‘Little Mermaid’ Director Breaks Down Filming ‘Under the Sea’ in Live-Action

Director Rob Marshall is no slouch when it comes to working with musicals, going back to his first time working with Walt Disney Studios on the 1999 TV-movie adaptation of “Annie.” But working under the sea with a new, live-action version of the 1989 animated classic “The Little Mermaid” proved a challenge for even this seasoned director.

“It was exciting because it was so complicated, but [it was] definitely the most complicated one I’ve ever done,” Marshall told TheWrap. He cites his work on the 2018 feature, “Mary Poppins Returns,” as a foundation for working on this. “That animation sequence helped me with this because once again, working with nothing,” he said.

Marshall, a fan of complex choreographed numbers, wondered how that same kinetic energy could be brought to an undersea environment, particularly during the high-energy “Under the Sea” musical sequence.

Marshall ended up employing a technique utilized in Disney’s 1940 musical feature, “Fantasia.” For that feature’s second segment — a tribute to the “Nutcracker” Suite composed by Tchaikovsky– Disney employed the famous Ballet Russes to come in and guide the animators. “I thought, ‘Maybe that’s the way.’ Maybe I’ll bring a company over to London,” Marshall said.

“You watch ‘Blue Planet’ and it’s like there’s already a ballet going on anyway,” he said. Using the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Marshall saw a world where, similar to “Fantasia,” the dancers would dance and the animators would use those dancers as a model for the CGI.

“It was so helpful because we could create this musical number on them, which is where I live and felt comfortable. So with our choreographers, and [producer] John DeLuca [and] myself, we worked with them to help us replicate different kinds of sea creatures we had chosen that we wanted,” Marshall said.

Musical moments aside, Marshall wanted to ground this new interpretation of “The Little Mermaid” in reality. He went back to Hans Christian Andersen’s original where Marshall saw a “very contemporary story about a young girl who feels she doesn’t fit in, doesn’t feel like she’s part of her world,” he said. “We live in an increasingly divisive world that it was an antidote to that for me, personally. I just felt like ‘Wow, this is about someone wanting to build a bridge.”

“The Little Mermaid” is in theaters May 26.

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