Inside the surreal costuming of “The Little Mermaid”
It’s no secret that Disney has embarked on an epic quest to change the princess narrative in recent years. Gone are the days of damsels in distress waiting for Prince Charming to save them. Even Frozen is less about a love plot than it is about learning to love difficult siblings. That’s why so many eyes are on the new live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. In the original 1989 animated film—let’s face it—Ariel drastically changes her physical appearance and gives up her literal voice to pursue a man. It isn’t the best message to send our children or anyone else. So what does it mean to be Ariel in 2023?
While there is a love plot in the new adaptation (in theatres everywhere 26 May), the romance plays second fiddle to Ariel’s intellectual curiosity. There’s a reason the film’s first trailer features King Triton scolding his daughter for breaking the rules and visiting humans in “the above world”—and Ariel responding, “I just want to know more about them.”
It’s also partially why the animated film’s seashell bras are not seen in this adaptation. The film’s costumes were brought to life by prolific designer Colleen Atwood, whose numerous credits include Netflix’s recent hit Wednesday, Sleepy Hollow (1999), Into the Woods (2014), and the forthcoming Beetlejuice 2 (2024), which began shooting in London this month. We caught up with Atwood to discuss not just the infamous shells—or lack thereof—but also all of the costuming decisions she made to help us feel like part of Ariel’s world, as well as how she makes this fantastical teenage mermaid feel like part of ours.
For a film like The Little Mermaid—which is so fantastical, so rooted in our world in one way but very much made-up in another—how do you even begin to research or ideate what the costuming should look like?
The thing is, as with Wednesday, if there is a script, it’s somewhat on the page. [With costuming work], you have to try to reinvent yourself and what you do. You know certain tricks of the trade, but you have to try not to use the same ones over and over again. So it’s about starting with the script and coming up with new ideas, new materials, new science, new art, and [staying] current in that way.
A lot of this film is CGI. What role did actual, physical costumes play?
It’s definitely a different process. In my case, I built real costumes to resemble what I wanted it to look like, because it really helped the digital people with colour and shapes. Digital always gives you this grid-type look, so it’s good to get off that grid. We gave them good references, and as much real stuff as we could. If you give the CGI people a solid reference, they have a better template to go off than just creating it from scratch digitally.
We took a lot of fish influences for the different merfolk, and had different tails and colourations to represent the seven seas, so it was this world of sea life. Instead of everyone having green tails, each person became a fish inspired by the oceans they came from. These costumes were all hand-painted, and some had shell enhancements, or silk screens we did that resembled scales.
So you made all of these beautiful costumes and the actors didn’t wear them, or hardly did?
When the actors were working, they were in the usual motion-capture suits 90 per cent of the time. There were a few pieces that the actors wore. [King Triton’s] breastplate—he was really wearing that. Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula costume, she wore that most of the time. That was a difficult one. It had to be like a dance costume but still look like Ursula, so we had to figure out where the octopus legs ended and the costume began, and also where the human body fits in that costume. That was a complex process.
This film has such a unique, distinctive aesthetic universe. Which came first—the set or the costumes?
The costumes and set came up together in preproduction. We started with the merpeople, and after a couple of months, we started exploring the above-the-sea world and relating that back to the ocean. A lot of times, set departments start with a longer lead than costuming, but because we had so many digital sets, and movement was involved, I was incorporated in the mix with the crew pretty much from the beginning.
Tell me about the above-the-sea world.
I had a great time costuming the above world as much as the underwater stuff. It was this fantasy 1830s-meets-Caribbean world. I got to do fun dance-number costumes, costumes for the royal court, all those costumes. Then there are the sailors on the ship. You’ll see, it’s not just one approach to costume but worlds within worlds. The merpeople have one look, and the villagers and people who live closer to the ocean, more “of the ocean”—their colours are more of the colours of live coral and vibrant colours of the sea.
Both in the story and in the design, the idea of two worlds that exist separately but have a lot in common is a storyline. I took the organic quality of sea creatures and seashells and corals, and incorporated them into the textures and colours. In the court, it was more about pearls and jewellery. We rented all this vintage jewellery for the court, and [made] a few of these otherworldly pieces. 4ocean does these clear beads out of recycled plastic bottles. I used their beads to make a breastplate for the queen. I’ve always loved those beads because they’re small and clear, so it looks pretty when it’s laid onto something.
A noticeable absence from this film: Ariel’s shell bra.
We walked away from that one. I just think we wanted to have a more fishlike quality to the girls. Having them all plonk seashells on their breasts seemed like a weird way to go. And when you start putting shells on real bodies, it’s hard to make them look good, believe me. We went with a bralette that still has a fish vibe but wasn’t as aggressive as a shell bra.
What was the most challenging part of costuming this film?
We shot it over a very long period of time, because we shut down the day we were supposed to start shooting [because of the pandemic]. You get up and running—then boom, it’s gone. But the costumes were done; they did not change when we eventually resumed production. I had to finish some multiples, but the show was pretty much ready to go. All the worlds were designed.
Was it difficult to walk away from production and then have to come back?
At first, it was so mind-boggling on so many levels. I couldn’t stop thinking about it the whole time. I was figuring out different things for Ariel’s sisters. In my mind, I still worked on everything because I kept it alive in my brain instead of totally walking away.
I love to ask costume designers this: Did your actors try to pilfer anything from the costume department?
I’m sure they did, but I didn’t clock anything serious. Everybody always wants a memento, right? I didn’t see things go bye-bye, but I’m sure everybody got a little something. I had so many costumes and so many multiples, but even with the volume of costumes, it all got worn so much. Everything was pretty much in use and under control. When you have stuff that doesn’t get used, that’s when it tends to float away.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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