Salvador Dali’s vision for Disney’s Destino has always been elusive, even after the late Roy E. Disney finished the experimental short in 2003. That’s partly because of the Spanish painter’s penchant for abstract, surreal, symbolism. And also because, out of more than 200 story sketches and drawings that Dalí and artist John Hench created, only 150 or so exist in The Walt Disney Animation Research Library and the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation (though further visual development sketches and paintings have also been preserved by ARL).
However, at long last, the narrative puzzle has been put back together, thanks to the recovery of a "lost" collection of Destino art, which was presented for the first time at Chapman University on Tuesday by animation art conservationist Ron Barbagallo (view a clip here).
"The film was never meant to be odd or harsh — conversely, it’s romantic, almost a baroque ballet of imagery….It’s actually quite literal," explained Barbagallo, director, Animation Art Conservation, and fine artist for the "Found in Los Angeles" project, who demonstrated a side-by-side comparison with the finished Destino in a class on Modernism at Moulton Hall.
"To give you an idea of how significant a discovery this is," he added, "this found collection holds more than a third of the art for Destino, and to the best of my knowledge, it also holds the only complete set of storyboards known to exist [when Dali walked off the project on July 31st, 1946, after refusing to make any more changes]."
Dali met Walt Disney at a party at Jack Warner’s house in 1945 after his disappointing experience designing the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Disney later proposed that Dali oversee the Destino short, the story of a man’s journey from lust to love featuring two dance sequences, set to an original song performed by Dora Luz.
Dali painted, drew and storyboarded with Hench for several months, and Destino contained six sections revolving around encounters between a man named Chronos and a woman named Dahlia. While a series of forms (many culled from Dali’s paintings) were intended to morph into one another, Barbagallo discovered that there was a definite beginning, middle and end to each section.
"The encounter shifts are very much in his own mindscape as the short starts, but it moves quickly into a more ‘realistic’ setting — a party environment," continued Barbagallo. "The woman is seen more sexualized here and the male figure is now a series of more abstract male figures. If you look closely, you will see the spiral they’re in, you will see trappings of a party: formal attire, drinks and an exploding champagne bottle in the heart area of the Chronos male figures. This party sequence involves Dahlia presenting herself and the male figure literally becoming electrified by her presence, trying to pull her into his orbit. She recoils and runs away up the spiral where she retreats into a conch shell.
"The epic mindscape enlarges and we see this wilder dream-like sky full of surrealist images that include telephones, classic architectural elements, fish and pyramid shapes aping the main building to which the male figure was attached at the beginning. She presents herself again to him and he is so attracted to her, he attempts to pull himself off the architecture while she starts to dance. This is the first ballet sequence. It is significantly more conventional than the second ballet dance, and, as she continues to dance, we see her head become baseball-shaped and she is also introduced as being a dandelion blossom.
"As in life, relationships based on physical attractions frustrate, and Chronos kisses the dandelion blossom version of Dahlia goodbye. This sequence also repeats and introduces a lot of symbolism you see in the short: the telephones, the ancient relics and the tortoise shell couple that are a big part of the rest of the film. Rejected, Chronos is sent upon a journey. He is forlorn. He navigates through a maze of relics in this mindscape desert, until an index figure falls and points his way. He follows the finger into a cavern where clock dials tick the time he’s wasting figuring it out… and the clock faces are everywhere in big and small ways. At the end of the clock face passage way is a U-shaped opening where a classic Greco-Roman head emerges from seemingly disconnected parts. Chronos jumps through this passage way."
Destino concludes with the baseball ballet that introduces Chronos and Dahlia as part of a larger baseball game with the tortoise shell couple in the background. This is the most revelatory part the collection because so little was known about the dance. It’s a Busby Berkeley-like sequence, very elaborate, with the coming together and shattering of recurring images until Chronis emerges and a heart appears above him surrounded by iconic architecture. There’s even a herd of deer toward the end as a reference to Bambi. At last, he opens his heart to receive Dahlia.
"Unlike traditional animation, almost every element in the background — and the foreground characters themselves — [move with a fluidity] at different rates, often offering layered levels of visual awareness," Barbagallo suggested. In fact, what first appears as the iconic Dali image of ants crawling in the palm of a hand turns out to be tiny bicyclists in one of the rediscovered drawings.
The late Hench told me in 2003 that in meetings with Walt Disney, they "discussed the idea of one form morphing into another and when it was right, quit tearing it up so that it remained a double form….[Dali] was pretty good at choosing angles and choosing any action, and then that would trigger another idea and he would jump onto that. So I ended up making more drawings than he did."
But how did Barbagallo stumble upon this Disney/Dali holy grail?
Last year, Barbagallo received an email by someone claiming to be the custodian of Destino art. After dismissing him, the emailer persisted and even threatened to send a copy of the art. Indeed, months later, Barbagallo received a package and was shocked to find 72 individual hand-drawn story sketches, color printouts and 14 pages of black and white photostats from the production.
Barbagallo immediately asked where the art came from. The custodian explained that back in the mid-1950s a sound artist whose company rented space at Disney noticed story sketches from Destino routinely appearing and disappearing from a studio commissary display and replaced by other pieces (some were apparently sold at auctions) . Then one day, when a cafeteria worker was told to remove the display, pick a portion of the artwork to save and throw the rest away, the artist came to the rescue and the worker gave him the discards. Then in the ’60s, he actually met Dali and showed him the art. Dali not only verified that it was from Destino but also inscribed and signed a piece of the art.
Barbagallo was told that the artist who saved the Destino art recently passed away and that it was forgotten until found in a closet in a house that was willed to the artist’s long-time companion. Yet the folder containing the art was nearly put in a dumpster as the house was being prepared for sale. So, ironically, the Destino art was saved for a second time.
The custodian said he approached Barbagallo because he noticed the Destino art on his website. They sought a scholar to examine and assemble it so the announcement of its existence could be made in an academic setting. They are also seeking to insure that the name of the man who saved the art is recognized and remembered. They do not want to split up the collection or auction it.
Barbagallo first tried matching the art to the finished Destino short. But the storyboards were out of order and it proved difficult finding a pattern. Then Barbagallo had an epiphany while laying them out.
"The storyboards arrived as 14 separate sheets with images running 4 across and 4 down [but one of the sheets was not from Destino]. My guess is it was easiest to photograph them this way so they could be read easily enough, but they were meant to be read 8 images across, four rows down."
Barbagallo next brought in an animation director and the two of them went through copies of the boards and synced them up. Using high-res digital files, every single piece of art from the collection was isolated as individual frames. They put each frame into sequential order using the boards as their guide. Then they made a 12-minute animatic unique to this collection that showcases the art in a series of dissolves.
In addition to showing an appreciation of Disney special effects artist Herman Schultheis (Fantasia), Barbagallo said the boards confirm that the intricate visual plan would’ve been very challenging. "Dali’s work at Disney duplicated the exact mistakes when working with Alfred Hitchocck and David O. Sleznick on Spellbound. He went well over the time limit requested and created something too complicated for anyone to execute."
And yet this Destino discovery provides clarity as a result of the complete set of photostatic storyboards. "Who knew this short would make such sense and be so romantic? In proper order, the narrative and the artist’s intent is fully realized," Barbagallo concluded.