From Will Smith's Genie to the magic carpet ride, 'Aladdin' VFX supervisor reveals behind-the-scenes secrets: 'Let's not get too cartoony'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Due respect to Will Smith’s big, blue Genie, but Aladdin’s visual effects supervisor, Chas Jarrett, is the real source of the Disney blockbuster’s magic. The British-based VFX expert previously collaborated with director Guy Ritchie on both Sherlock Holmes movies, and became the first person the filmmaker turned to when he landed the assignment of translating the Mouse House’s 1992 animated favorite into the live action realm. For evidence of just how much of the film’s wizardry is owed to the visual effects artists, look no further than this exclusive deleted scene, which illustrates what the movie looked like before Jarrett and his team worked their magic. (Watch the deleted scene above.)

The clip is taken from the portion of the movie where Agrabah’s headstrong princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), meets some of the suitors vying for her hand in marriage. One of them is Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen), a well-meaning, but none too bright scion of a European royal family who not-coincidentally looks and sounds like a character straight out of the Frozen land of Arendelle. In the scene, the hapless Anders tries to impress Jasmine with the romantic gift of a… cannon, while she and her handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), look on with a mix of bemusement and pity.

Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders in Aladdin. (Photo: Disney)

Surrounding the actors are acres of blue screens where Agrabah’s cityscape would have been had the sequence been included in the theatrical version. “You’d be looking out over a lovely sunset,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It’d be a nice evening in Agrabah, and you’d be see out over the city and the ocean. [Production designer] Gemma Jackson and I felt very strongly that Agrabah should be grounded in the Middle East, so she put together a kind of bible of reference images in pre-production, which we all used as our potential style guide. Lots of the images were taken from North Africa, Morocco and Jordan, as well as various other locations. Even though we weren't going to physically shoot the movie in those locations, we were at least going to capture as much reference information as we could from them.”

Even though Jarrett didn’t get a chance to put the finishing touches on this particular scene with Anders, he’s happy that viewers will be able to see the rough draft when Aladdin arrives on Blu-ray on Sept. 10. (The film will be available to rent or purchase on digital platforms on Aug. 27.) “That's a very fun sequence, because Guy and the actors ad-libbed it; we had been working on something smaller, but then Guy let it turn into something longer and more fun. It’s exciting that people will get to see it now.”

Here’s some behind-the-scenes info on scenes that you did get to see in theaters.

The original version of the Genie didn’t resemble Will Smith at all

Will Smith's Genie introduces himself to his new pal, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), in the live-action Disney hit Aladdin. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

The filmmakers and the Fresh Prince faced a steep challenge in recreating a character immortalized in viewers’ memories as Robin Williams. Although that version of the Genie was defined by the legendary comedian’s rapid-fire patter, the animators didn’t try to capture his features in animated form. Initially, Jarrett took a similar approach with Smith’s take on the character. “Finding that character took a great deal of time,” he remembers. “We began with designs that were a lot more caricaturish. But as soon as our animators began to put Will's performance on a version of the character that didn't look like him, it became quite clear quite quickly that we were lacking some Will Smith-ness, if you will. It started to feel a bit odd: You felt like you had something copying Will rather than actually being Will. So our take on the Genie went to being more naturalistic so that his mannerisms, which the audience has a very subconscious knowledge of, could shine through.”

Of course, when audiences got their first look at the more naturalistic Genie in Aladdin’s famously controversial Super Bowl commercial, the reaction was — to put it kindly — flummoxed. But Jarrett insists that no course-correction occurred after that first sneak peek. “We genuinely felt very confident in what we were doing. I will attest that there were discussions, and some people said, ‘Yes, go do it.’ But we ultimately stuck to our guns. We all knew that when audiences first saw the Genie, there may be mixed reactions. I think that we didn't necessarily put our best foot forward with a shot that demonstrated the magic of the Genie as well as Will’s exuberance, which was kind of a shock. But none of us were particularly worried that the audience wouldn’t get him, and we’re very proud of the way it turned out.” It’s definitely hard to argue with a billion-dollar box-office gross.

Abu also became less of a cartoon character

Aladdin's trusty simian sidekick, Abu, was animated to act more like a real monkey. (Photo: Walt Disney/YouTube)

Aladdin preceded the release of Disney’s photorealistic version of The Lion King by two months, but the films do share a similar ethos in the way they bring animal characters to life. Like the lions, warthogs and meerkats that populate Jon Favreau’s worldwide hit, Ritche decided that Aladdin’s simian sidekick, Abu, should look and act more like a real monkey. “In the beginning, we experimented with making Abu’s face anthropomorphic and adding human characteristics to his actions. I remember the first animation tests where it really looked like Abu was listening to Aladdin, absorbing what he was saying and then emotionally responding. But Guy decided he preferred a more naturalistic approach, so we pieced together bits of performance by real monkeys and built a map that animators could use as reference. There’s nothing Abu does in the film that a real animal couldn’t do if we had long enough to film with one. That was very intentional on Guy’s part, and it speaks to the film overall: Let’s not get too cartoony.”

Even Aladdin’s self-aware magic carpet had an animal model to keep its behavior grounded in the real world. “We thought of that character as an incredibly enthusiastic puppy who is the Genie’s biggest fan. Anything the Genie does, he’s enthusiastic about. Obviously, we were bound by certain physical realities, but we were quite careful that he didn’t do things a carpet couldn’t do. Whereas Abu is a little more dour and suspicious, the Carpet is completely innocent and completely joyful; it’s off in its own little world where everything's wonderful. So that was something we leaned into quite heavily, and had good fun with.”

Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride stayed local

In the animated Aladdin, the titular zero-turned-hero took Jasmine on an aerial tour of such global landmarks as the Sphinx, the Parthenon and even the Forbidden City while they crooned the movie’s signature anthem, “A Whole New World.” But in the live-action feature, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and Jasmine stay closer to home. According to Jarrett, that was a conscious choice to distinguish the new film from its predecessor. “Early on, we had some conversations where we said, ‘They could go up to the Arctic and see the Aurora Borealis or they could be in the jungle.’ We tried some concept images that explored those ideas, but ultimately we decided that the story is set in the Middle East and we wanted to use the natural beauty of that area.”

Having flesh-and-blood actors on that carpet was another reason to limit the background scenery. “You'll note that we spend a lot more time with the characters in that scene than they did in the original. One of the benefits of being a live action film is that you’ve got real people emoting, and the chemistry between Mena and Naomie is strong, we really wanted to focus on them as much as we could. The emotion of that sequence comes from seeing the two of them fall in love, and we didn’t want to miss that by showing all these pretty pictures of wide views of Agrabah.”

Get ready for some freeze-frame treasure hunting

Aladdin goes treasure hunting in the Cave of Wonders. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

There are plenty more Easter eggs buried in Aladdin’s desert landscapes beyond the Prince Anders/Frozen gag. Jarrett calls out one moment where Aladdin’s carpet is glimpsed building a replica of Cinderella’s castle in the sand. “There are a number of little things sprinkled into the film,” he says, laughing. “If you look at Genie’s belt buckle, you’ll see a familiar image on it. And in the Cave of Wonders, the Genie calls up a little diagram that shows Aladdin as he looks in the original cartoon. But I shouldn’t say any more! Just study the movie.”

Aladdin is available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu starting Aug. 27. The Blu-ray will be released on Sept. 10 and is currently available for pre-order from Walmart.

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