Fantasia is a fantastic, well-made, enjoyable and entertaining film. It was a film Walt Disney was rightly proud of. But was Fantasia the first film produced with a stereo soundtrack? Mmmmmmm, not really. Was Fantasia the first multitrack film recording? No, not really. If we add the word “animated” to Disney’s boast, then you start to get close to the truth, but there were many other films produced and released before Disney’s concert feature that had stereo (or more) audio tracks.
Alan Blumlein, the man who invented of stereophonic recording while working for The Columbia Graphophone Company in England, is really the father of stereo film recording. While his work was only a series of tests (and not commercial films), his short test films from 1935 are indisputably the first fully realized stereo sound on film. Trains at Hayes Station (July 1935) had the sound realistically and believably follow the actor as he walked across the screen.
The history of stereo sound in the United States traces back to experiments by Harvey Fletcher of Bell Telephone Laboratories beginning in 1932. Building on patents from Joseph P. Maxfield and H. C. Harrison, a variety of techniques were tried and rejected or expanded upon by Bell over the years. By 1937, Bell Laboratories gave a demonstration of their two-channel stereophonic sound accompanying motion pictures. Conductor Leopold Stokowski was there with the Philadelphia Orchestra which was recorded onto a special proprietary nine-track sound system at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. This stereo recording was used for the movie One Hundred Men and a Girl for Universal Pictures in 1937, however the stereo tracks were mixed down to mono for the final release.
By 1938, multitrack production techniques started becoming the norm in the film industry. MGM was using a three- and then a four- track process to record the film soundtracks for their big budget musicals. Their sound editors were commonly putting the actors dialogue on one track, spreading the music across two stereo tracks, and putting the sound effects on a fourth isolated track. This made mixing the final soundtrack easier, mixing down to a single mono optical track on the film itself. Theaters of the time were just not yet set up to play multichannel films. This was first used on 21 June 21, 1938 when Judy Garland recorded “It Never Rains But What It Pours” for the movie Love Finds Andy Hardy.
The celebrated The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first full feature film recorded with a stereo soundtrack. Again, due to the limitations in theaters of the time, it was not experienced in stereo when originally shown, but an original stereo soundtrack was prepared, and even exists today.
Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra return to the history of stereophonic films with the recording of Fantasia at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia during April and May of 1939. Termed by the Disney company as ‘Fantasound,‘ Disney’s system employed eight original channels of recorded sound, mixed down to left, center, and right speakers, plus a channel to control the volumes. Because of the special needs of this system, Fantasound Fantasia was only released in fourteen selected cities in a special “roadshow” engagement. Disney owned and installed all the equipment for these special engagements. For general release, Fantasia was release in mono, just like any other film of it’s era.
Fantasia would not see a true stereo release until it’s 1956 re-release.