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Rhapsody in Blue: Fantasia 2000's Jewel in the Crown

Charles Solomon takes a closer look at the "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence of Fantasia 2000.

The most charming piece in Walt Disney Feature Animation's Fantasia 2000 is the stylish portrait of New York in its palmier days, set to George Gershwin's 1924 "Rhapsody in Blue" and drawn in the style of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The segment was directed by Eric Goldberg, who animated the mercurial Genie in Aladdin; the art director was Susan Goldberg -- a rare example of a husband and wife creative team in animation. "Rhapsody" follows four restless individuals through `30s Gotham. Rachel, a tiny girl, is weary of being dragged to endless private lessons by her governess; John longs to be free of his battle-ax wife and her spoiled lapdog. Sad-eyed Joe searches for a job, while Duke, an African-American construction worker, dreams of being a jazz drummer. A series of coincidences and the magic of the city make each of their dreams come true. "New York embraces all types of people, and they're all walking the streets at the same time," explains Eric. "How people of such diverse backgrounds affect one another when they live so closely together really interested me. We devised a story where they all help each other achieve their goals -- without ever realizing that they're helping one another. `Rhapsody' has always been one of my favorite pieces of classical music, and the combination of Hirschfeld and Gershwin to evoke 1930's New York seemed like a real winner."

Fantasia 2000 © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Eric got the idea for "Rhapsody" when he was finishing work on Aladdin. He approached Hirschfeld, who gave his blessings to the project. After completing the "Carnival of the Animals" segment of Fantasia, on which he and Susan also collaborated, Eric storyboarded the entire film. When production halted on the feature Kingdom in the Sun to rework its story, the Goldbergs pitched "Rhapsody" to Disney Feature Animation President Tom Schumacher as a down time project for the Kingdom artists. They received the go-ahead to make it as a short. Hirschfeld's celebrated caricatures display a marvelous elegance and economy of line. But they're static works that show their subjects from a single perspective: "Rhapsody" required the animators to move the characters in three dimensions while maintaining his polished minimalism.

Fantasia 2000 © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

"I animated the scene where Gershwin himself plays the piano, so I had to deal with making the figure look like a Hirschfeld drawing turning in three dimensions without losing any of the design qualities," says Eric. "We shot live-action of Ralph Grierson, who plays the piano in the piece, then Kent Holliday and I sat down together and determined which fingers hit which keys on which notes. But not only did the fingers have to hit the right keys at the right time, they had to look like Hirschfeld fingers -- I had to curl one up or crack a knuckle in a way that resembles a Hirschfeld drawing. It was fraught with challenges, but it was darned fun to do."

It's obvious that the other animators also enjoyed making "Rhapsody." There's an almost tangible exuberance to the animation. The characters move with a grace that is markedly freer than their counterparts in the recent Disney features.

Fantasia 2000 © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

"We had touched on Hirschfeld's style in Aladdin, but we went a lot further in this film, trying to do his line," recalls animator Andreas Deja. "The fascinating thing about Hirschfeld's figures is the economy and fluidity of that line: one S-curve can describe a whole body; ordinarily in animation, we break a figure down into a series of body parts that move in individual ways. When you're dealing with a Hirschfeld design, everything follows one main rhythm. It forces you to think very clearly and directly, and in a more graphic way."

Preserving that elegant line was a major concern: "Emily Jiuliano, who was our co-head of clean-up, was our `Keeper of the Line,'" says Eric. "She made sure that everybody got a Hirschfeld line on the screen with a beautiful thick and thin. She was quality control and artistic control, and did a spectacular job." But "Rhapsody" is more than black lines, however graceful. The characters move through a brightly colored city that echoes their various moods. Its bold colors and graphic backgrounds recall the more stylish UPA films of the early `50s. "Color has an emotional value, and you can emphasize the emotions in a scene by adding or taking away colors," explains Susan. "For inspiration, I went back to a book Hirschfeld did about nightclub singers and dancers called `Hirschfeld in Harlem,' and to the books he did with S.J. Perlman. He used areas of flat color behind black and white drawings to bring out the line. I chose my palette from those `30s and `40s colors: grayed blues, a lot of black, a lot of red. Having lived in New York, I also tried to bring in the city's smoky blues and purples."

Fantasia 2000 © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Appropriately, many of the characters in this colorful city are caricatures: John is modeled after author John Culhane; Rachel is based on the Goldberg's younger daughter. Eric, Susan and young versions of Hirschfeld and his second wife, Dolly, can be glimpsed in the crowd that emerges from a posh hotel. Although overtime and last-minute crunches are common in animation, "Rhapsody in Blue" was completed two months ahead of schedule and under budget. The heads of the Disney studio added "Rhapsody" to Fantasia 2000, when they decided to eliminate all of the material from the original film except "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Eric showed Hirschfeld a version of "Rhapsody" that was fully animated and about 60% in color on a visit to New York, shortly before the artist's 96th birthday. "I was really Mister Sweaty Palms," he recalls. "What if he didn't like it?" Hirschfeld was delighted with the film; his wife Louise called it "the best birthday present he ever could have gotten." "I'm very pleased with what they did: it's a marvelous job," Hirschfeld said in a recent telephone interview. "Eric seems to have understood what I've tried to do in my drawings. Again, I'm very pleased with it, and I'm anxious to see the finished film." Charles Solomon is an internationally respected critic and historian of animation. His most recent books include The Disney That Never Was (Hyperion, 1995), Les Pionniers du Dessin Animé Américain (Dreamland, Paris, 1996) and Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Knopf, 1989; reprinted, Wings, 1994). His writings on the subject have appeared in TV Guide, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, Millimeter, and The Manchester Guardian, and have been reprinted in newspapers and professional journals in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, Britain, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan.