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

by Charles Solomon

"Rhapsody in Blue" will be one of many highpoints in Fantasia 2000. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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."

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.

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.

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