ANIMATION ANECDOTES
February 11, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

Disney Animation in IMAX

Suspended Animation #358

The Disney Company experimented with re-presenting some of their recent films on a mammoth theater screen using one of the most technologically advanced theater systems in the world.

IMAX is an enormous motion picture film format that has the capacity to record and display images of far greater size and resolution than most conventional film systems. The result is a larger, clearer picture that immerses an audience into the film experience.

Disney’s Fantasia 2000 (2000) was initially released for IMAX screens for a limited four week engagement. Following its record breaking success, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994) were re-formatted and re-released in this same massive screen format two years later in 2002.

Disney producer Don Hahn stated, “There’s just a visceral response to movies when you see them projected on a really big screen. Since The Lion King was digitally archived, it was really a digital movie when we made it. We were able to take out the old data from each shot in the movie, and there’s probably 1500 shots in the movie, and blow it up to the resolution for IMAX. What you have is a really pristine, clear, digitally enlarged image up on the IMAX screen.

“Well, you feel like you’re inside the movie. You feel like you’re not watching it once removed, but the film actually fills your field of vision. And because of that, I think it’s incredibly involving emotionally. You’re able to feel like you’re there in the midst of these characters fighting out their problems and victories.”

For Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, the Walt Disney Company pulled each scene off the shelf that meant in this digital age, basically a CD with data on it. The data went into a film printer that printed a new fifteen perforation 70mm IMAX frame. The disc was printed from digital elements so there were no problems with color or scratches like a regular film negative.

However, occasionally there were challenges with distortion when an image was enlarged. The Disney Company spent over a year enhancing the image and refining character faces, backgrounds, and special effects, in order to let the film shine as brightly on the giant screen as it did in the audience’s imagination. In fact, some of those beloved memories became even more striking in a larger format.

Don Hahn enthused, “The wildebeest stampede would be one of them. There are moments elsewhere that play better when you open up the camera and you have, for example, Mufasa and Simba sitting on top of Pride Rock looking at the sunrise. And then, of course, my favorite sequence in IMAX is when Mufasa’s ghost shows up. That’s a stunning scene in IMAX. It came out pretty cool in the regular cinema, but to see a six-story tall apparition coming at you is very moving.”

For the IMAX release of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney Company decided to animate the song Human Again written by the award-winning song writing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that was composed when the original film was in production.

As producer Don Hahn remembered the story, he was sitting around and joking with directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale about a special edition of a film that had been recently released with additional material. “Kirk jokingly suggested, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to do a special edition of Beauty with Human Again or new material in it?’

“When the head of Feature Animation said he thought it was a great idea, we stopped joking and began thinking about how we could actually do it. We had storyboarded the sequence for the original production, but completely reworked it for this special edition of the film.”

Although the song had been cut from the animated feature, it had been reinstated for Disney’s theatrical Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast and received a strong positive audience reaction.

In the special re-release, after the familiar Something There song, the enchanted objects in the castle are encouraged by the romance blooming between Belle and the Beast. Believing the curse may be lifted soon, they all burst into an upbeat, festive song sharing what they will do when they are transformed back into human form.

New enchanted items including perky knickknacks, cheery dust pails and brooms, and hard working chairs join in the joyous song. For the first time, audiences were able to see that Belle’s horse, Phillipe, was being well cared for in the Beast’s stable. This was the first time that the Walt Disney Company had ever animated a new sequence for a previously-released feature.

Thomas Schumacher, then President of Walt Disney Feature Animation, added, “At the time of its initial release, Beauty and the Beast represented a major milestone for our animators and for the genre as a whole. Now, with its giant screen debut, the addition of a great new musical sequence, and new improvements to the picture and sound quality, the film truly is bigger and better than ever.”

The addition of the new song was so well received that with the re-release of The Lion King in IMAX, it was decided to incorporate a song for the film that never made it past the storyboard stage. Ironically,the song had also been included in Disney’s Broadway musical production of The Lion King.

The Morning Report, sung by Mufasa’s feathered major domo Zazu, is the daily report of the important news of the grunts, roars and snorts around the jungle kingdom. This gossipy update is given to Mufasa early every day so that he knows what is going on in his world.

In the original theatrical release, Zazu lands on a stone to merely say the news. Little Simba is trying unsuccessfully to capture a grasshopper. Mufasa decides to give his impetuous son a lesson in stalking and asks Zazu to turn around for a moment. Simba leaps at the flustered bird and sweeps him off the stone.

