Director Rob Marshall on the Underwater Cinematography of The Little Mermaid
Disney knows how to make underwater movies. At this point, it’s the industry expert at underwater cinematography. First, we experienced the kingdom of Talokan in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, then Disney quickly followed up with Pandora’s marine bioluminescence in Avatar: The Way of Water. But now, The Little Mermaid might just give both films a run for their money.
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The live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid made a number of changes from the animated film, with the biggest being how it portrays the ocean. Instead of the cartoonishly bright colors of the 1989 film, the 2023 adaptation is committed to making the ocean as realistic as possible. We know what you’re thinking—the movie stars mermaids and talking sea animals, so why would they care about realism?
Because director Rob Marshall isn’t here to create a fantasy or a documentary—he’s here to spin a fairytale.
“I wanted people to feel like they're really there. Of course, I completely understand that there are merpeople and there are crabs and fish that speak, but I wanted it to feel more tangible. That's what you can do with a live-action film,” said Academy Award-winning director Rob Marshall to Esquire Philippines.
The detail given to underwater lighting is slightly outstanding and familiar. Divers will quickly recognize the accuracy of the film’s underwater lighting. Unlike on land, colors change with depth underwater, adopting cooler, muted tones due to limited sunlight. It’s realistic enough that if a kid ever did go scuba diving one day, it wouldn’t be so hard for them to imagine a mermaid popping out from behind a coral reef.
Director Rob Marshall shared credits with two key designers on the project: Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe and Academy Award-winning production designer John Mhyre, both of whom are longtime collaborators of Marshall’s. The Little Mermaid is the latest collaboration for the trio, who’ve previously worked on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Mary Poppins Returns.
“We talked a lot about the different levels of the sea and some scenes are happening right below the surface. So you're getting more sunlight, you're getting a brighter world,” explained Marshall.
In one of Ariel’s scenes near the surface, the screen is illuminated with crystal blue waters because it’s just under the surface, but in Ariel’s scenes with Ursula, the cinematography takes on the murky, dark tones of the deep ocean.
“We really worked on the sacred gradations of the color,” said Marshall.
The realism of the lighting gives this fairytale a sense of being achievable—making it easier for the kids watching the film to imagine themselves in this fantastical world. It’s a delicate balancing act and another challenge for the live-action fairytale, but The Little Mermaid pulls it off.
“The sea is so vast, and it's so wonderful that we get an opportunity. If you see this film in IMAX, it's astonishing, because you're literally living inside the space and it's so immersive,” shared Marshall.
Well, you heard him. Grab your kids and go watch The Little Mermaid in cinemas now.