Walt Disney’s & Salvador Dalí’s “Destino”: A new exhibit opens on Friday, July 10, in San Francisco

By on July 8, 2015

Beginning on July 10, and for the rest of 2015, visitors to the The Walt Disney Family Museum — located at 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio of San Francisco, CA — will be able to see a fascinating guest-curated exhibit that highlights the combined artistic alliance between Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí and American animator-entrepreneur-inventor Walt Disney.

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The Destino exhibit reveals not only a lifelong friendship but examples of their collaborative and experimental artwork, showing how each man’s art influenced the other. The exhibit will feature Destino storyboards, letters exchanged between the two men, photographs, voice recordings, and rarely seen artwork, including a drawing of Don Quixote that Dalí did for Disney in 1957 on the inside of a book, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

They were born just three years — but worlds — apart, but both men ultimately became citizens of the world, embraced not only by their own countrymen but by people around the globe.

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Dalí was born in 1904 in Figueres, Spain, along the rocky Costa Brava and the fishing village of Cadaqués, where he maintained a home for life; Disney, born in 1901, was from the midwest, raised in Marceline, Missouri, although he would move west to California and ultimately make SoCal locales like Burbank and Anaheim seem like vacation destinations simply because that’s where he’d decided to set up his first animation factory and his first amusement park.

Their lives intersected briefly, in 1936, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where a number of Dalí’s works were on display in the Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism exhibition, in which two animation cels from Disney’s short film, “Three Little Wolves,” were also showcased.

The following year Dalí wrote his friend André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, after visiting California for the first time, that he was in contact with three great American Surrealists – “the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.” The man Dalí considered a truly fellow Surrealist was comedian and actor Harpo Marx.

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Walt Disney, meanwhile, had become intrigued with Dalí, too. After reading the artist’s autobiography, he sent his copy to Dalí in 1944, seeking an autograph. He also suggested that Dalí come to California to work on a piece of animation to be packaged into a film along the lines of Disney’s 1940 musical, Fantasia. He had already worked with Bauhaus abstract painter and animator Oskar Fischinger, who worked on both Pinocchio and Fantasia (which featured a sequence for “Night On Bald Mountain” created by artist Kay Neilson), and he relished the opportunity as an animator to work with established artists whose work was mainly seen in museums and galleries.

However, Dalí’s first Hollywood experience would not be for Disney, but for an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

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On August 17, 1944, artist Salvador Dalí signed a contract with a company called Vanguard Films to design the dream sequence to be filmed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The contract spelled out that for the sum of four thousand dollars, Dalí would “create, draw and paint all sketches and/or designs required” in connection with the motion picture, and Hitchcock was looking forward to working with Dalí because he believed that the crisp precision he’d seen in Dalí’s paintings had best represented the experience of dreaming, much more so than the blurred, vague imagery that was being used by most directors.

“I was after… the vividness of dreams,” Hitch said. “Dalí’s work is very sold and very sharp, with very long perspectives and black shadows.” Dalí, in turn, is said to have described Hitchcock as “one of the rare personages I have met lately with some mystery.”

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Meanwhile, the film’s producer, David O. Selznick — who thought that the publicity that would come from announcing the artist’s participation would help to make his movie a success — was generally enthusiastic until he saw the finished work that Dalí presented upon its completion. Dalí’s large canvasses looked like paintings, not what we’d expect to see in a dreams sequence in a film today, and as such they have a kind of two-dimensional aspect to them, unlike our dreams, which generally represent and symbolize events in our sleep the way we see them in our waking life. Dalí’s furniture had women’s legs, with stockings and high heels, and that wasn’t even the strangest image. There were giant eyeballs attached to a huge ticking metronome, an allusion to a work by fellow artist Man Ray, and a balustrade that referenced the toy bilboquets seen in René Magritte’s paintings.

Dalí had also wanted to attach eyeballs on the backs of scurrying cockroaches, and also had the idea to suspend fifteen grand pianos over a ballroom full of dancers, but these ideas were scuttled when it was explained to him that the idea would be too costly, and impossible to finish on time. Selznick saw what Dalí had completed and immediately realized the error of allowing Hitchcock to hire Dalí to create the dream sequence footage, which amounted to nearly twenty minutes of screen time.

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He spoke to Hitchcock about it, and they realized that it was simply too complicated and would not work. Selznick ended up enlisting the assistance of art director William Cameron Menzies to reorganize the footage. In the end, Hitchcock was only able to use about two minutes of Dalí’s work in his film, and Dalí’s credit in the film was downgraded to “based upon the designs of Salvador Dalí” because so little of what he’d completed appeared in the final cut.

Years later, it was discovered that only three of the five scenes that Dalí designed survived — the gambling house, the rooftop, and the slope — although some production stills have survived in the Selznick archives.

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Dalí and Disney would finally meet, in late 1945, when they both attended a Hollywood dinner party hosted by movie studio mogul Jack Warner.

Disney told Dalí he was a fan of the man’s works, and of the idea he’d had to work on a feature-length animated film, and Dalí, in turn, told Disney that he too was a fan of Disney’s work, particularly the early animation in the “Silly Symphony” series that ran from 1929 through 1939. A “Silly Symphony” skit featuring dancing skeletons had particularly appealed to Dalí, whose paintings often featured skeletons, melting clocks, apparitions, monsters and other creatures often border on the hallucinogenic.

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Disney’s original idea was to have a Dalí short film to insert into one of his anthology features, like Make Mine Music. The two men went through Disney’s vast music library, trying to find the right piece of music to set their animated drawings to, and Dalí found what he thought be the perfect choice, a Spanish ballad called “Destino.” The title resonated with Dalí’s interest in destiny. It was written by Mexican songwriter Armando Dominguez and performed by Latin American singer Dora Luz.