In the revised special version for IMAX, Zazu lands on a stone and sings his report with much fervor. The playful Simba is now trying futilely to capture a groundhog that continually pops up through different holes and who made a brief appearance in the original scene.

Conceited Simba grabs poor Zazu by his tail feathers in the middle of his report. The little lion swings the helpless bird around in the air and finally tosses him to the ground.

Lyricist Tim Rice commented that “I just tried to throw in a lot of animal puns.” Composer Elton John added, “The lyrics are hilarious and gives the audience a little wider view of this world.”

Did the addition of these songs or adapting them to IMAX improve these outstanding Disney films? As Hahn said at the time, it was not a question of whether these changes made the films better but that it was “just another way for the audience to experience and enjoy them.”

13 Comments

  • I saw Fantasia 2000 in its first release on IMAX. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it. We got a backstage tour afterword to see the IMAX projection equipment. It was a glorious capper to a century and millennium, and a great beginning to a new century and new millennium, with a new interpretation of a classic Disney film for a new generation.

    The IMAX presentation made the experience of viewing the film an unforgettable one.

  • Actually, “The Morning Report” sequence DID NOT make it in time for the IMAX release (I went to see it). It did make it to the DVD release, although it was met with critical displeasure. However, there were more complaints about some short of the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” number as some shots were overly altered some reason. This was presented in both version of the film for its DVD release.

  • Yes, I do may well remember seeing an actual 15/70mm IMAX film print of Fantasia/2000 at the Maryland Science Center’s St. John Properties IMAX Theater in Baltimore with my family when I was about eight going on nine in the beginning of 2000, which, according to some people, is the final year of the second millennium, since, according to some, the new century or third millennium doesn’t begin until January 1st, 2001.

    And I REALLY do may well remember being blown away especially by just how great, big and HUGE Fantasia/2000 really was when projected on an actual true five to eight story tall 15/70mm IMAX screen at the Science Center in Baltimore!

    While my father really liked and was really blown away by a pod of humpback whales taking flight to the skies in the sequence set to Pines of Rome in IMAX, my absolute favorite segment from Fantasia/2000 right now was Aladdin’s Genie’s animator Eric Goldberg’s Alan Hirschfeld-influenced sequence set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue music, which was actually developed as a separate project from what was then known during production as Fantasia Continued.

    But STILL,, I was really, really, REALLY blown away by how great big and huge an animation like Fantasia/2000 really was, especially when projected on a huge IMAX screen when I first saw an actual 16/70mm IMAX film print of Fantasia/2000 at Baltimore’s Maryland Science Center’s St. John Properties IMAX theater in the beginning of the year 2000.

    And yes, British-born filmmaker Christopher Nolan was such a huge fan of the IMAX format that, eight years after Fantasia/2000, Nolan used actual native 70mm IMAX film cameras to shoot certain spectacular action-oriented stuff for his 2008 comic book superhero epic film masterpiece, The Dark Knight and also shot IMAX scenes for The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk as well as the ill-fated Tenet (although his other epic sci fi film masterpiece, Inception, was actually not shot in IMAX!).

    But in the meanwhile, and being the big, ambitious visionary dreamer that I REALLY am, I was also toying with the idea of having both ‘scope widescreen as well as actual native 70mm IMAX live action film footage and primarily 2D traditional (and mainly) hand-drawn animation interact like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, especially if such interactions would be seamless and completely naturalistic (especially when projected on an actual, true IMAX screen), albeit on a dramatically epically grand scale and level befitting say, Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean more than the Looney Tunes directors at Warner Bros. or even Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown.

    (And heck! Who knows if the 2D animated (car)toon figures and the live action humans could even coexist side by sider on another, faraway planet that’s godawfully similar to a never-never-land version of our Earth, complete with a temperate climate, various different environments (including lush forests, etc.) and even surprisingly breathable air! Sort of like in an epic film idea of mine such as ‘Planet of the Toons’ or something?!)

    But anyway, Thank God for IMAX for making Disney animations like Fantasia/2000 appear larger than life, especially when projected on an actual true IMAX screen, and for really inspiring me to this very day and age to try and go big or go home as best as humanly possible!

