On The Little Mermaid Live!, production designer Misty Buckley offered up a fresh visual take on a classic fairy tale, aiming to transport viewers into an underwater world, with sets designed for the stage.
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Disney’s animated film, the live musical special intercut footage from that beloved Oscar winner with fantastical live-action sequences, filmed within a theatre in the round. Using the 1989 film as a starting point for her designs, the production designer’s goal with the special was then to elevate it with a sense of “otherworldy theatricality.”
Below, the first-time Emmy nominee reflects on building a “sunken theater” for the live TV musical, and the logistics involved in pulling it off.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with The Little Mermaid Live!? What excited you about designing it?
MISTY BUCKLEY: I was invited to work on the project by Hamish Hamilton, director and producer, and it was just an amazing opportunity because it’s one of those stories that we’ve all grown up with. So, to be able to take it and give it my own aesthetic, whilst keeping true to Disney, was just a total dream.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Hamilton and other key creatives early on, in terms of a visual direction for the show?
BUCKLEY: Early on, we agreed that we wanted to create an immersive experience. We knew we couldn’t do a show with a ton of water, so we discussed the aesthetic and how we would immerse the audience in a theater that has been submerged underwater. The idea is that you’d stumbled into a beautiful opera house that was sunken 100 years ago or something, and once you’d established that narrative, everything else just fell into place because we’d established our world. We used lots of effects [in] lighting and projection to make you feel like you’re above water or below water. But that was a very early discussion.
DEADLINE: Can you expand on the thinking behind your designs for the stage, and how everything was laid out?
BUCKLEY: The ambition was to create a piece of work that always had movement in it, without that movement being reliant on a screen all the time. We have lots of vertical movement and aerialists. So, jellyfish, all sorts of flown props would come in that made you feel like they were floating, and the actual stage was designed as a proscenium show. As I said, we had this sunken theater. So, we created a proscenium with a thrust that was through the audience, and it was very fluid in its movement and shape.
There were all sorts of lifts, and hidden, secret, little traps for people to pop up. There were special effects, puppets, lighting, all sort of hidden in the staging itself. So, that was quite a complex design process because I had to make sure that we could accommodate the puppets and the puppeteers, as well as have special effects close to them, whilst obviously remaining safe. As well, we created a complete 360-degree theater. So, we built these arches all the way around the room. We had front of house hidden, and lighting desks hidden amongst those arches, so the whole environment felt complete, like you really were transported to somewhere else.
DEADLINE: Were any musical sequences particularly challenging to design for?
BUCKLEY: “Part of Your World” was particularly challenging because it’s such a loved scene in the movie, so we had to get the right balance of what was in the cave of her collections, and the scale of that, because everything’s a little bit bigger in the movie. But we wanted to get a sense of realism, as well, because we were on the stage, and we didn’t want Ariel to be dwarfed by loads of enormous props.
So, we played with scale a lot, and everything had a playfulness about it. That gave it that otherworldly theatricality, which was part of our initial brief, and we kept revisiting that like, have we gone far enough with this? Are we pushing the boundaries? That was really fun.
I had an amazing art director, Joe Celli, and set decorator, Jason Howard. All my drawings and sketches, where everything started out, they were brilliant at staying really true to that and bringing it to life, and honestly, I just couldn’t have achieved half of it without them. They were extraordinary, like saintly. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: How did you go about building the enormous props you mentioned, like the pair of glasses we see hanging above Ariel?
BUCKLEY: We’d start with a drawing, and then it would become three-dimensional. Then, Joe Celli would take all those drawings and do the 3D CAD system, and then take them to the shop. And there was a rigorous process of, what was the finish of the glasses? Did the glasses have a little break in them? Like, the level of detail on this show, all the way through every single thing, was extraordinary. The amount of coral, what kind of coral, how the coral was art directed onto the rock formations.
It really was another level. It was as if we were doing a real, detailed movie—but then we were, in a way, because we were creating a stage show that was also primarily a television show. So, it was getting that balance, so there was enough ‘Wow’ factor for the wide shot and for everybody in the room to feel it. But then you had to zoom right in on the detail for those little close-ups. Everything was so important, so it was really a lot.
DEADLINE: “Kiss the Girl” was another remarkable sequence, featuring Ariel and Sebastian rowing through a marsh, surrounded by greenery and fireflies.
BUCKLEY: What was so dreamy about “Kiss the Girl” was bringing it out into the audience, and the audience becoming this kind of beautiful sea lake environment. As they traveled through, we created lots of different moments. So, they’d go through the hanging willow, and then there were jellyfish, and the birds, and the puppets and everything. How it appeared, there was a real sequence, and so having to nail that sequence was really challenging.
It was all constantly revisiting the action, the camera shots, what are we going to see, how are we telling the story, and seeing it from all these different angles, because we were constantly shooting in the round, basically. It was like, “Oh gosh, we’ve caught that in the back of the shot. Quick, we need another lobster.” [Laughs] So, it’s just making sure that every shot felt really rich, and when it needed to be, it was really saturated.
DEADLINE: What made The Little Mermaid Live! different from projects you’d designed in the past?
BUCKLEY: Where we started, a really interesting process, which I’ve not done before on a show like this, is that each scene had its own color palette. And we set that color palette really early on, so that each scene had its own [visual identity in relation to the film]. Then, you enhanced them and maybe oversaturated some of them, but we kept quite true to the colors. So, “Under the Sea” was all kind of oranges and pinks, and then “Les Poissons” was red and black and white, so it was very French, but then it had this big copper pan from a French kitchen.
DEADLINE: It must have been challenging, having to work with fairly limited stage space.
BUCKLEY: We had to get the scenery to work really, really hard because there was limited space, so we created this modular rock formation. The core of it was used for “Daughters of Triton,” and then when we went to “Under the Sea,” we expanded it and added more layers. And then, when we got to “Les Poissons,” we turned the whole thing around, and the other side of it was this giant French oven. There were staircases in and out, and at the same time, you had entrances and exits and egress for the puppeteers, and then you had characters coming in and out.
It was so busy, and we just had to have the most extraordinary stage management to get everything off. I mean, it was like a French farce backstage. You’ve never seen so many kinds of costumes flying, and props and scenery. It was just out of this world. But I think all that energy came across on stage, and then the audience obviously responded to that. So, it felt like we were always on high energy and high color, and the right color palette.
DEADLINE: Did you have any anxiety about the live aspect to this production? Or did you feel assured that everything would come together smoothly?
BUCKLEY: I just took it as a really great and interesting challenge. I think when you’ve managed to get an Olympic ceremony all laid out in the room in like nine minutes, you’re like, “Okay, I can deal with a bit of pressure.” [Laughs] It’s just always brilliant when you do a lot of touring and TV shows, which are fantastic. But then when someone comes to you with a beautiful narrative script and a piece of work that’s so loved by so many, inviting you to interpret that and bring your own flair, that is the dream job, because you’re given all the magical elements. Then, you’ve just got to make a really amazing cake out of it. So, I actually have to credit the team that put it together. The set builders, the scenic artists, were absolutely, mind-blowingly brilliant. Everybody just pulled it out of the bag and created this extraordinary show, and I’m really proud of it.
DEADLINE: What did it mean to you to land your first Emmy nomination for this special?
BUCKLEY: It’s a real honor to be nominated. When I see all the other people in the other categories, I feel really grateful, and I’m really grateful for the team because the Emmy’s for all of us—Joe Celli, and Jason Howard, and all our extended team who worked on it. I really have never seen an art department work so hard and under such intense conditions, and I really hope that they get it.