<I>Aladdin</I> DP Alan Stewart
Issue: May/June 2019

Aladdin DP Alan Stewart

Since the 1992 release of Disney’s animated hit film Aladdin, the movie has gone on to become one of the studio’s most beloved classics. The story, which takes place in the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah, revolves around a charismatic street thief Aladdin who believes he is destined for greater things. After a chance encounter with the Sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine, who is also discontent with life inside the palace walls, and accidentally releasing a powerful and magical Genie from an oil lamp, they set out on a journey that will test them in everyway possible.

More than 25 years later, Disney has reimagined the hit film, and has released a live-action version, directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen and Numan Acar.

Principal photography on Aladdin took place August 2017 through January 2018 on practical stages at Longcross Studios and Arborfield Studios in the U.K. and on location in Jordan, and shot predominantly on Arri Alexa cameras. The creative team supporting Ritchie included production designer Gemma Jackson, editor James Herbert, visual effects supervisor Chas Jarrett and director of photography Alan Stewart.

DP Alan Stewart

Here, Stewart (Mary Poppins Returns, Into the Woods, Band of Brothers, Ready Player One, Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) speaks exclusively with Post about the film’s challenges and bringing an animated classic to life.

What was your understanding of the type of film Guy Ritchie wanted to make?

“My understanding was to make an interesting, lively film for kids and, as much as possible, adhere to Guy’s way of working on films. ‘This is a kids Disney film.’ That’s a phrase that I found myself and David Sinfield, my gaffer, saying on a lot more than on one occasion. That phrase along with ‘She’s a Disney Princess… she has to look beautiful’ which I think we succeeded in the task.”

Director Guy Ritchie

How closely did you work with Guy on the film?

“I would say no closer or further away than on any other of Guy’s films, a few meetings at his home in London and some at his home in the country. Possibly in this case, because of the amount of visual effects shots, Guy had placed a lot of responsibility onto Chas Jarrett, VFX supervisor. The CG animals, Genie along with some sets were brilliantly put together by Chas and his team, so I had a close involvement with Chas who was providing great material from which Guy could pick his preferred options.”

Can you discuss the kind of backdrop/setting Jordan provided? 

“Jordan provided a fantastic backdrop of incredible light and mixed rich colors. The sand color changed from deep red to a rich gold in an amazing variety of shades. By traveling only a few hundred yards, it could go from one extreme of color to another. Hot hard contrast in the sunlight provided another small challenge so by picking the correct time of day and the direction of shooting, to make best of the light, was just one of the choices that helped. Location shooting in the desert had a few logistical challenges, besides the heat and the talcum powder sand dust which quickly covered the equipment, however with great local filming infrastructure and equipment, we made good use of our time there. We shot some scenes ‘Day for Night’ as it was the only way we could set out to be expansive with what we had to see within the frame. The desert did produce challenges, but I think that it was really worth it.”

What were some of the biggest challenges?

“In two words — the weather. We had such a varied schedule and shooting at the time of year we did, meant that getting dependable sunny weather in the UK would be a tall order. Exterior UK sets matching with Jordan desert and stage work was the challenge…however, I guess it always is and always will be.”

You’ve worked on musicals before — what are some of the unique shooting challenges they present?

“The song dictates the pace and usually if someone is singing then you want to see the singer’s face. Generally, every move is to the beat of the song, be that camera move or performer’s move. Adhering to this philosophy will put a certain amount of restrictions on what is photographed but this is open to manipulation. A new powerful song in the film was shot in only two continuous shots which were blended to look like one continuous shot. I’d be interested if anyone can spot the join. By shooting this song in this way, we were able to add more emphasis to the state of mind of the character.”

Can you discuss a few of the film’s biggest scenes?

“’Prince Ali’s Parade’ was a massive logistical challenge beside the other weather-related issues. It was a long song with many performance elements choreographed into it. It took almost half an hour to get the performers and props back to number one for the next take and by the time new instructions were passed on we were probably only getting one take every hour. Added to that…trying to get continuous sunlight throughout a take made this a tough week.

“We had rehearsal days during which time, my camera operators and myself devised a system where we could move some of our cameras efficiently to take up new positions for the next take. It was very well planned out to maximize coverage per take whenever the light was right. Much of the logistical planning of camera kit movement was down to my ‘A’ camera focus puller Dermot Hickey and key grip Guy Bennett and their teams. Without their skill and experience we would not have been able to provide so much choice to editor, James Herbert.”

Can you discuss the shooting of the ‘One Jump Ahead’ sequence?

“We tried a variety of filming techniques for the ‘One Jump’ song. Stereo Alexa cameras on the end of a Technocrane was one example of adventure in the filming of this song, both looking at the same image but each doing different things. The song’s playback speed was adjusted at times and the cast would deliver the song at different speeds accordingly. Another little challenge for them. We used a fantastic camera stabilizing system, developed by Dave Freeth, called Stabileye. This we used a lot whether it was handheld, sat on a crane for hand offs or on a wire. We even had a rig made that mounted Stabileye to an unfortunate grip’s back which enabled him to run at full speed in front of a chasing cast member.”

Any groundbreaking or innovative techniques or technologies used?

“We did have the first of Kino Flo’s Celeb 850’s LED units. This was a fantastic, versatile lamp unit that we used extensively throughout the production and huge thanks to our lighting company Panalux for making sure we got the units on time.”

In terms of visual effects, is it difficult shooting scenes were there were either CG characters or parts of the sets (or both) missing?

“As mentioned earlier, Chas Jarrett brought his skill and experience to the project. Planning was everything and I have worked with Chas on a variety of films over the years. He brings a logic and methodology to the table that makes the task feel simple. We used puppeteers at times to help the cast understand where and when the CG characters would be and to add another dynamic to their performance. Storyboarding and previs helped planning as usual, but when things changed on the day, it was good having a character like Chas around to help plan the best way forward.”