First Introduced: 1940
The Concept: Up to this point, movies were recorded and presented in what is called “monaural” sound: a single microphone captured the dialogue and music, which was the way audiences heard it. When Walt Disney approached Leopold Stokowski to conduct the music for Fantasia, neither probably realized their collaboration would change the way we listen to movies. Both men embraced new technologies and realized that Fantasia would greatly benefit from the amazing audio fidelity of the then-new “stereophonic” systems that presented the soundtrack in two (or more) audio channels.
How It Worked: Imagined as an animated short, Fantasia turned into a feature-length collection of cartoon segments, each set to a piece of classical music. Recording took seven weeks—and 33 microphones were used to capture the full splendor of the Maestro’s beloved Philadelphia Orchestra. Those recordings were mixed into nine separate audio channels (each representing a specific part of the ensemble)—ultimately mixed into a final four-track theatrical presentation.
Was It Successful? As a technology? Absolutely. As a business venture for Disney studios? Not so much. While a huge critical triumph, Fantasia’s initial run lost money for Disney. The film was given a “roadshow” release, only playing in 13 theaters that were outfitted with the the sizable load of audio hardware that Fantasound required.
Other Movies That Used This Technology: Disney set an extremely high bar with their new system, to such an extent that no other studio found it necessary to have sound that good. But Disney (and RCA’s) pioneering work proved that high-quality multichannel sound not only worked, but dramatically added to the movie-watching experience.
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