Production design is as vital to a film as its cast. One misstep and that immersive world that the director is trying to create can be shattered. Sarah Greenwood was tasked with bringing to life the 1992 animated world of Beauty and the Beast. It was up to Greenwood to capture the era and bring the magic to life, working with the set director, the art designer and director Bill Condon to make this happen.
Greenwood traveled around France looking at old chateaus and architecture to engineer the elements that would help recreate 1740’s France. With a team of over 60 sculptors and crew, 30-foot high sets were built from the Beast’s library to Belle’s bedroom, the Beast’s lair and of course his enchanted castle. Taking eighteen months, everything from the ornaments to the books and layer upon layer of intricate detail was worked on to transform the viewer from Belle’s village in France to Beast’s castle where he and his staff are under a spell.
It’s impossible not to watch the film and not get caught up in the sheer swoon factor of the delicious detail of Greenwood’s production. Consider Sarah Greenwood for Best Production Design and read our chat below:
What’s it like to bring something so iconic and beloved to life?
It was a massive challenge. It was a baby to them, it was so loved by Disney and so important and what it did for their animation studio at the time was so dear to them. We were aware of what we were being given. In Bill’s hands, it was incredible.
What was amazing was that there was this great script with three new songs and I looked at it like, “How am I going to do this?” I didn’t immediately go back to the animation because I wanted to go in with a fresh approach with what Bill had sensed. Unlike say Maleficent, we were set in 1740s France and that gave it something to set my hat on. It was a period I understood and could research. I started working with my amazing team of illustrations. What was fascinating was we had to work on the household staff and that was something I had never done before in that I was working on the “creatures.” You had what they were in the animation, and then what they were as ornaments, followed by the characters they turned into, and the actors playing the characters so it was incredibly complicated tiers of information. How would a clock that looks like that work?
One of our modelers had a French bulldog who waddled. We looked at this dog and he would waddle around and was quite a pompous thing and we videoed him and showed it to Bill and that was our Cogsworth. It was just this fantastic collaboration from the get go.
We took the visuals back to Disney who gave us the green light and then we had to make it. I have to say that even though it was a multi-million dollar project, it was just so much fun to work on. Creatively it was great and we had the money, the time, and there were very few bumps in the road. It was eighteen months from start to finish and the biggest project I’ve ever worked on.
There are a lot of intricate details to the film and all these elaborate sets. Let’s walk through some of them. How did you design the village and what inspired that?
Initially, we went looking for the village in France. Part of my thing was that this was a fairytale world that comes out of reality. The reality is the village because they’re in the real world and they step into this enchanted world. We started looking around France, we looked at chateaus and the architecture.
We found this village we could have shot in, but then they said, “It’s going to cost X to go to there, can you make us this village?” We ended up combining all the elements we really loved about the villages we had seen and designed it to fit the action and choreography. We built it and that was one of the premises of what we were doing. It was live action. We knew the Beast and some of the characters were going to be CGI so we tried to build everything for real as much as possible. The sets were 30 feet high and that made it tangible and it comes across.
What went into creating the library?
We did a lot of research and there’s a fantastic library that we found in Portugal. It was a triple cube library. We built one cube and shot it in a way that it became three. Building that involved a lot of construction. It needed to have humor and life to it, and the books are everything to Belle. The first time Belle and the Beast go in there is mellow so the whole look had to be enchanting. Here are 10,000 books so it needed to have the wow factor.
All the sets had this feeling. Belle’s bedroom had the wow factor that every little girl wanted to go into. Beast’s lair was dark. The kitchen was based on a doll’s house and it was inspired by a castle in Sweden. Everything came from something real but we took it, twisted it and made it work for our story.
Was it easy to source the materials?
This is what made it so much fun. I wasn’t working on spaceships. We were doing something so rare, people brought so many craft and technical skills to it from the art to the set departments. The team was carving things, plastering things and making molds. There were over 60 sculptors working on it. They were drawing by hand with pencils and so the whole feel of it was organic. There was the feeling of bringing old skill back, mixing it with the CGI work. It was a hybrid of what you can do with the combination of the CGI and real old school prop building.
Right at the end we went to see the recording of the music at Abbey Road and it was a “Wow” moment and such a treat. It was great fun to work on.