- Music written as a ballet score by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky for the Ballets Russe in Paris in 1912, receiving greater recognition as a composition than a ballet in later years.
- Animation directed by Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield.
This segment visualizes the story of evolution during the first billion years of Earth’s existence, from the formation of the planet to the single-celled sea life to dinosaurs in the Jurassic period to their eventual extinction in the late Cretaceous period.
Walt Disney had wanted to include a segment featuring prehistoric animals and it was only a matter of finding the right music to go along with it. Deems Taylor suggested using “The Rite of Spring” and Walt’s enthusiasm for Stravinsky’s otherworldly composition prompted Leopold Stakowski to suggest animating the ballet’s original theme of sacrifice and depict the predator-vs.-prey life of animals, which Walt loved. Like Walt, Stakowski was a fan of Stravinsky’s work and he was in fact responsible for conducting the first American performance of “The Rite of Spring” back in 1930.
As Igor Stravinsky was the one composer behind the classical music used in Fantasia who was still alive at the time the film was being made, Walt asked Stravinsky for permission to use his piece personally and Stravinsky gave Disney the freedom to interpret the work however he saw fit.
Walt wanted the segment’s depictions of outer space, prehistoric Earth and dinosaurs to be accurate, and since it was impossible for any animator to study those things in person, the Disney studio consulted world-famous authorities such as Roy Chapman Andrews, Julian Huxley, Barnum Brown and Edwin P. Hubble who became enthusiastic followers of the animated film’s progress as they volunteered all sorts of scientific data to Disney’s artists.
The opening scenes where we zoom through the cosmos until reaching the volcanic terrain of prehistoric Earth before the formation of organic life is a showcase for the special effects animators who animated things like smoke, fire, boulders and lava in dynamic and eye-catching detail all exploding to life in sync with Stravinsky’s appropriately dramatic and harsh rhythms. Effects animator Josh Meador supervised this sequence and personally figured out how to animate the exploding bubbles of lava by using oatmeal and air hoses. Meador would go on to create the special effects for the animated films Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty plus live-action films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Forbidden Planet.
The depiction of the dinosaurs in this segment was actually praised by a fair number of scientists. The New York Academy of Science even requested a private showing of the segment because they found Disney’s film to be more educational than looking at fossils in a museum.
Of course up to that point, dinosaurs had never been portrayed in animation in any serious or dramatic way, making it groundbreaking in its ambition.
Which made it all the more memorable when the confrontation between the tyrannosaurus rex and the stegosaurus takes place. Woolie Reitherman was responsible for animating this battle, which Walt wanted to portray as two brutal forces of nature trying to kill each other and not as cute animals with human personalities like Disney’s animators were used to depicting. Reitherman, who had animated Monstro the whale in Pinocchio and would go on to animate the dragon battle in Sleeping Beauty, was an excellent draftsman for dramatic action sequences so Walt knew he was the perfect person to handle the scene.
Creative license came into play when the extinction of the dinosaurs was shown. Scientists at the time theorized about droughts and earthquakes being the cause but none were too sure. Walt of course cared more about entertaining audiences than accurate portrayals of life so it was not important.
Walt had originally envisioned the evolution of man to follow the extinction of dinosaurs but decided against it so as not to risk offending creationists by connecting the process of evolution with the creation of humans. But it didn’t matter because the segment had made plenty of impact with its portrayal of dinosaurs alone. Walt Disney’s goal of transporting audiences to new worlds had been achieved.