Evil Unleashed – The Creation of Chernabog From Disney’s FantasiaMonday, July 7, 2008
“When the great Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ he wasn’t thinking in general terms,” observed Walt Disney. “He had a specific picture in mind and he intended his music to convey that same picture to the listener. What he actually wished to portray with his music was a Halloween night revel of witches and goblins.”
In animating the images inspired by this forceful music, Walt Disney’s Fantasia features one of the most startling characters in the history of animation–the immense monster known as Chernabog. Such a monumental figure called for a towering talent, and to bring the demon at the dark heart of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment to frightening life, Walt Disney turned to master animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla.
Bill had studied sculpture in Paris, and his drawings have a sculptural quality, with weight and three-dimensionality, and his animation possesses a power all its own. “The whole thing in animation, as in any of the arts, is the feeling and vitality you get into the work,” observed Bill, and his philosophy was certainly reflected in the characters he so masterfully brought to the screen, including Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Stromboli in Pinocchio and the Giant in Brave Little Tailor. “Everything was ‘feelings’ with Bill,” observed legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “Whatever he animated had the inner feelings of his characters expressed through very strong acting.”
Bill was the first character animator to explore the expression of intense inner emotions through motion–and the summit of his passionate art is Chernabog. For Fantasia, Bill had already animated Yen Sid in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and was hoping to animate the centaurs for “The Pastoral Symphony” sequence. “Then I got a call from Walt and he wanted me to do ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’” recalled Bill.
The specific visualization for the “god of death” originated with Disney inspirational artist Albert Hurter. “The demon on top of Bald Mountain was his idea,” revealed Fantasia story director Dick Huemer. “A simple pencil sketch showing the demon up there and unfolding his wings suggested the whole thing to us.” Famed illustrator Kay Nielsen designed the stylized look for the segment and also worked with story artist Campbell Grant on the storyboard drawings, further establishing the unique style of the piece and of Chernabog himself.
But it was Bill Tytla who was responsible for unleashing the demon’s terrible power on screen. The animator felt an unlikely affinity for Chernabog, the god of evil from Slavonic mythology. “I’m Ukrainian,” explained Bill. “My father was a Ukrainian cavalryman. On all my animation I tried to do some research and look into the background of each character. But I could relate immediately to this character. Ukrainian folklore is based on Chernabog. Mussorgsky used terms I could understand.”
Famed horror actor Bela Lugosi (most famous as Dracula) was invited to perform as the towering demon for the animator’s reference, but according to sequence director Wilfred Jackson, Bill flatly rejected the film of Lugosi’s performance. “I like it better the way we went through it and I’m going to animate it that way,” Bill told Wilfred. “It would help me if you would get in front of the camera and go through it that way for me.” So the skinny Jackson took off his shirt and acted out the motions of the immensely muscular Chernabog for Tytla’s reference.
The artist ultimately drew on his inner emotion to achieve the raw power of the demonic character’s animation. “I imagined I was as big as a mountain and made of rock and yet I was feeling and moving,” explained Bill. The result is an unforgettable performance many consider to be the pinnacle of the animated art form. “I think it’s probably the most powerful thing we ever did,” states Ollie Johnston. “The director Wilfred Jackson said, ‘I don’t believe Walt realized he was getting a character that powerful, or he might have held back a little, because that frightened a lot of people.’”