'Aladdin' Production Designer Gemma Jackson on How She Erected Agrabah in England

We chat with Gemma Jackson about constructing a whole new world from the ground up.

Aladdin
Walt Disney Pictures

Put the original film out of your head. For fans, such a notion can be difficult. For creators, the task is essential to getting the job done. Much of the erasure of nostalgia is accomplished when you translate an animated property into a live-action film. Working in the real-world constricts your imagination to the rules of reality, i.e., physics. Then again, Walt Disney Pictures doesn’t do real world. If required, they’ll construct a whole new one from the emptiness of sound stages and computers. They can bend the rational to the magical. That’s the gift given to Aladdin production designer Gemma Jackson.

Originally, director Guy Ritchie and Jackson were looking to plant Agrabah in Morrocco, but the idea of modifying the country for their song-and-dance routines seemed impractical. Already in the wish-granting business, Disney flipped a switch, increased the budget, and suddenly Agrabah made its home in Longcross Studios in Surrey, England. Few desires are as palpable for production designers than the chance to build from scratch.

We spoke to Jackson about the joys and the challenges of erecting Agrabah in England, as well as how you deliver on the expectations of fans while providing an entirely new endeavor. Leaning into the practical allowed Ritchie to highlight the fantastical elements that populate Jackson’s sets. While they elected not to film in Morrocco, they still took a lot of inspiration from the country for their designs. To hear Jackson tell it, once she understood the language of the palace, the rest of the magical city arose quickly.

Here is our conversation in full:

I would imagine that one of the challenges and probably one of the joys of this film was mixing the fantasy elements of the original with the cultural reality of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Yeah. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head really there. It’s a part of the world that I love and I’ve traveled in quite a lot. Not so much of the Middle East other than Morocco. I’d like to go more. I’ve always gone to Persian villages and wonderful books on Isfahan, etc. in my dreams. I’ve been to Turkey. I’ve also traveled more in Asia, in India and Sri Lanka and Japan and all that stuff. They’re all parts of the world that I completely love. They were very much used there.

Although we started our research in Morocco, we thought at one point we might shoot in Morocco, but in the end, we built it all. I did start off there because obviously, it’s quite accessible from here. I think once you decide to build it, then you’re free to kind of steal a little bit of this and steal a little bit of that and create the world that you really want it to be, which is how I approached it really.

With the palace, I kind of went Eastern a bit, and I ended up being very influenced by a Burmese monastery that I found that was rather scruffier than my palace, but it was a beautifully painted wood which just turned me on. I sort of took that as a jumping-off point. It’s a long way off from what we ended up with, but it was a lovely starting point for me, the inside/outside way of life, etc., and that kind of beautiful cut-out and the shapes and the light that comes through and all the rest of it.

The whole idea was that we were in this part of the world where you’re on the ocean, you’ve got ships coming in bringing goods, you’ve got the camels going off across the desert taking stuff who knows where. It was like a mixing area where people were coming and going and there were all sorts of elements in the palace and the presents that they get brought and the things that they sell in the market. That was the way we approached it.

How did you balance the reality with the fantasy? You have to meet the expectations of the original film but also branch out into slightly more grounded live-action reality.

I never really think about that, to be absolutely honest with you.

No?

The original film, as far as I was concerned, was the original film. It’s absolutely beautiful and untouchable in a sense. I think when you’re doing a three-dimensional movie, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. An animation, basically it’s flat. It’s two dimensional. They’re very simple environments, etc. I was given this opportunity to create a full-on, full-bodied, three-dimensional world where people are running and jumping and carrying on, and off I went.

The characters are wonderful studies of different elements of humanity, which we then obviously portrayed in our movie but with our version. It wasn’t something that preyed on me or was a worry to me. I just sort of galloped off into the sunset or sunrise, I suppose, with my kind of ideas of how I wanted to create the world of Agrabah and the Cave of Wonders.

Did your approach to the fantasy of Aladdin differ from your approach to other movies you’ve worked on?

