With all the Christmas stuff going on in my life during the past couple of weeks I have heard a lot of music from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker holds a special place in my heart because I was in the ballet many holiday seasons as a child. My absolute favorite part of the ballet is the “Arabian Dance” divertissement. So today I’m focusing on the “Nutcracker” segment of Disney’s Fantasia. I will be specifically looking at the part of the segment featuring dancing fish set to the “Arabian Dance” music. This beautiful pastel piece of concept art by an unknown Disney studio artist served as a major piece of inspiration for the ethereal dancing fish in the film.
The “Nutcracker” segment of Fantasia was meant to be the last and grandest of the many Silly Symphonies featuring dancing nature that Disney Animation had made in the past. It was initially going to be entitled “Ballet des Fleurs” and was invisioned as the ultimate nature ballet. Yet, it would be the most modern and abstract flower ballet the studio had produced up to that point. The segment was guided in design by 3 major artists from the visual development and story departments of the studio. These were Bianca Majorie, Sylvia Holland, and Ethel Kulsar. Their art depicted the various flowers, plants, and animals in a highly impressionistic manner. They drew in bright pastels against contrasting black backgrounds. Especially influential to the team was the work of Edgar Degas. This beautiful ethereal pastel drawing of an almost glowing fish perfectly expresses the aesthetic that the visual artists and story artists envisioned for the “Nutcracker” segment of Fantasia.
Walt Disney fell in love with this pastel impressionistic style created by the visual development and story artists. He especially loved the ethereal translucent quality of the Arabian dancer fish’s tails. He wanted this effect to replicated as closely as possible on film. This made bringing the fish to life no easy task. The “Arabian Dance” sequence was animated by Don Luske. Luske already had quite a bit of experience animating fish, as he had previously assisted Eric Larson in animating Cleo in Pinocchio. Although the music comes from a ballet, Lusk studied the dancing of belly dancers in order to capture the seductive movements of the fish. He even brought a professional belly dancer in to the studio to sketch. Once Lusk was done with his animation, it was time for the Ink and Paint department to replicate the glowing, diaphanous effect of the pastel concept art. To do this the women used a special dry brush technique when painting the fish to give their tails the filmy quality of a belly dancer’s veil. The effect on film is mesmerizing to watch, though oddly enough Lusk hated it. He thought the effect should have been done through double exposure, and that the dry brushing wasn’t smooth enough and made his animation look jittery. Even today at the age of 104, Don Lusk insists that the “Arabian Dance” sequence would have looked better had double exposure been used.
Despite Lusk’s opinion on the final result, I find the “Arabian Dance” sequence to be beautiful. His animation of the slowly undulating tails of the fish is nearly hypnotizing and matches Tchaikovsky’s music perfectly. The air brush paint technique, well not perfect,does a fantastic job of making the fish’s skin practically glow and their tails appear gauzy. It’s a unique style of animation that is fascinatingly beautiful to watch even 78 years later. And it all started with beautiful pastel visual development drawings like this one.