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How Gemma Jackson Brought Agrabah to Life for Aladdin

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During the press conference for the highly-anticipated live-action adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin, we got to learn more about how production designer Gemma Jackson tackled the ambitious task of designing the kingdom of Agrabah for the film. More importantly, we learned how impactful her practical set designs were in helping the actors immerse themselves into their characters and how the characters would interact within the world she had created for them to play in.

When you think about the original animated Disney’s Aladdin, where does your mind go? I know for myself the image of the Taj Mahal-influenced palace looms to mind followed by the rough and tough streets of Agrabah where Aladdin spends the bulk of his days. Agrabah is very much a silent character within the realm of the story despite the fact that it is only really meant to be a backdrop for the characters. However, it became pertinent for the purpose of the movie to create something truly spectacular, especially since the kingdom was given more weight and importance this time around. Because the kingdom featured in the film was going to be further elevated to being a center of trade and involve a frequent blending of cultures, the task of creating Agrabah was going to be a monumental task. However, figuring that out was part of the fun for Jackson as she dove into the research process.


“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 world that we wanted to explore for our kingdom and our land and letting it all kind of gradually come together,” Jackson explained. “And as the different demands of the film grew, then different parts of that set grew.”

Gemma Jackson further explained how she worked with Chas Jarrett, who dealt with the visual effects, to make sure that not only would the audience be able to see the eye level view of Agrabah, but that they would also be able to carry that same magic of Agrabah over to in overhead views as well as maintaining the quality when viewing the world from above. Models were built to assist with this. And a substantial amount of mathematics was involved to make sure that the sets were able to fit within the space provided, but also to accommodate the choreography utilized throughout the course of the film. This was a careful process and a serious lesson in working together to make sure that the overall product came about successfully.

“The world, it does kind of brew with the script, with the characters, with a lot of the dance sequences needed to be very seriously choreographed,” Jackson explained. “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. They worked together. So I’m visually hanging onto my vision and not wanting to lose any element of that. Meanwhile, they all have to do all these extraordinary feats. So we all worked together really.”

In a time when it is more common to work on a green screen rather than practical sets and effects, performances can end up getting lost in translation as actors try to conjure up settings in their minds to coincide with their acting. And for an inexperienced actor, in particular, it can mean wandering around dazed and confused as to how to approach a scene because there is nothing to interact off of. However, this was not the case on the set of Aladdin. All of the work that Gemma Jackson put in building the practical sets and placing such quality care in making sure everything worked well proved to be a major benefit for the actors, according to Will Smith.

“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,” Smith explained. “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.”

The setting of Agrabah in the film is truly remarkable and all of Gemma Jackson’s passion and love for her work shines through. Because of her influence, Agrabah is a living, breathing character. Instead of the occupants bringing life to the kingdom, this film proves that the kingdom of Agrabah brings life to the people who interact within it.

The film stars Will Smith as the Genie; Mena Massoud as Aladdin; Naomi Scott as Jasmine; Marwan Kenzari as Jafar; Alan Tudyk as the parrot Iago; Navid Negahban as the Sultan; Nasim Pedrad as Dalia; Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders; and Numan Acar as Hakim.

Disney‘s Aladdin is produced by Dan Lin, p.g.a., and Jonathan Eirich, p.g.a., with Marc Platt and Kevin De La Noy serving as executive producers. Eight-time Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken provides the score, which includes new recordings of the original songs written by Menken and Oscar-winning lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and includes two new songs written by Menken and Oscar and Tony Award-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Aladdin will soar into theaters on May 24, 2019.

Sarah Musnicky
Sarah is a freelance writer and self-described workaholic. She loves fantasy and sci fi and will admit having dual loyalties between Star Trek and Star Wars as well as Marvel and DC. When she's not being socially awkward, she is in a corner obsessing over dragons, cute things, and a need to master all languages on the planet. She would like to be a professional blanket burrito when she reaches the peak of maturation.

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