December 16, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Frank Lloyd Wright on “Fantasia”

Suspended Animation #402

Frank Lloyd Wright

“Walt brought in H.G. Wells, who lectured on story development, and Alexander Woollcott, who was a great short story writer,” Disney artist Mel Shaw remembered. “He even had Frank Lloyd Wright to the studio to talk about inspiration and art. Walt was really imbuing all of us with something that made us feel we were part of a movement that could be considered a Renaissance in the animated cartoon business.”

On February 25, 1939, at 11 a.m. in Projection Room IV, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited the Disney Studios to talk to several Disney artists. Among those in attendance were musician Leigh Harline, storymen T. Hee and Otto Englander, animator Bill Tytla, and John Hubley.

Wright brought along a copy of the 1934 Russian animated film, The Tale of Czar Durandai directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano (with a music score by Dmitri Shostakovich) to help inspire Disney’s artists to think a little differently about combining music and animation in a more abstract approach. Wright who was very pro-Russian had visited Russia the previous year and obtained a copy of the cartoon.

Here are some excerpts from Wright’s observations, in particular about the approach to Fantasia:

“Walt Disney is something unique. He is what he is. I think that he happened to stumble upon the future development of the cinema. I don’t think it was his fault. He happened in on it with this peculiar gift of his, which I think is precious. It shouldn’t be violated.

“He shouldn’t become too art conscious. That is what makes me feel that Mr. Stokowski is coming in here with this type of music, which is picture music, to have you extra-illustrate the music. I think you should have the type of music that was in the Russian cartoon. The music was abstract, just as it was abstract drawing—the whole theme was an abstract thing.

“I was regretting that you take picture music and illustrate it rather than doing something with music—having the two things made one. Haven’t you got some guys to write the music? Even though it is crude and simple, it would be good.

“You shouldn’t take Clair de Lune and these things which are not good music anyway. I don’t care what Stokowski says. I wish he were here. He knows better. He’s got some Russian blood in him himself. I can’t believe he would imagine that you seriously are doing your best when you are merely extra-illustrating pictorial music.

“In this film [the Russian cartoon] you must have seen perfect correlation between music and design. The whole thing is design—instinctive design, which is perfect design. There is no reason you boys can’t do that. If you drive a modern car in front of a Colonial house, you insult either the car of the house every time you do it.

“There will always be those people [who like old fashioned music]. They are dead people. They live in the past, not in the present or the future. They are gone. We should treat them tenderly and with consideration, and have the caskets ready.

“But you fellows—there has never been anything like this. You’ve got a clean spread. If you get it all mixed up with these sentimentalities, God help us. The more nearly you can strip the things you’re doing clean, and establish this simple child-like correlation between things and make a child-like thing out of it and not get too sentimental about it, the better, I think.

“There’s one thing that distresses me in your productions, and I think people think the same about it—one can emphasize the senses quite with impunity. It’s desirable. The moment you emphasize sensuality it becomes disagreeable. There is a touch of what I would call vulgarity that creeps into your films sometimes. I guess it’s box office and it gets a horse laugh from the worst element in the audience. I think you should be a little shy of that. Old Gray Head speaking.

“When I was here before, I told Walt Disney that the introduction of the two condors was the thing that was, to me, the most remarkable thing of the film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). It prophesied something greater that might come. Didn’t they give him the prize in the East, and didn’t they mention the fact of the two condors?

“The thing you are in is as fresh as a daisy. Don’t let it get bawled up with those sentimentalists. Tell Stokowski if he can’t come in and write music for you that has the proper quality and appropriate to the thing you’re doing you don’t want him at all. Stokowski isn’t running the show, is he? Put him on the spot.

“When you take music as one thing, your animation is another, your story is another thing, there you’ve got a division that is fatal right at the beginning. It’s unison between the three and making those three one that is the only road to anything you might call worth the name of art or worth the name of entertainment.

“You would be surprised and I have been continually surprised at the amount of intelligence possessed by people you wouldn’t think had it. You would be surprised how ‘almost as intelligent as we are’ most people are. I have great faith in that.

“Why have you got modern architecture today? It isn’t an accident. Somebody stood there. Somebody asserted the fact of the thing. It’s no different from you. We’re all alike. Our reactions would be very similar to almost anything. It takes a little character and guts and a stand-by to see it through. That’s all.

“People are very much, as people, like sheep. If you begin to temporize and pat them on the back and cater to their idiosyncrasies, you’ll never get anywhere. This commercialization of things, commercialization of everything, I think that’s what the matter with the country.