I did Bridget Jones, and it’s a comedy. You don’t try and do funny colors on the walls or jokey pictures by the phone. You do it for real. I would say, believe it or not, I did Aladdin for real. For me, Agrabah is a living, breathing, three-dimensional, fabulous place that I’d love to go and live in or visit. The palace was a fully functioning, in my heart and in my eyes. I could tell you probably where you could go and have a plunge in the pool or whatever, wherever.

At one point I went to see the visual effects people, and they put those wonderful virtual glasses on me, so I could stand on the balcony and look out at the ocean. It was just absolutely fabulous. That’s kind of how I felt about it. It was a completely believable, real place. You probably think I’m completely mad, but I’m a designer and that’s the way I work.

I totally get it, and I’m envious. So, when you read that script, was the palace the place you were most excited to construct?

The palace was really fun because you got to think of something. You just want a different palace. You don’t want a palace to be like any other palace. That’s a very tall order. I don’t know if that’s even possible. I rather loved our palace. As I said, it was actually based on a Burmese monastery that I found that was very different. All the wood, all the painted gold. The theory behind my palace is it was going to be wood painted gold.

Of course, when you pull back and you see the whole place, it was like a mad, kind of Byzantine…God knows what, really. That became necessary for all the different story elements, where people were and what they were doing and how they approached, whether they could see each other and whether they were looking at the ocean. It’s amazing what happens when you start three-dimensionalizing something like that. All you’re really building is about five rooms. It’s kind of quite wonderful, actually. Yeah, that was a huge one.

I also totally loved Agrabah. We started off in Morocco hunting around to see if we could actually do it for real, but the complications and the amount that we had to build into Morocco to make it work for all the songs and everything, it just became completely crazy. The producers said, “Look, if we put a bit more into the budget, let’s build it.”

I have to say, we had a complete ball. It was a fantastic hot summer. I had a huge crew of incredibly winning carpenters, painters, plasterers, greens men, and then the set direction team. They moved in and put all that incredible market together. It was a joy. We went off and we got all the doors and things. A lot of doors from Morocco and steps and shutters and funny things. That’s why it had that feeling of being a real place. We used a lot of real existing elements to kind of build walls, etc.

Those must be the best words to hear, “Let’s build it.”

Exactly.

Off to the races.

My whole team was like, “Yes!”

Is that your preferred method of working? There must be pros and cons.

I absolutely love building from the ground up. That is my favorite thing. Of course, not every job can do that. Not every job I do, I do that. I’ve got an imaginative mind, and that’s when you’re in control, aren’t you? You’re the master puppeteer. Whereas when you’re using location, then you have to work into them, there are so many restrictions. You can’t do that, you can’t pave that, you can’t touch the other thing. I’m doing a job at the moment which I’m absolutely loving, but I’m having to do a lot more location work as well. It’s quite restrictive. What you really want to do is just build everything. It’s not every project that has the budget to afford that.

Describe your collaboration with Guy Ritchie and his team.

What happens really is that Guy and me, we sort of talk around the subject and the broad strokes of the whole thing. I’ll go off and, just for my own edification, start finding images and mood boards and putting things together and creating worlds and making a jigsaw of all of the worlds. That will lead to concepting and getting some serious ideas down on paper for Guy to look at and decide on.

Obviously, when he’s happy then we start to push through. I usually go making models of things, three-dimensional models, because at some point or other the DP will come on. It’s interesting to actually have the three-dimensional space for everyone to talk about and see how you’re going to move around it, how they’re going to light it, etc., etc. It’s a sort of process, but then once that’s happened, you’ve got all your drafting done, then you start building things. You hope that as things go up that Guy will continue to be happy with everything.

Has that collaboration evolved over the few films you’ve worked with him on?

He’s pretty cool on the whole. He’s very lovely to work with and is very appreciative of things. Occasionally, he might say, “You know what, Gemma, that just has to be bigger. I need another 20 foot over there.” You say fine. You hope you’re going to have the time to do that. Of course, you can do that, he’s your director. He knows what he’s going to do up there. That’s how the process goes really. We had a fantastic construction crew who slogged away and the result is what you saw on your screen.


Aladdin is now available on Digital HD and VOD and will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on 9/10.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.