in his U.S. studio jobs. In April 1938 he drove to Detroit and New York seeking backing for a feature-length animated film based on Dvorak's New World Symphony, which he hoped to be able to present at the 1939 World's Fair, but he didn't get enough funding.
Oskar returned to Hollywood November 1938, when his agent arranged a job for him at Disney. What a rude shock awaited him! Already in Berlin, Oskar had tried to buy rights to some of Leopold Stokowski's grand orchestral arrangements of Bach. When Fischinger found that Stokowski was his co-worker at Paramount, he once again proposed a series of shorts or an anthology feature. Stokowski was initially quite receptive and wrote Oskar (October 9, 1936, on Paramount stationery), "I should be very happy if we could work together, you doing what is seen, I doing what is heard." Oskar replied with such elaborate ideas as (November 15, 1936, in German): "If you are here at Christmas, I'd like to make a full-length shot of you in such a way that the visual part of the film could begin with you conducting the first few bars of the music, and then the eyes of the viewer would glide with a movement of your hands off into endless space where the rest of the visuals would unfold." Nevertheless, after several conferences, Stokowski decided that the project would be too expensive and complex for Oskar to animate alone, and suggested that they seek support from a major studio, perhaps Disney. Oskar held little hope for satisfactory help from Hollywood, and furthermore knew from gossip that Disney, despite his successes, was under severe strain, borrowed and mortgaged to the hilt. But now Oskar's nightmare fears turned real when he arrived at Disney Studios to find that while Stokowski was being honored as Disney's major collaborator on "The Concert Feature," while Oskar was being hired for $60-per week  (Paramount had paid him $250) as a "Motion picture cartoon effects animator." Oskar accepted the job since work was scarce and he had four children to support, but for him the Disney episode proved so grim that he usually avoided talking about it. Once did he write a friend this note:
I worked on this film for nine months, then through some 'behind the back' talks and intrigue (something very big at the Disney Studios) I was demoted to an entirely different department, and three months later I left Disney again, agreeing to call off the contract. The film "Toccata and Fugue by Bach" is really not my work, though my work may be present at some points; rather it is the most inartistic product of a factory. Many people worked on it, and whenever I put out an idea or suggestion for this film, it was immediately cut to pieces and killed, or often it took two, three or more months until a suggestion took hold in the minds of some people connected with it who had their say. One thing I definitely found out: that no true work of art can be made with that procedure used in the Disney Studio.
At first, Fischinger threw himself whole-heartedly and good-naturedly into the project. He gave prints of his films to be screened weekly for the entire Disney staff, so his influence was pervasive (spilling over onto other films like Dumbo, the South American films, and Pinocchio, for which Oskar actually animated the magic wand of the Blue Fairy). In the mimeographed transcript of the story meeting for February 28, 1939, Walt Disney says, "Everything that has been done in the past on this kind of stuff has been cubes, and different shapes moving around to the music. It has been fascinating. From the experience we have had here with our crowd -- they went crazy about it. If we can go a little further here and get some clever designs, the thing will be a great hit. I would like to see it sort of near-abstract, as they call it -- not pure. And new."
On January 24, 1939, Walt
says, "You should give something that the audience will recognize. I don't think
the average audience will fully appreciate the abstract; but I may be all wrong..."
and Stokowski chimes in: "Yes, they may be way ahead of us." Then Disney asks,
"What will Bach-lovers think of this?" and Stokowski replies, "They will be
against it, I think; but the public will love it." to which Walt notes, " Well,
the general idea here looks good to me. I only wonder if we're going a little
too gypsy in the color..."
On February 28, Walt declares, "If we can get a little connection behind this, the public will take to it. It would be better than some wild abstraction that you can't get anything out of at all. Right there is where the music sounds most like an organ, so the public decides it represents an organ!" Then: "Do you think we ought to have pictures in mind through this thing? Then we won't get a conglomerate mess -- an abstraction." And on June 5, 1939 Walt proclaims: "There's a theory I go on that an audience is always thrilled with something new, but fire too many new things at them and they become restless."
Because his English was still weak, Fischinger never spoke up during these story conferences (neither did Danish artist Kay Nielsen), and further became the butt of endless practical jokes on the part of his jealous co-workers. Some fun-loving boys of the Disney staff, unwilling to deal maturely with the plight of a refugee artist, pinned a swastika on Oskar's office door September 1, 1939, the day Nazi armies invaded Poland. Oskar applied for a release from his contract and after two months red tape, terminated his employment at Disney, October 31, 1939, Halloween.
Fischinger kept about 100 of his sketches and drawings for the Bach "Fugue," including some lovely pastels showing melting meanders and supple lozenges much as they appear in the final Fantasia, as well as half-a-dozen beautiful images that were probably never realized on film.
The most extensive unit involves twelve tempera and 60 pencil drawings (with numerical motion-phase breakdowns) that detail the sequence in which alternating left-and-right "waves" surge toward the viewer. While this turned out to be one of the more impressive moments in the Disney film, a comparison with Oskar's original sketches shows how much more powerful, subtle and imaginative the sequence might have been if Oskar's intentions had been honored: with his choice of monochromatic turquoise and celadon hues for the (somewhat flatter) wave motion overlaid with scintillating geometric figures in browns, Chinese red, and graduated yellow oranges, all of the elements flowing cogently and vigorously out of each other, as opposed to the simplified Disney image of fat, melon-ribbed waves slightly off-balance in shades of flagrant purple distractingly at contrast in "realism" to the (needlessly) "clouded sky" behind. Much of Oskar's work seems entirely lost. After looking at some of Oskar's sketches (August 21, 1939), Disney comments, "I think the contrast of black and white, and then a little color coming in, would stand out" -- but no such effect reached the final Fantasia. Evidently some of Oskar's own animation was filmed at least in the pencil-test stage, since after viewing some material on a moviola Disney comments (August 21, 1939) "Oskar has a pulsing effect in his test."
At least Oskar had a few of the last laughs in the matter. After leaving the Disney Studios, he devised a set of seven superb collages, among his most charming and highly prized works, showing Mickey and Minnie Mouse (cut from comic books) "reacting" to reproductions of abstract paintings by Kandinsky and Bauer (cut from a 1938 Guggenheim Museum catalogue). And years later, when Disney made the documentary Tomorrow the Moon they inadvertently honored Oskar by using a clip of his pioneer special effects of the rocket launching from Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond, made a quarter of a century earlier.
Footnote added by CVM, 2006
(1) Moritz wrote later that this number was $68 per week
First published in Millimeter (February 1977), Vol 5:2
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