“The public doesn’t know what it wants. If the public is paying your bills, it’s entitled to have you stand up to the thing you do because you alone know. The public doesn’t know. I think you’re going back on your public when you try to find out what the public wants and give it to them. No public knows. As compared to the fine thing they might have. They don’t know what they miss. Show them that thing which they miss. Explode once or twice and see what the reactions are.

“Don’t let this idea ‘Box Office’ and this idea of what pleases people bother you. Concern yourself with the best and finest thing, by God, that you know and do it to the top and give it to them to the hilt and you’ll go places and you’ll never lose.

“If the moving picture industry, acquired by Paramount and MGM and Fox had had that faith in life, and had that faith in the American people the cinema wouldn’t be going down and out now. You’re going up. That’s what makes the difference.

“Wherever you’re playing best together—having fun and putting in the music where it belongs in the picture—getting the effect, you ring the bell. That’s what is going to make your success. Where you’re trying to be artistic and thinking of the fellow in front and trying to please him you’re going to lose out. I’ll bet my head on it. I know from my own experience. It’s a veteran sitting here talking to you. I’ve been there.”


  • Many years ago my family took a tour of the famous Falling Water house in Pennsylvania, which Frank Lloyd Wright had designed and built for a family named Kaufmann. One thing that struck me about that tour was how thoroughly Wright had disregarded the Kaufmanns’ wishes in every particular. For example, they wanted a house where they could enjoy the view of a waterfall on their property. Wright cantilevered the house out over the waterfall, incorporating it into the overall design, but you can’t actually see the waterfall from anywhere in the house. Also, Wright steadfastly refused to put any blinds or shades on the windows, because he didn’t want any barriers between the house’s interior and its natural surroundings. So I guess the Kaufmanns could forget all about ever getting to sleep when the full moon was out, or taking a nap on a sunny afternoon.

    The other thing that struck me was how tiny and cramped it was inside. Wright designed his buildings to scale for the average man, using himself as the standard; he claimed to be five feet eight and a half inches tall, but numerous acquaintances maintain he was much shorter than that. I was a big kid, but I was still only eleven or twelve, and yet I kept banging my head on all the doorways.

    I came away from that tour with the impression that Wright was a self-indulgent egotist who couldn’t be trusted to design doghouses, and his remarks on Fantasia, if anything, have lowered my estimation of the man even further. This is drivel of no common order. Leigh Harline was probably thinking “Who does this —— think he is?” I would have, too.

    Wright makes a distinction between “picture music” and “abstract music”; but the terms he was groping for are program music, which tells a story or illustrates a scene, and absolute music, which does not. (All music is abstract.) Okay, so he at least understood the concepts, if not the terminology. But the idea that absolute music is better suited for a film like Fantasia is ludicrous. If the elements of music, story, animation, design, etc., are to go hand in hand, as Wright declares, then it’s best to do what Walt Disney did and let the music govern those other elements — and program music is best suited for that, because it establishes the story from the outset.

    I’m stunned by Wright’s gall in coming to the Disney studio in 1939 and telling everybody, “Hey, you’re doing everything wrong here. Now have a look at this Russian film. This is the direction you need to take. Write some sarcastic march parodies and set them to a bunch of twelve-frame cycles. And be sure it looks like a pencil test to one of those Van Beuren Little King cartoons, only make it four times as long.” Maybe it made an impression on John Hubley, but I can imagine the others rolling their eyes.

    Wright contradicts himself when he says that most people are more intelligent than they’re given credit for, yet the paying public doesn’t know what it wants and shouldn’t be given it. Not surprising, seeing as he didn’t think the Kaufmann family even knew what kind of house they wanted to live in. As for me, I am continually surprised by the low amount of intelligence possessed by people who you’d think would have more, such as one of history’s most famous architects. I am surprised at how “almost as intelligent as a pile of dog droppings on the sidewalk” Frank Lloyd Wright was. He had no business telling Walt Disney how to make cartoons, and Walt should have sent Wright on his way with a blow from his polo mallet. I’d have advised Wright to stop pontificating about music and stick to architecture; but, remembering my sore forehead from my visit to Falling Water, I can’t even do that.

    • Thank you, Paul, for this fascinating perspective. You raise some strong points. Sometimes because someone has a famous name, the tendency is to take everything the person says as gospel. Your reporting addresses this notion and puts it in a context. While I agree with Wright that box office should not be the sole motivation for producing a cinematic work, yet at the same time his idea of ignoring utterly the tastes of one’s prospective audience can spell disaster for those in the industry who are accustomed to eating regularly. Your description of the Kaufman house gives a vivid illustration of Wright’s putting the ideas he expressed into practice, and its results. Great comment!

      • Thank you, Frederick!

