The Little Mermaid Interview: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with The Little Mermaid (2023) costume designer Colleen Atwood about creating the costumes for the live-action remake. Atwood discussed turning animation into live-action and working with water in mind. The Little Mermaid is now streaming on Disney+ and is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD.

“The youngest of King Triton’s daughters, and the most defiant, Ariel longs to find out more about the world beyond the sea, and while visiting the surface, falls for the dashing Prince Eric,” reads the movie’s synopsis. “While mermaids are forbidden to interact with humans, Ariel must follow her heart. She makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, which gives her a chance to experience life on land, but ultimately places her life — and her father’s crown — in jeopardy.”

Tyler Treese: These are such iconic characters and designs. What was the challenge of having to balance fan expectations with doing something new?

Colleen Atwood: Well, I think the big challenge was bringing, Ariel and the sisters into the world in a way that was applicable to the audience that that loves The Little Mermaid. We wanted to pay homage to the iconic Little Mermaid, and we did that by using the same kind of colors on Ariel’s costume, but that was sort of our point of departure.

We made the tails more fluid and with the veils of fins and fabrics and things like that, and did little bralettes instead of seashells and things like that that were more contemporary for today’s audience so they could relate to the characters — something that could be them if they had a tail.

What really impressed me was that you were able to pay homage, like you said, but sometimes when trying to do something too direct, it almost looks like cosplay. But I feel like you were like faithful to the spirit of the designs without being beholden to them. Can you just speak a little bit more about that mindset?

I designed Ariel’s and all the merfolk’s costumes with a computer artist, but I used real fish for reference, which I thought was more fun and a richer world to draw from. So I did create different scales out of different materials and hand-painted fabric swatches and things for the digital artists to make to kind of convey the idea of the technology we had available today and not have it look like plastic — really have it look like it’s part of their bodies. One of the hardest things was the transition between the tail and the body, because you can’t just do a line or something like that. It looked weird. Then we had scales going up into the body and that looked too creature-y.

So you’ll see around her waist, there’s a little ruffle and a little ruffle on the top of her bodice, which is what we did to transition between fish and human. It was an interesting process. It took a long time. A lot of times with digital art, there’s a reference they pull from that they already have. But for this, we were creating our own. So it really helped them for me to make all the materials that they could scan and then put into their things for reference. So it was all original reference as opposed to just taking a picture of a fish and plugging it in animation digitally.

I was curious about the materials. Was it difficult finding clothes? Some of the scenes dealt with actual water and then a lot of the underwater scenes are like digitally imposed but has very particular shading. Did you have to think about specific materials that would look good with the water, or what was that process?

That process was more scanning the materials and looking at the color of the water, [which] was really important, because you get the reflection from the water, but you also get the color of the water against people’s skin tones. So tweaking the water sometimes, where it was more blue or more green, was more a lighting thing that Dion Beebe dealt with than I did in the costumes. When they were doing the underwater stuff, they were in gray body suits with dots all over them. It was all reference and a wig cap with dots on it.

The visual level of the hair and the bodies and everything for that part … Rob [Marshall] wanted to do as much real stuff as he could with the actors, but it’s limited for when you’re talking underwater and stuff like that. We didn’t make little cosplay fish costumes for them. So that’s kind of how that played out. So that’s really more post-production and visual effects, not me.

The Ursula costume looks fantastic. It’s larger than life. It came out incredible. The original design was obviously based on Divine. Did you still take any inspiration from her or how did you approach Ursula?

Well, I think the character of Ursula, you can’t really separate, for those who know who Divine was, in a sense. But I think the Divine nod is more heavily hair and makeup than costume. They played around with all kinds of different — not to speak for them — but they played around with all kinds of different styles of hair, different kinds of eyeliner, a huge homage to the original. But with my costume, I was trying to get the texture of an octopus, because they have really interesting depth of skin. They also change color environmentally in the most amazing ways. So I was trying to get the vibe of her changing color in such a dark environment, which was a real challenge. I put purple glitter fabric and purple sequins underneath a laser cut leather so she wasn’t just a black presence in a cave.

And it plays sometimes. Other times it’s not super successful, but we came up with the light idea, of the lights coming off her and stuff so she’s sort of always on stage, and that really helped balance the darkness in the environmental darkness she was in, both in the costume and in the room when she actually was practical. That costume we made for Melissa from the waist up, because except for this stuff where she’s really diving around and all that stuff, she ended up using that costume a lot. She played in it a lot even with the digital stuff.

I thought it was so lovely that Jodi Benson got to have a nice cameo in the movie. What was coming up with her costume like? Obviously, you want to draw some attention to her since it’s an important callback to the original.

Well, you really wanted Jodi to be a surprise reveal, like when Ariel walks up to her booth at the fair. So she really had to blend with the people around her in the marketplace. We just kind of elevated the marketplace look a little bit for Jodi since it was Jodi. It was a really fun costume because it’s really one of the big dance numbers above ground in the movie. So we really wanted that whole world to be alive and full of color and we plugged Jodi into that and added the little hat and her touches. So it wasn’t like, “Jodi’s got a costume that’s different than everybody else.” It’s more like, “How can we make Jodi Benson look like everybody else until everyone realizes it’s really Jodi Benson standing there?” Which was a nice way that John approached it, I think.

Coming into this and adapting an animated film into a live action setting, there are some more obvious challenges. But while doing this, what little surprises popped up that were a bit trickier than you would’ve initially thought?

Well, I think one of the things … we shot in Sardinia at the end of the movie. All that beautiful ocean work is practical in Sardinia. At the end, we had the homage when she and the Prince leave to go on their journey in the world. We had all these people there that traveled with us that were merfolk that were actually in the ocean. And for that scene, we made these reference costumes, which were sort of painted to look like the fish on them in the water. But it was pretty cold, so it was like they were going over wetsuit bottoms and all kinds of stuff. It was a real technical nightmare. It ended up working out, but when you work in the ocean, you never know what the ocean’s going to do.

So it was really a challenge for my team and the camera and everybody to be out there. The water’s moving, the people are in it, some of them are real troopers and they were used to the colder water, but then some of them were … we had kids and everything else to keep comfortable. So it was an exciting couple days, really. The other water thing is that Rob and John [DeLuca] get lost in the moment of the ocean and everything there and the queen and all these people were never really supposed to go out in there and Ariel in her wedding dress were never really supposed to go into the ocean in their costumes! [Laughs]. So you have these huge dresses. The queen, I suspected, would end up in the water.

So I made her costume out of a fabric that was nylon and metal. So it actually went in and out for five or six takes without having to change it. But Ariel’s wedding dress, I only had two of, and the sea was really kind of big that day and it ended up getting super soaked. But I made it out of a material called pineapple cloth, which is a very fine woven fabric made from pineapple fiber. And it resisted the ocean enough to not just totally go limp like an old rag on her body, which was a relief, but that part of it was probably the most technically difficult part of the story.

In the Blu-ray’s special features, you talk about designing the different mermaids and taking inspiration from the real fish from the seven seas. So I was curious, just as you did all this research into different fish types, did you come away with a favorite that you thought was just a beautiful fish that inspired a design in particular?

Oh wow, that’s a hard question. They were also otherworldly in their own special way. What was more interesting than a specific one is how varied the fish in different oceans can be. Then some fish appear everywhere. [Laughs]. It’s fun. The little striped fish, like groupers, but other fish are only in certain waters. Like the South American fish we had. I love the reference fish for the Indian Ocean, that I kind of interpreted as a saury with the tail, which was really fun to look at. But it was a beautiful fish.

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