The audience will once again become a part of Ariel’s world when The Little Mermaid, the studio’s live-action reimagining of the Academy Award®-winning animated musical classic, arrives in theaters today. Directed and produced by visionary Rob Marshall, Disney’s The Little Mermaid is an intimate story set against an epic backdrop—including a stunning, photorealistic undersea world. Ambitious in scope but grounded in reality, the film stars Halle Bailey as Ariel, a vivacious mermaid with a beautiful voice and a thirst for adventure – one that will take her above the surface to another world inhabited by humans.

“There are two different worlds in our story: the upper world, which is a very real world, and the underwater world, which is our magical world where there are mermaids, crabs sing, and diving birds like Scuttles talk,” says Marshall. “The underwater world is completely digital, and above the water everything is real and constructed in the way of a classic period film.”

Because visual effects supervisor Tim Burke had to digitally create the underwater scenes in post-production, each one had to be mapped in advance. “We started by doing pre-vis animation that calculated, designed, and created the entire way the scenes would play out,” explains executive producer and unit production manager Jeffrey Silver, “and then we looked at each shot to decide how it was best to be accomplished.”

Ultimately, the filmmakers opted for a “dry-for-wet” approach, in which the actors would shoot their underwater scenes on land in a blue-screen environment, using a variety of state-of-the-art devices that included wires, teeter-totters, and tuning forks. Actors were often strapped into a harness with a counterweight on the back to simulate underwater movement. “Everything had to be specially choreographed with a large team of stuntmen and women, helping to maneuver our characters,” says Marshall.

To support the dry-to-wet approach, The Little MermaidDirector of Photography Dion Beebe decided that he would have to design complex lighting effects to simulate the underwater look. “My gaffer and I made water trays for theatrical moving lights that we could hang above the sets, through which the light could be projected,” he explains. “We then had our SFX team build a mixer to disrupt the water and create the corrosive lighting we wanted for the sequences that were below the surface of the ocean.

Silver adds, “Water etching is usually done through reflection, through mylar, but Dion designed the most organic method of creating underwater lighting that I’ve ever seen, which translates very well to film. Marshall says he was blown away by Bibi’s “brilliant” artistry, saying, “He understands the subtleties of light and movement in a way that few people do.” His approach to underwater work was to understand the actual water depth for each scene and then paint with color and shadow to achieve a photorealistic world.

Meanwhile, production designer John Mihre and the art department spent countless hours researching and reviewing nautical footage, documentaries and photographs of actual underwater worlds, which would ultimately influence the aesthetic of each underwater set. Each has its own design scheme, with subtly different color palettes and tones – from the lighter blue surface of the ocean near Ariel’s cave to the deep purple tones that mask Ursula’s ominous world in the ocean depths. King Triton’s underwater realm is designed with a jewel-like color palette inspired by real corals and anemones. Mihre designed it to look like a bustling city, with reference to the Manhattan skyline of the 1930s, where everything is made of beautiful, oversized coral pillars, anemones, reefs and other materials. “We didn’t want it to look like a man-made or futuristic kingdom, but to feel like it actually came from something very real,” Mihre explains. “We wanted to try to make it as natural as possible, so everything underwater actually comes from the sea.”

That, says Marshall, was the key to the reimagining The Little Mermaid for live action. “Even though it’s a magical world that we created, our goal was not to make it look animated in any way.” We wanted to reimagine our underwater space in a photorealistic style so that it would come to life in live action,” says the director. “That was really important to us.”

By Editor

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