John Hench (June 29, 1908 – February 5, 2004) is best remembered these days for his Imagineering design work on the Disney theme parks, especially their use of color. He was a well respected mentor at Imagineering.
However, he began his remarkable 65 year with Disney in May 1939 when he was assigned as a story artist, layout and background painter to the animated feature Fantasia (1940). His work on Disney animation is often forgotten when he is discussed and his contribution to Fantasia has not really been documented – even in the book he wrote himself.
In 1990, Fantasia was celebrating its 50th anniversary and I was invited, as I sometimes was because of my writing on animation, to Imagineering to hear an informal conversation with Hench as he shared some of his memories of working on the film.
These type of interesting talks happened all the time at Disney and it has always bothered me that they were never shared outside that small group with the general public or historians who would appreciate them. Here is my transcription of part of Hench’s talk.
When I got there, they were having a problem making the Arabian Dance section of The Nutcracker Suite work. When they found out I could draw sexy girls, they told me to take a stab at sexy fish. After a lot of work, finally we were able to get something satisfactory. Walt had wanted it to look like girls in a harem.
The wall in the bedroom where I worked was plastered with a sandy finish and by holding black paper up against it and rubbing the pastels over the paper it produced a sparkle effect, suggesting an unusual underwater lighting. Of course, we didn’t rub all our drawings on the walls for the final product but the effect carried forward to the production.
Of course, Walt was all over the place when we were creating Fantasia. Everybody saw him every day, practically. And I complained to him about my assignment to develop a story with the music composed for a ballet. I had a dim view of male dancers, too. I asked if I could work on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring instead. It seemed a lot more exciting than ballet.
I said to Walt, “I don’t know anything about ballet!” and he said, “Sit down for a minute. I’m going to do something for you.” And I thought he was going to give me another job like I had asked. But he telephoned somebody he knew who turned out was an impresario who’d brought the Ballet Ruse de Monte Carlo to town. Walt arranged for me to go and sit backstage for the engagement – a week and a half!
So, I did. I went back there and squatted around and made hundreds of drawings, and came to know the dancers and several ballets quite well. And I changed my mind about ballet, particularly about male dancers. I didn’t complain anymore and I resumed with a new appreciation the original assignment. I had a new attitude and it was quite a learning experience. I became friends with many of the dancers and I developed a respect for dancing and the dancers themselves that I’d never have had without that experience. I had no idea of the discipline and complete dedication required of dancers.
It was hot as hell in that little apartment. The walls of the apartment were quite thin and everybody set their record players on loud so you could hear what was playing in the next room and the next! The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor group was in the next bedroom. There was a lot of collaboration between that group and ours.
For a while, Walt was planning to include the Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius, a desperately sad piece which drove everyone crazy. When he decided to eliminate it, we were all relieved that we didn’t have to listen to it creeping through the walls and floor anymore.
Midway through the work on Fantasia, we all moved to the new Burbank Studios. The facilities were much nicer but they came at a price. We lost some of the musical and personal contacts. Since the rooms were more soundproof, we couldn’t hear the other music rooms playing and the groups became more and more isolated.
I remember opening night at the Carthay Circle Theater. It was a terrific thrill. We had seats to ourselves and we sat there nervously waiting for the audience’s response. The full impact of the sound system was totally unexpected as the Fantasound traveled from screen side to side with the action, as well as from the back of the theater.
The opening scene, where the orchestra is being assembled was projected on the stage main curtain with house lights still on and most of the audience didn’t realize that the film had started. I heard someone say, “I think the picture’s started” and his companion said, “No, that’s just the orchestra filing in”. They thought it was a real orchestra! What a wonderful, sneaky way to begin the picture.
None of the animators had seen or heard it all put together before. We sat there in amazement, especially during Ave Maria when the voice kept moving in from various directions. We realized that we had been part of a milestone, and that nothing like it would ever be done again.
I worked on both background and layout and planning the dominant color for each scene. Again, we couldn’t use the whole color spectrum in every scene. We had to develop a sense of balance and completeness and save something for the peaks, keeping a good sequential relationship. Those were my major concerns.
Color tells a story. What if an art director for a movie used a whole spectrum of colors in the first scene? Where would he go from there? There’s nothing left. He could only repeat himself. You have to develop a spectrum for a movie because people seem to like a sense of balance in what they are viewing and experiencing. Working on this film taught me about the relationship of color and music to emotion.
The Arabian Dance sequence required me to follow the sequence through the stages of layout, backgrounds and the modeling of the fish characters featured in it. Each scene had to match the changing moods of the music.
I can’t believe Walt’s courage in attempting such a thing as Fantasia. And I guess it worked. If you think about it, no one can listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring without seeing the Disney images in their mind.