  • I never got to see any of the 2D movies in IMAX, but I did see a few other IMAX screenings over the years. The Museum of Science in Boston has a massive domed theater, and while all it shows is documentaries, the movies I saw the couple of times I went there blew my mind if only for their massive size. The only major Hollywood production I’ve ever seen in IMAX was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I mainly remembered for how grand it made the movie feel. I didn’t even realize its many, many flaws at the time, so it just goes to show how easy it is to be blinded by outstanding technology, at least for the common folk. Honestly, if I’d only seen it in a regular theater, I’d probably just see it for the mess it really is.

    As to that quote by Don Hahn in the last paragraph, that’s something I can agree with. While I didn’t see The Lion King in IMAX, I did go to see its 3D rerelease, and even though I’d already seen it several times at that point, watching it in 3D felt like a new experience, even if it was admittedly a little weird to see the 2D CAPS drawings blown up into 3D. Again, that’s an example of advanced technology putting butts in seats. After being blown away by seeing Coraline in 3D, I started to insist on watching movies in theaters in 3D, which I did for several years, to the point where even when I saw a movie once in a flat format, I’d still go out and watch it again in 3D – I specifically remember doing this with Despicable Me and Madagascar 3. I even went out to see the first two Toy Story movies on their 3D double feature even though I’d already owned both on DVD.

    That said, there’s only so much of these you can freely take in before the novelty wears off, and the effects no longer keep you from noticing the flaws of those movies. When I saw The Lorax, for example, not only did the 3D come off as iffy (though to be fair, I’m not sure whether it was the movie’s fault or because of the theater I saw it in using a bad projector), but not even the technology kept me from noticing what was wrong with it from a storytelling and characterization standpoint, even if I still overall enjoyed it.

  • I saw Fantasia 2000 at the BFI IMAX during a trip to London, which at the time I think may have been the only IMAX cinema in the UK, and the screens remain the biggest. Unlike in the US, I don’t believe it ever made it to regular screens.

    • Which is just as well because Fantasia 2000 bombed in the US on regular screens.

      And oh, boy, did “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” look grainy and cheap in IMAX.

      • I do remember that. I bought the film on DVD and then Blu Ray but I haven’t actually seen it since that screening.

  • I saw Fantasia in IMAX also. But this post just makes me sad, because I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a true IMAX movie again. As far as I know IMAX theaters are all digital now. And now your local cineplex has an IMAX theater, but it’s way smaller than a real IMAX theater. I do go to them to watch the latest Marvel movie, etc., and they are enjoyable, but not as enjoyable as it would be in a true LARGE IMAX theater.

    • There are still “real” IMAX theatres in the U.S. and elsewhere. Two that I know of are the AMC Universal City here in L.A. and the AMC Lincoln Square in NYC. I’m sure a complete list is easily Google-able.

      • Yes, there are still full size IMAX theaters, but I’m pretty sure they’re all digital projection. No more running real IMAX film at the theaters. I suspect they don’t even use IMAX film cameras any more. I’d bet they’re all digital, too.

        • Sorry for the late reply, but full IMAX 15/70 film prints are still made for certain films, particularly Christopher Nolan’s. I’ve seen all of his films from DARK KNIGHT forward that way, as well as a couple of STAR WARS films and (ecch) BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN.

  • I saw Fantasia 2000 in Imax at the unofficial premiere.

    While it was impressive in scale for things like the Firebird suite, for other things it was a bit iffy. Like watching the hand drawn eyes wobble around on the CGI whales. The added clarity didn’t always help. What it benefited most from was the incredible sound system.

    It absolutely paled in comparison to the vivid imagery of 70mm Imax documentaries I had seen. The drab muted color palette was nowhere near as electrifying as bright daylight photograyphy. And certainly the 70mm native-3D Imax of some of those documentaries, nothing could hold a candle to those, even post-Avatar. 3D actually got worse in a great many cases, they ruined something magical.

    Adam Martinez mentions the 3D re-releases of Beauty and the Beast and Lion King which I also saw theatrically and which were really well done. I thought that added a lot more than just the Imax versions. I especially remember how it brought the 2d background paintings to life, particularly in Beauty and the Beast. They became dimensional environments that you could almost imagine walking around in.

  • There are still a number of true IMAX theatres in North America that still have the equipment in their booths to project genuine IMAX film should it be available. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet had IMAX film engagements in select theatres. The problem now is that the film prints are so incredibly expensive that it’s almost impossible to get back the cost of the prints once the split with the theatre owners is taken into account. The days of 6 month engagements for one film are long gone today.

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