    • No, Wright was right about Fantasia, which turned out to be a kitschy embarrassment. As for “program music” vs. “absolute music” you completely misread Wright’s statement. Wright was not arguing that old “absolute music” should you be used instead of old “picture music” but that the music and all other elements of the abstract musical film should be original as in the Russian film rather than story, design, etc. being crudely grafted onto the music of dead guys..

      • You’re kidding right? I thought the film was tastefully done. There’s a reason why it’s considered one of the best.

        • It was “tastefully done” if the the taste in question was one as fully corny and shallow as Walt Disney’s was, which it was.

          • That’s not what many people and animation fans say.

        • agreed… if it was not accepted initially, in opinion it was underrated and misunderstood… if they used any other music it would just be another Mary melody. that was the whole thing that made Fantasia different. Frank Lloyd wright did not understand and yes he was overstepping. I like him less after reading this letter.

    • That’s one of the best commentaries on Wright I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for posting that.

    • Bingo !

    • That’s my favorite part :
      “Write some sarcastic march parodies and set them to a bunch of twelve-frame cycles. And be sure it looks like a pencil test to one of those Van Beuren Little King cartoons, only make it four times as long.”

  • Devising “absolutes” is an innately-flawed, yet relentlessly recurring, human endeavor.

    On one hand, I agree with much of what FLW says here. At least as it applies to aspiring to something fresh, different, adventurous. It’s how you learn stuff. This aligns with my left-of-center taste in music, which is gratifying to me but a WTF to everybody else around me.

    On the other hand, Fantasia did just fine as is, after hearing FLW out, then saying “well, at least we know we shouldn’t do THAT.” In a creative collaboration, it’s healthy, and crucial, to conduct thorough concept discussions. Something FLW likely never did in his primary occupation.

    A Wright-driven Fantasia would probably never have gotten off the ground.

    One thing he really got Wrong in that little spiel was that “You would be surprised how ‘almost as intelligent as we are’ most people are” notion. Wonder if he would stick to those guns if he ever got a gander at the 21st century cultural landscape.

    Absolutes are absolutely untenable.

  • Mel Shaw’s comment on Woollcott raises an eyebrow, since Woollcott was vastly better known as a critic (most notably for The New Yorker) and a commentator, and as far as I know, didn’t write much fiction at all, save for a few Broadway shows.

  • In “The Disney Version”, Richard Schickel wrote that Disney invited Wright in part because he specifically wanted to see that film. He also offered this exchange:

    WRIGHT: “Walt Disney, you too can be a prophet!”
    DISNEY: “Jesus Christ, you want me to make pictures like that?”

  • It’s ironic that, only a week or so after Wright’s lecture, the German composer Paul Hindemith came to the Disney studio and met with Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski. Hindemith had written what was probably the first ever through-composed musical score to an animated cartoon (a Felix the Cat short), and had also scored the Dadaist film “Vormittagsspuk [Ghosts Before Breakfast]”, which utilises cut-out and stop-motion animated techniques (and in which Hindemith also appeared as an actor). Both films were screened at one of Hindemith’s music festivals in 1927, and both scores have unfortunately been lost. He had spent a lot of time in London and spoke excellent English; and as the foremost German composer of his generation, as well as a talented illustrator in his own right, anything he had to say about the relation of music and art would have been a lot more insightful than Wright’s trip through the monkey house. But he had come to Disney for a job interview, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for him to lecture to the artists and musicians under the circumstances.

    It’s probably for the best that Hindemith didn’t get the job at Disney. He wound up being offered a professorship at Yale University, which worked out very well for him.

    • Hindemith was scathing about Fantasia (as he observed it during its production), Disney and Stokowski.

      About Disney: “Still, if one looks at such a huge organization, and then thinks about the humorous things it puts out, one gets very depressed by it all. They have a special school where talented young men devoted to their art learn to draw only Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck; the disciple pours his love and devotion into these and similar characters until he dies at a ripe old age. He can never smuggle in anything truly original. […] And above it all Mr. Disney himself reigns supreme. He is a pleasant man, about 45 years old , but he isn’t at all like the person one would imagine the creator of Mickey Mouse to be. He seems to be rather naive and uncultured.”

      About Stokowski: “. I also spoke with Stokowski, the Musical God himself, and I got the distinct impression that, in spite of his affability, he was very insecure about the whole business and didn’t really care for my visit. When I observed what kind of trash he was coming up with—that, along with his ultramarine silk shirt and lemon-yellow scarf, and his albino-like face which reminded me of Fritz Stein—when I saw all that, I could not possibly feel the appropriate measure of awe that was everywhere so much in evidence. The last remnant of any respect I might have had vanished altogether as I sat there and watched him take a well-written and logical piece like Night on Bald Mountain, order one of his colleagues to alter it beyond recognition, and then proceed to scribble and scratch and tear it apart even further. When the two of them then proceeded to mangle the Ave Maria, I came close to vomiting, and I decided then and there that the musical world would only be rid of this evil person by a liberal dose of rat-poison.”