Disney assigned one of his most trusted animators, John Hench, to assist Dalí on their Destino, and working with Hench — a background artist on Fantasia and Dumbo and layout artist on Disney’s The Three Caballeros — Dalí began making more than 135 story sketches and paintings.

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All total, we have more than 80 pen-and-ink sketches of Dalí’s to view and more than 200 storyboards and sketches for Destino that have survived.

Dalí’s drawings were linear, angular, sharp, clear and very graphic, and appealing to Disney, but where the artist struggled was to come up with a plot that made any sense to Disney, and their differences began to crystallize when they were asked in 1946 how they would describe the film. Disney said he saw it as “a simple love story – boy meets girl” — the film tells the story of Chronos, the personification of time and the inability to realize his desire to love for a mortal woman named Dahlia. He envisioned it as a compilation film along the lines of The Three Caballeros. Dalí, however, described it as “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time,” and he apparently told Disney at the time, “If you understand this, then I’ve failed.”

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Their differences widened when Dalí began to insert sketches of baseball players into Destino. By that point, Disney had already spent about $70,000, and the project didn’t seem to be progressing, so Disney decided to scrap the project after eight months of storyboarding in 1946.

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The two men, however, remained friends for the rest of their lives. During the 1950s, Dalí even made a visit to Disney’s home at 355 N. Carolwood Drive, in the Holmby Hills distrcit of Los Angeles, CA, where Dalí rode on the 1/8th scale live steam locomotive train that Disney had installed there in his backyard (inspired by both his animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, who also had backyard railroads). The train was called “the Lilly Belle,” and named after Walt’s wife, Lillian. Later, Walt Disney and his wife traveled to see Dalí and his wife, Gala, at their home in Port Lligat, Spain, which we told you about here.

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Destino was finally taken up again and finished in 2003 after Walt’s nephew, executive producer Roy Disney, first hit on the idea of completing the film after creating the Bette Midler interstitial, for Fantasia 2000, which made reference to the Dalí work with a 15-second reel.

“Out of using the material, I got into a conversation with attorneys about using Dalí artwork to promote Fantasia 2000 Disney explained at the time. “They told me that we possess it but don’t own it.” It turned out that the contract between Walt and Dalí had stipulated that the artwork didn’t become Disney property until after the movie was made, so there was a financial and historical impetus to finishing the project, which Disney believed was abandoned because the compilation film idea was no longer commercially viable by the end of World War II (The Walt Disney Company, then Walt Disney Studios, was plagued by financial woes at the time).

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Disney then brought on producer Baker Bloodworth, who returned to the fold after leaving Disney animation for a brief sabbatical, and they in turn hired hired Dominique Monféry, a veteran of Disney’s now defunct Paris-based animation studio, Disney Studios France, to complete Destino. It was to be his directorial debut, and you might think that this multiple festival award-winner, already bound for Oscar contention, would jump at the chance to work on a project that has once been begun by both Dalí and Disney.

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Monféry, however, was pretty reluctant to come aboard the project, but ultimately he was seduced by Dalí’s complex story and art direction, and he set about working on the project, selecting 15 conceptual paintings and development pieces along with 135 story sketches, and then piecing them together using the most modern computer technology available.

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Visually, Monféry — who has directed The Emperor’s New Groove and Hercules — first began by reviewing a rough edit of the original artwork adapted from the song. The song “Destino” was redone, and he began to have a feel for the strong visual ideas conceived by Dalí and John Hench, the Disney animator who had worked alongside him 57 years ago.

Hench, now in his 90s, came aboard the project to advise Monféry and his animators and help them figure out where Dalí was initially headed with the story. They examined the Dalí works to find patterns and used elements from the original story reel, such as the two Dalí heads, and chose some current CG techniques to complete the work.

They eventually had to insert a little paragraph at the beginning of the piece, introducing Salvador Dalí, because they found, working on the project in the 2000’s, that a lot of people they showed the film to, who were outside of the field of animation, were aware of or did not know about the history of Salvador Dalí.

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The first decision was to make the film the way it originally would have been done in 1946, choosing to rely mainly on traditional animated techniques. The first challenge was figuring out how to insert an animated character into a painted environment by analyzing how Dalí painted light and shadow.

Monféry and his 25 fellow animators, along with production designer Thierry Fournier, eventually created a kind of pristine love story out of Dalí’s graphically striking symbolism — a barren landscape, melting clock, a bell tower, a stone pyramid, a floating dandelion — for an animated adaptation that eventually also included Dalí-sque iconic images of melting clocks, the Venus sculpture coming to life as a beautiful woman and two gargoyle heads resembling the artist with turtles’ bodies, plants with eyeballs, ravaging ants morphing into beret-wearing men on bicycles and a ballerina removing her head to throw at a baseball player wielding a bat.

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Destino — which was ultimately re-cut from eight to five minutes because some of it was incomprehensible, according to producer Baker Bloodworth — premiered on June 2, 2003 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in Annecy, France, and screened at numerous film festivals, including Telluride, New York, and the Chicago film festival. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for best animated short film, but did not win.

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Even after they abandoned Destino, the two artists remained in touch and even traveled to eachother’s homes, swapping fishing stories and periodically discussing plans to make a movie based on Don Quixote. That dream was never realized.

Walt Disney died in 1966; Dalí, in 1989.

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The Destino exhibit will be visible from July 10 through January 3, 2016, at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. It will then shift to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. As of 2012, the actual Destino film is featured in the “Dalí” exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou n Paris, France.

FIVE O'CLOCK SHADOWS IN DISNEY-DALI LAND

Todd Schorr, FIVE O’CLOCK SHADOWS IN DISNEY-DALI LAND (acrylic on canvas, 1996, 30″ x 40″)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.