Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out when I was 6 years old, so the film is something I grew up with. It was the first movie that kicked off the Disney renaissance of animated films, so it has been a favorite among children for over three decades. Reinventing a classic is always risky. For Disney’s The Little Mermaid Live!, however, production designer Misty Buckley managed to create an immersive theatrical experience that both calls on our nostalgia but leaves us excited to see more.
Buckley has designed concert sets for artists like Ariana Grande, U2, and Coldplay, and her Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show design is both classic yet feminine. The Little Mermaid Live! is Buckley’s first live narrative musical for television, and her designs were even bigger than I realized. She created a system of rocks to accommodate the story’s puppetry, and she expanded on the iconic “Part of Your World” sequence. Every piece in Ariel’s collection feels like something with a living history. When creating Ursula’s dark lair, she faced challenges in terms of the size of the space she had to work with, to not disrupt the actors.
Unlike other televised musical experiences, The Little Mermaid Live! was a totally immersive one, and Buckley loved designing for a huge audience to partake in the action. Grab your dinglehopper and dive in!
Awards Daily: This really transforms you into a kid again.
Misty Buckley: That’s lovely to hear. I grew up with it as well, but you sort of forget that it has an impact on people. That kind of nostalgia goes deep, doesn’t it?
AD: There are good and bad types of nostalgia on TV lately, and I think this is definitely the good kind.
MB: It’s charming.
AD: Yeah, it definitely is. You’ve done a lot of designs for concerts like Coldplay and Kacey Musgraves, and this is your first live performance of a musical for television. How are these kinds of projects similar to one another?
MB: What’s lovely about doing something like The Little Mermaid or those live performances that follow a narrative is that they are centered on a story that has already been interpreted into a piece of film that we already adore. But it goes deeper because it was originally Hans Christian Anderson’s story and there’s a richness to the story. There’s a depth to the story that is incredible to bring onto the stage and interpret. We’ve had a live film version and the animated version and so many interpretations of it. You’re dealing with something that on the one hand is a well-trodden path, but on the other hand, it challenges you to take the audience somewhere that is different but doesn’t disconnect from the magic of Disney. I hope we managed to achieve that.
AD: I can confirm that it does.
MB: It was a brilliant situation to be in, because you had to be inventive within something that was really loved. That was kind of cool.
AD: A lot of it feels familiar like the big rock Ariel is sitting on at the end of “Part of Your World” but the rest of it had elements that made it feel like its own iteration of the story. My brain knew where the story was going to go, but I was anxious to see what was going to happen next.
MB: You get moments that were so brilliant like Queen Latifah and you suddenly think that it’s just insane. (Laughs) It was so rich and exciting.
AD: With “Part of Your World,” we see some of the items upstage behind her, and there is that great overhead shot where we see everything Ariel’s collected. How did you figure out what you put on stage?
MB: I was actually pretty rigorous about that scene. I was specific how we were going to interpret that moment. In the animation, when you break it down, it’s really quite simplified. What I didn’t want to create was if the objects were over-sized and difficult to handle, it would become too much to handle. It’s really a delicate scene where she talks about what she wants and desires so much. I took the essence of the story and tried to imagine the reality. That’s where I dipped into the Hans Christian Anderson and where they would’ve collected these great objects. I looked into old shipwrecks and Titanic.
AD: That’s so interesting.
MB: I was careful to take the kind of antique items and the stuff that was tangible and real so it felt there was a connection with it. Then we added oversized things as well. There were things that were correct scale and things that were oversized. It made the audience understand that they were in a magical world and it was Disney and it was charming and beautiful. There was something real about it. Because we were filming it for TV and it was high-definition, we needed to be able to show that it was stuff that meant something to her and they weren’t just props. Most of it was real from antique markets. I had an amazing art director in Joe Celli and amazing set dresser in Jason Howard. The three of us just tackled this area—we must’ve dressed it 12 times until we got it exactly right.
AD: Oh wow.