      • Not everyone needs to agree whether Fantasia is a ‘good’ film. People are free to like or dislike whatever they choose, but some of these criticisms (past and present) really seem over-the-top and cross over into personal attacks. It frustrates and saddens me to see people like Hindemith who, for all their knowledge and gifts, can’t seem to present their point of view with respect for where the other party is at and are content to walk off having made no attempt to present their side because it apparently would have done no good to try with someone so ‘naive and uncultured’. It makes me curious to know what Hindemith thought when some of those ‘lickspittles’ rebelled against Disney a few short years later.

        Finally, for Hindemith to speculate that someone ought to poison Stokowski for ‘mangling’ certain pieces of music, when he himself had been forced to flee Germany due to the policies of the Nazis, just made me think ‘Good grief sir, what are you saying??’ I wonder if he reflected on and reconsidered those views after the war…

      • It sounds like Hindemith had some serious issues.

        • Who doesn’t have issues in this cruel enigma of a world?

      • I’m familiar with Hindemith’s account of his afternoon at the Disney studio, having read both published volumes of his collected letters. His candour and caustic wit make for fun reading, and outbursts like the two quoted above are by no means unusual. Fritz Stein, whose pallid face Hindemith likened to Stokowski’s, was the director of the music school in Berlin where Hindemith taught for several years, as well as a leader in the Nazi Party’s Militant League for German Culture; Hindemith was constantly at odds with him, and his letters are full of digs at the man. In another letter he described the conductor Willem Mengelberg, who had done much to promote Hindemith’s music, as “my enemy, a nasty, inconsiderate man… how passionately I loathe him!” Bad as they are, they’re taken from private letters to his wife and were never intended for public consumption.

        Hindemith gleaned some erroneous and unfair impressions of the Disney studio from his visit. The art classes did not merely teach how to draw cartoon characters but were much more comprehensive; Walt Disney was only 37, six years Hindemith’s junior; and none of the artists had died at a “ripe old age”, because few of them had even reached the age of thirty.

        It’s not surprising that Hindemith took a dislike to Stokowski; many musicians did. (After Stokowski guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic in the 1920s, the orchestra passed a unanimous resolution that he never be invited back — though eventually he was, many years later.) He did not change his opinion after the war; his book A COMPOSER’S WORLD: HORIZONS AND LIMITATIONS (1953) contains a scathing critique of Stokowski’s Bach arrangements. He did not refer to Stokowski by name, but anyone could tell whom he meant. This was a somewhat hypocritical assessment, as Hindemith had subjected Bach’s music to some “heavy-handed tampering” in his “Ragtime (wohltemperierte)” of 1921, which even Stokowski might have thought was a bit much.

        There’s no question that Hindemith was ill-suited to working at Disney, but in 1939 he was desperate to get his wife (who was half-Jewish) out of Europe, and so he had to pursue any option that might enable him to remain in America permanently. Just before his interview at Disney, he also interviewed at 20th Century Fox, with no better result.

      • Hindemith’s understanding of the art classes at the Disney studio seems to have been quite different from Bill Tytla’s, quoted in “Of Mice and Magic.” Tytla, speaking to a group of assistant animators and cleanup men in 1937, said: “You fellows possibly may think that just because you are doing a bunch of Ducks and Mickeys, that all you must do is learn how to draw well enough to draw a Duck and a Mickey. But the funny thing is that the more you know about drawing, the more ably you will handle the Duck and other characters. And, besides, five years from now you won’t be doing Ducks anyway. The type of stuff we have been doing here the last few years has been a change from what preceded it, and will be different from what is about to follow.”

  • I’m guessing they partly took Wright’s advice on “Clair de Lune” as the sequence was dropped from the final cut despite being fully animated. The sequence was latter revised and re-arranged as the “Blue Bayou” segment in “Make Mine Music” (1946). The sequence was later re-scored with “Clair De Lune” in a 1970’s educational film series about music.

  • Thank you, Mr. Korkis, for posting this!!

    The original “Fantasia” of 1940 is still my favorite, the most sublime, of all Disney films!
    It was also surprising to find out in your post that Mr. Wright brought an Ivan Ivanov-Vano work to inspire the Disney crew! (I admit that I usually thought it was Ivanov-Vano who was inspired by and aspired to the Disney style!)

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