As an interior designer, one of my favorite aspects of a film is studying the production design. I’m fascinated with the amount of work and research that it takes to bring to life everything from a room in a house to an entire world. During the global press conference for the live-adaption of Disney’s ALADDIN, those in attendance had the opportunity to hear how production designer Gemma Jackson brought the fictional world of Agrabah to life.
In talking about the port city of Agrabah, as well as the influences from multiple cultures, Gemma explained what it was like researching for the film. “The most fun part of researching I think was just throwing everything up in the air and letting it settle and thinking about the parts of [the] world that we wanted to explore for our kingdom and our land and letting it all kind of gradually come to together. And as the different demands of the film grew, then different parts of that set grew. And creating a world for this fantastic bunch of mad people I think was the best of my job.”
When it came to designing, Gemma had to make sure she was designing the whole world that Agrabah was a part of, not just the city itself. Throughout the film, we see not only the street view from the perspective of our characters, but also a bird’s eye view. This brings on a whole new set of challenges because it forces the design to be outside its own limitations in order to capture all of its surroundings. When asked to elaborate on that, Gemma stated, “I think what happens is you start to create your whole world and it takes me over as much as anything else. So the world just kind of grows up. I think you have to realize that also, I was working with Chas Jarrett who is the visual effects person. So we kind of worked together on some of the overhead worlds. We built models. We worked it all out very sort of mathematically as how you would see everything. But I think the world, it does kind of brew with the script, with the characters, with a lot of the dance sequences [needing] to be very seriously choreographed. And I had to work very carefully with them. There will be ten yards before they jump something. 20 feet before they would fall. It was all kind of requirements. It was like, it’s very hard to explain. I don’t know if anyone can help me here. But it kind of grows. They worked together. So I’m visually hanging onto my vision and not wanting to lose any element of that. Meanwhile, [the actors] all have to do all these extraordinary feats. So we all worked together.”
At this point, Will Smith interjected to further explain how important the production design was in regards to the performances. “It’s interesting for me to be here with you and hear you discuss those things. The ultimate compliment from the actor’s point of view is we were transported to the time and place. And that’s what happened when we walked on that set when you walked through,” explains Smith. “It was in the textures of the walls and all of that. And the stairs were real. You could go up and go out onto the rooftop. It was a powerful way to transport the actors into the emotions and the smells of the time and place.” This just goes to show how valuable production design is to the overall execution of the film.
With such beautiful sets and costumes, it should come as no surprise that Gemma, and others, would keep souvenirs from the film. “I’ve got a bat from the film,” explained Gemma. “Well, in Jafar’s study, which actually was probably the least seen part of the film, I made these bats that went around and at one point, I had some mad idea that they would be floating around in some scenes. And so I’ve got them in my garden.” Director Guy Ritchie went on to explain that he took “basically the whole of Agrabah. I gradually clawed it off Disney as time went on” with Will Smith stating that he always try to keep a little piece of the wardrobe and that he “tucked a turban on the way out.”
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