The calculated use of color and texture helped create the lavish look of Disney’s live-action version of a classic Christmas story in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” which debuted Nov. 2.
Key contributors to the film’s aesthetic, which grounds fantasy in a palpable reality, were costume designer Jenny Beavan, a multiple Oscar nominee and two-time winner, and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, a two-time nominee.
Dyas came on to the project accompanied by a team of concept artists and sought to find an emotional center for Clara (played by Mackenzie Foy). He recalled intense films from his childhood and tried to find the same beats in her journey. “I didn’t want her to feel like she was on a merry-go-round from beginning to end,” he says. “I wanted her to have those darker moments.”
To create a visual framework, Dyas removed all traces of red from the first part of the first act to reflect an early loss. The choice makes “you end up with this bizarre sensibility,” he explains.
Red doesn’t appear until Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) is introduced, at which point, Dyas says, they “embellished the whole place with bright, blood red.” And when Clara enters the magical world, the colors become highly saturated and glossy to create a surreal, toy-like environment.
Details of Clara’s journey continue to be reflected throughout: As she walks down a corridor, the wallpaper behind her transitions from an owl motif and a raptor that represents Drosselmeyer into the familiar mice and rats from the ballet.
For a designer who values tradition as much as innovation, sometimes low-tech solutions are key. In a ballet sequence with dancer Misty Copeland, Dyas needed twinkling stars. “I took traditional old [aluminum] bottle tops,” he says. “We pinned those individually to a backing and lightly blew a fan on them so they twinkled in the darkness.”
A nod to the authenticity of the period includes the single lightbulb in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, the only lightbulb in the film. “It would have been seen as a novelty,” says Dyas, and “really tells you what time it is we’re dealing with and how exciting a time it is in terms of invention.”
Beavan’s costumes are grounded in reality as well, and though Clara is dressed appropriately for her time, her clothes also reflect her gift for creating and inventing. Beavan says she kept “the colors quite simple and a little bit [muted]” to reflect Clara’s more practical nature.
Beavan worked with a variety of textiles, including some she describes as “plasticky.” To determine what would work best, she relied on instinct, experience and practical tests, including turning fans on the fabrics to see how they would react.
The costume designer’s team embellished, dyed and aged the textiles using a variety of substances, including sandpaper and shoe polish. They couldn’t help bringing their work home with them. “We were doing a lot of glue and sprinkling glitter,” she says. “In fact, I had glitter all over my clothes for weeks after we finished ‘The Nutcracker.’ I think we all sparkled.”