Gemma Jackson Interview: Aladdin

Mena Massoud and Will Smith in Aladdin 2019

Aladdin is one of the most beloved animated Disney films of the past 30 years. The original animation team spent a long time designing the look and feel of Agrabah to make it come alive. Taking that look and bringing it to life for a live action movie would be quite the daunting task. Gemma Jackson, the production designer for the film sat down with us to discuss that challenge and how her and her team approached the opportunity to reintroduce the audience to the magical place we came to know and love in the original.

Adapting a Disney animated film into live action has been a daunting task due to audience expectations. Most animated backgrounds used to be fairly simple since they were hand-drawn animations, allowing viewers to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. How do you match or better the imaginations of full-grown kids who had dreams of what the world of Aladdin would look like?

Gemma Jackson: Well, I hope the answer is on the screen. My feeling about the animation is that it’s absolutely charming and beautiful, but they don’t really have to go into a huge amount of detail. It’s all about the people, really, and the characters. So, my job when I come along is to kind of make that pulsating world of animation come to life in 3D. That’s what I did. Obviously, there’s some of the same elements, as the script didn’t go so far from the original really. But I’m thinking in 3D, I’m not thinking in animation. So I didn’t give it a huge amount of thought, to be honest with you.

When you know you were going to jump on Aladdin, did you automatically start conjuring up images in your head and places you wanted to draw from?

Gemma Jackson: Absolutely. That’s how I always work, really. My big thing is, when I first read the script it has to be the complete script uninterrupted. I can’t bear to read through two scenes and have someone say, ‘Oh, come out for supper.’ Then I have to wonder, ‘Where was I?’ Doesn’t work. I have to be able to sit in a room on my own and read it, and then you get the first full hit. I do that with everything. That’s where you get probably the most important ideas, because it’s the first full effect of it on you. Of course, there’s designing and drawing and everything, but after that a lot of it is logistics: how to make it work, can you afford what you want to do. Even on this budget, it’s kind of like working all that out. And then, of course, it starts to grow. Ideas breed ideas, and colors begin to form. You think, ‘I really love that Byzantium dome, let’s put that on the palace.’ Then you’re thinking about the broken tower where he lives, and how to get him up there. I remember Guy really wanted Aladdin to be a clever guy who’s worked this all out. At one point it went away, so I was so pleased when I saw the film and it was still in. I love the fact that he can pull the steps out. We had quite fun inventing the whole thing of him having this canopy. If somebody were to break in, they wouldn’t think it was worth hanging about. But of course, he pulls up his canopy and then he’s got a little kingdom. So, we had a great time doing that. You get completely absorbed in all these little details, rally.

Can you talk to me about some of the challenges of having to work around some of the choreography and scene movement that has to happen?

Gemma Jackson: It’s interesting, actually, because I really get cracking before the choreographer shows up. Jamal, I don’t know if you’ve met him, he’s really the most gorgeous man. Everything that Will said about him is true, plus-plus-plus. Everybody was in love with Jamal. So when we started off with Agrabah, a lot of it was about that first song “One Jump Ahead.” And it was quite particular, the rhythm of it and everything else. So not only have you got the dance, you’ve got the music, and so we had to be [specific] about the distance between buildings and distances of traveling. We would start to build it all, and then hear that he can only jump 12 feet. How are we going to bring that building closer? We had to rejig it. There were all those kinds of questions to answer, which were actually quite enjoyable. We’re all making this film together. I’m not one of designers – I like everyone working together and problem solving. Sometimes stuntmen drive me mad. There’s a beautiful alleyway filled with rose petals, and they put down huge great big stunt mats everywhere, but mostly I enjoy the challenges of people needing things for specific reasons. You know, like when he stumbles out of the schoolroom and he has to do that ridiculous bit when you know there are stairs. There actually had to be special materials, but it looked fine. You just had to figure out how to work together.

Inside the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin teaser trailer

Which was harder to bring to life: the extravagance of the royal palace or the Cave of Wonders?

Gemma Jackson: Well, I think the palace was a joy for me to do because of all those gorgeous sets. Once I had worked out the principle of it, then it sort of followed a set of rules, if you like, though each room had its own idiosyncrasy. The Cave of Wonders is really hard. Really, really hard. Obviously, [visual effects supervisor] Chas Jarrett came in on that a lot. It was quite a challenge for us, because he had to touch things, jump and crawl and climb. So all that had to be real: real textures, real jewels, real everything. And where the Genie appears, that had to be a real platform. We got some quite fancy stuff through Disney, of course, but that’s just the elements of it. Then the mouth, and Chaz has to put it all together. Have all the volcanic elements and the flames and God knows. I think it’s brilliant. So he had to be quite specific about what he needed to be thoroughly three-dimensional and proper and finished. It did look quite odd. You can imagine a soundstage covered in elements which are not terribly exciting, but it kind of worked.

Can you talk about the ethnic and historical influences that you researched for the film?

Gemma Jackson: They’re very idiosyncratic, I’m afraid. I can’t really say anything specific, other than it’s a part of the world that I love. Originally I was sent to Morocco to start off, and Guy was interested in doing it there, so that kind of informed the color. And the fact that we decided to go with the pink walls is very Marrakesh, and then we had to offset with a bit of pistachio and yellow that kept it all quite beautiful and colorful. It was aged and broken down, but we didn’t want to go dingy. Guy wanted ti to be a visceral film, but in a make believe world.

Agrabah is almost a character of its own. What influences did you use to make it come to life, and to make it such a vibrant city?

Gemma Jackson: I guess, amongst all the research I talked about, I looked at trading centers. We tried not to give this a time period, to be honest with you, but you just look at where people are all bringing in goods and taking goods through. So you’ve got a constant stream of traffic and camels coming through, and that was the idea when Guy said, ‘You know what, let’s put it on the water.’ So it’s not only the desert there, you’ve got the water here. So that gives you another element of people passing through, and I think that gave us yet another layer of possibility of what we could dress in there. It was just like a huge trading center. People there were trading spices and jewels and gold, and also that gave great chances for [costume designer Michael Wilkinson]’s costumes and fabulous characters. I think all his characters and townspeople are absolutely fabulous.

More: Guy Ritchie Interview for Aladdin

Key Release Dates
  • Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019
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