MB: I didn’t want it to look like an antique market, but we didn’t want it to look as simple as the film did. It was hard to juggle really. That was my favorite scene.
AD: That’s the scene that everyone is waiting for, too.
MB: I know!
AD: Every piece does make you wonder how she went about to collect them.
MB: Yeah! And you can imagine her collecting them all. The fun part was to put in little Easter eggs as well. There’s a little Moana in there as well as magical Disney things.
AD: During some of the musical numbers, there are puppets that pop up. I was so thrilled to see them in all those group songs. How was that a new thing for you to incorporate into your designs?
MB: We were some way into this design, we needed to create a sort of central piece that would be able to adapt and serve all the scenes with authenticity and honesty. And we have to add puppets and special effects and be able to do quick changes live on screen. We created a piece that was a sediment rock section where Sebastian does “Under the Sea.” We decided that if we took a piece of that and created a modular rock system—basically there were pods with puppeteers with special effects. It was made of about 12 parts of rock.
AD: Oh, wow.
MB: It would transform. One minute it would be for a configuration for “Daughters of Triton” and then it would be used for “Under the Sea” and bring in the puppeteer pods. Then for “Le Poisson,” that is the rear side of it that we spun around to make a massive French oven. It was one of those eureka moments to figure out how to make it manageable. When you do something like The Little Mermaid, you can find yourself designing infinite amounts of rock. But I think we got there!
AD: To talk about a different space entirely from the rest of the production, the most unique space had to have been Ursula’s lair. Tell me about designing that space.
MB: Ursurla’s lair had to have a very different tone from the rest of the space. We used to a lot of projection, and we closed it in to make it more frightening and sinister. We brought in more rocks but in a different way. What was interesting about that was that she had to interact with Flotsom and Jetsam, so she needed a lot of space to move and we needed room for her dress. So it needed to be tight, but on the other hand, out of all the characters, she needed the most space in order to move around. We had to constantly reimagine this and revisit it to make sure we were getting the balance right. Raj Kapoor created the screen content and the projections were amazing. Al Gurdon’s lighting was able to get these vines encroaching. This production was incredibly collaborative—it had to be.
AD: I can imagine. This production is huge.
MB: We met every week on how we were going to pull all these elements together. Al managed to create these gobos that went over the entire room of vines that felt like incredibly immersive. I remember that moment when we felt like we were somewhere else.
AD: Some dark recess of the sea that we don’t want to go to.
AD: You just mentioned the immersive quality. You covered every inch of the theater. The runway curves out like a wave of the ocean. During the “Daughters of Triton” scene, there are even little pieces of sea life clinging to the stairs. It just adds more texture and depth. Even the audience was part of the show. Was there ever a question of this not being an immersive experience?
MB: No. (Laughs) This was where my experience of live touring and music events came into play. My biggest thing with working with bands is how do you want your audience to feel, but how do you want to feel? What do you want to see when you’re on stage, other than thousands of people? What do you want to feel when you’re standing there. We wanted to create a visceral experience. The animation makes you feel a certain way. We did a live event where you could move around. People could come in costumes. There were no limitations. We were encouraging this immersive experience from the very beginning.
AD: That’s awesome.
MB: That feeling of connection with the audience and the characters. I’m always looking at the big wide of how people feel in the space. But I’m also obsessed with details. We may not capture all of the space on camera, but as long as the audience feels it, we will capture that essence on camera. We will catch the audience’s vibe. To see their faces when they walked in was incredible. They lit up. The catwalk that came into the audience, I never wanted it to be straight. I always wanted a sense of water of the organic shape. That was a massive challenge to build a set without a straight line. People have to interpret what you’re trying to explain. You’ve got carvers and painters and scenic artists and renders. It’s quite extraordinary when you see that talent, when you see everyone that put it together. They bring it to life. The more organic it is, the more you lose control of it. We really did have an extraordinary thing.
The Little Mermaid Live! is streaming now on Disney Plus.