Monday, April 1, 2013

Little Mermaid Mural

Larry Nikolai's beautiful mural for the California version

I was fortunate to be able to see elements of the Little Mermaid attraction long before it opened to the public including rough sketches, color comps, early audioanimatronics and an amazing mural done by imagineer Larry Nikolai. I was asked for comments and suggestions during the walk through and enjoyed the experience at WDI tremendously.

I had been given the pleasure of working with John Hench years ago while at Disney Feature animation and was excited about the varied work being created at WED ever since. I had recently done murals for the parks including a series of eight- 10 foot wide panels depicting Dumbo's life story to be installed on his new attraction, so when I was contacted by WDI to do the Mermaid mural I was suprised they weren't using Larry's beautiful painting. They explained that the installation in Walt Disney World was larger all around and they wanted to use a more realistic and painterly approach. "Would I be interested?" Duh, of course!  

I met with an incredible collection of imagineers and senior show designers and we went over ideas. Because the mural was so large, I was to execute it in digital form and they would transfer the image to canvas and have their very talented scenic artists go over the entire image down at Walt Disney World. There were changes in concept arrangement, architectural details and all the things you would expect in a project this large but I have to say the people I dealt with at WDI were a joy to work with. The first thing I did was pin up the copy I had of Larry's mural over my desk for inspiration before diving into the deep blue sea.

The format I used was PSB which is the extra large file format available in the newer additions of PhotoShop. I worked in a high resolution of 600 dpi which really put a strain on my computers. Luckily a good friend of mine is an IT guru for the studios and he boosted everything on my computer to handle the extra data.
The programs I used were PhotoShop and Painter. PhotoShop gave me the tools necessary to quickly build a composition and send it in to WDI to begin discussions. Painter is a very intuitive program where I can mix hues real time on a digital palette and the brushes afford me the feel of a more natural approach to the illustration. I still prefer traditional methods but when I am forced to go digital, these are two of the programs I count on. I also use a WACOM Intuos tablet as you really shouldn't attempt this with a mouse (unless he has graduated art school).

Original on left, My Disneyized version on right
There is more detail than you can probably see in the stages shown above. For example I based the Ariel pose of the mural on the famous statue of Hans Christen Anderson's creation found in Copenhagen harbor. The senior show designer liked the sketches but wanted her a bit more up right so I lifted her head slightly and took some of the hunched look from her back. 
Rough for ship's angle

By the way she is looking towards Eric's ship to screen right which is docked just outside his castle. Luckily I still have the model I built of his ship in my studio so I could stage it to look at various angles and lighting which came in handy with the time crunch. I decided on a rear view to indicate Eric might be ready to ship off on another sea faring adventure at any moment. There is also a faint warm glow inside the captain's quarters to give us a feeling that maybe... just maybe Eric is sitting there thinking about the girl he has yet to meet. This was a quick little painting which captured the ship well as far as the producer was concerned so I cut out the ship and tossed the rest of the painting.

Dark subdued stonework
My original pastel/watercolor concept from the film 
For the architectural elements I used the same approach when I designed Eric's Castle for the film "Little Mermaid". It has a decidedly mediterranean flavor so I also incorporated terra cotta roof tiles and lots, and lots of palms but kept that section purposely dark to attempt to blend in more seamlessly with the actual stone wall which is also dark.  There will also be plants and props placed at specific edges to help bridge the transition from my flat illustration to the "real" world of the guests. We researched the placement of the horizon line and arrived at a compromise of placing it  4 1/2 feet above the walkway surface. You have to keep in mind that some guest view it standing while others will be seated in "clam-cars" for the ride. I also wanted to err on keeping it lower to accommodate the children's view. We also kept tabs on the progress of the version being installed in "California Adventure" to better help us in doing a thorough job. 

I can't say enough about the help I received from the folks at WDI during this very enjoyable project. They were always ready to give a helpful suggestion or provide any additional reference. Can't wait to see the "Journey of the Little Mermaid" and all the other exciting additions when the New Fantasyland opens.


  1. Oh, BOY!
    Just when you don't think the future could get any brighter Disney is still pulling out all the stops.

  2. Well somebody is definitely pulling something here, may the farce be with us.