A Fantasia for the 21st Century

mickey

One of Walt Disney’s hopes for Fantasia was that the music would have a visceral impact on the viewer. He wanted audiences to feel “as though they were standing on the podium”.

He was referring to the importance of sound quality in theatres, but nearly 75 years since Fantasia premiered in 1940, Disney’s dream of creating an immersive musical experience have just been realised and updated in a way he could never have imagined.

Fantasia: Music Evolved is a new video game born out of a collaboration between Disney Interactive and Harmonix, the pioneers of the rhythm game genre and creators of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. While there’s no shortage of Disney video games – including a Fantasia side-scroller in which Mickey hunts for musical notes – Fantasia: Music Evolved is the result of a more concerted effort to channel the spirit of the source material, using the latest in gaming technology.

“We want you to feel that you’re diving into the songs,” says Harmonix lead designer Jonathan Mintz. “We’re really trying to capture that feeling of being Mickey in the movie – shaping the heavens and oceans and conducting the universe.”

Like Mickey Mouse in that iconic sequence, the game casts you in the role of sorcerer’s apprentice. During your apprenticeship, with the aid of Kinect motion sensing technology and dazzling visuals, you learn to “create” music: sculpting sounds, cueing instruments and manipulating the mix through an intricate choreography of flexuous gestures and body movements. You become, in effect, an all-powerful combination of conductor, DJ and producer.

The genius of the rhythm game genre was taking traditional video game mechanics – the dexterous and precisely timed bashing of buttons – to create the illusion that you were a member of a gigging rock group. With absolutely no thwacking of plastic instruments, Fantasia: Music Evolved is much less about that kind of gameplay.

“Rock Band was about nailing a performance,” says Mintz. “The end goal here is a little different. You’re conducting, creating and exploring the possibilities of music.

The game honours another of Walt Disney’s ambitions, scuppered by the combination of poor box office receipts and the advent of World War II: that Fantasia would be regularly revised, with new musical segments added over time to reflect the diversity of music.

“Part of this project was imagining what would have happened if Fantasia had continued,” says Mintz. “We started thinking about what songs would have entered the Fantasia canon over the last 75 years.”

The resulting soundtrack spans a seriously broad spectrum of musical styles. In fact, Fantasia: Music Evolved is more boldly wide-ranging and disrespectful of genre boundaries than any album, concert program, music festival or playlist you’re likely to come across. It encompasses Bach to Bruno Mars by way of Bowie, and includes Rhapsodies both Hungarian (Liszt) and Bohemian (Queen). At different times, players will summon the chilly strings of Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, shape the spiky guitar of Fire by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and interact with the layers of swooning vocals in Lorde’s Royals.

“That’s the really exciting thing we’ve been able to do with the soundtrack,” Mintz says. “We can show how music extends from Toccatta and Fugue all the way to Lady Gaga, and highlight the similarities between Night on Bald Mountain and Seven Nation Army.”

Every piece of music can be heard and performed in its intended and purest form – the classical numbers were painstakingly recorded at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra, one section of the orchestra at a time. In keeping with the genre-inclusive philosophy of the game, though, each track has also been reimagined in two different styles, with players encouraged to weave disparate elements in and out of their own mix as if at a magical mixing desk.

“If you want to hear a phenomenal version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, you can. But if you want to drop out the percussion section and replace it with a Nintendo-style 8-bit synthesiser and a saxophone – the power is yours.

The result is something of a covert – but most importantly enjoyable – musical education.

“On the one hand, yes, we are going to get some kids exposed to Bach and Vivaldi and Mussorgsky and Dvořák, which is super cool. But, at the same time, I love the idea that a classical music purist might hear the super glitched-out dubstep version of Vivaldi and think, ‘Wait, this is kinda cool.’

“If you dig in, play these remixes and try out all the different styles, it’s definitely our hope that, if nothing else, we’re getting people who may not be thinking about music deeply to engage in more active listening. To listen a little more closely.”

This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2014.

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