How Did They Film Little Mermaid Underwater Scenes?

by Barbara

Creating underwater scenes for a live-action adaptation of a beloved animated classic like “The Little Mermaid” presents unique and formidable challenges. The underwater world of Ariel and her friends needed to be convincing and magical, while also ensuring the safety and comfort of the cast and crew. This article explores the techniques, technologies, and creative solutions used to bring the underwater scenes of “The Little Mermaid” to life.

The Challenge of Filming Underwater

Filming underwater is notoriously difficult due to several factors. Water presents unique challenges such as light refraction, buoyancy, and resistance, which complicate movement and make controlling the environment difficult. Actors must perform convincingly while dealing with these physical constraints and the discomfort of being submerged for extended periods.


Moreover, traditional filming equipment is not designed to operate underwater. Cameras, lights, and other gear must be specially adapted or protected to function properly in wet conditions. Communication between the director and actors is also more complex, requiring innovative solutions to ensure effective direction and performance feedback.


Pre-Production Planning and Conceptualization

The first step in tackling these challenges was extensive pre-production planning and conceptualization. The creative team, led by director Rob Marshall, storyboarded the underwater sequences in detail. This process involved visualizing how the scenes would unfold, the movements of characters, and the interaction with underwater elements like fish, coral, and water currents.


Marshall and his team collaborated with visual effects (VFX) experts, stunt coordinators, and underwater cinematographers to understand what could be achieved practically and what would require digital augmentation. This collaboration was crucial in developing a cohesive plan that balanced practical effects with CGI to create a believable underwater world.

Casting and Training the Actors

The casting process for “The Little Mermaid” was influenced by the need for actors who could handle the physical demands of underwater performance. Once cast, the actors underwent extensive training to prepare for their roles. This training included swimming lessons, breath-holding techniques, and learning to move gracefully underwater.

Actors also worked with choreographers to master the specific movements required for their characters. These movements needed to appear fluid and natural, mimicking how creatures move in water. The training was intensive and designed to build the actors’ stamina and confidence, enabling them to perform convincingly in challenging conditions.

Practical Effects and Filming Techniques

Use of Dry-for-Wet Techniques

One of the primary techniques used to film “The Little Mermaid” underwater scenes was the “dry-for-wet” approach. This method involves simulating underwater conditions on dry land, which is safer and more controllable than filming in actual water. The dry-for-wet technique combines practical effects, such as wind machines and flowing fabrics, with digital effects to create the illusion of being underwater.

Sets were designed to facilitate this approach, with suspended wires and rigs allowing actors to float and move as if they were underwater. This setup enabled the camera to capture the fluid, floating motions associated with underwater scenes while maintaining control over the environment.

Hydraulic Rigs and Wire Work

Hydraulic rigs and wire work were extensively used to create the sensation of weightlessness and underwater movement. Actors were suspended on harnesses and wires, allowing them to “swim” through the air. These rigs were controlled by skilled technicians who synchronized the actors’ movements with the camera to achieve a seamless illusion of underwater motion.

Wire work required precise choreography and timing. Actors had to coordinate their movements with the rig operators and the camera crew, ensuring that their performances looked natural. This technique was especially effective for scenes involving complex interactions, such as Ariel swimming with fish or interacting with other characters.

Water Tanks and Controlled Environments

For certain scenes, filming in actual water was unavoidable. Large water tanks provided a controlled environment where actors could perform safely. These tanks were equipped with underwater cameras, lighting rigs, and communication systems to facilitate filming.

Filming in water tanks allowed the crew to control variables such as lighting, water clarity, and temperature. This control was essential for capturing clear and consistent footage. The tanks also provided a safe environment for the actors, reducing the risk of accidents or discomfort.

Innovative Use of Technology

Underwater Motion Capture

Motion capture technology played a significant role in bringing the underwater scenes to life. Actors’ performances were captured using motion capture suits equipped with sensors that recorded their movements. This data was then used to create digital doubles of the characters, which could be manipulated and enhanced in post-production.

Underwater motion capture required specialized suits and equipment designed to function in wet conditions. The data collected was crucial for creating realistic and fluid movements, which were further refined by the VFX team. This technology allowed for greater flexibility in creating complex underwater sequences that would be difficult or impossible to film practically.

High-Definition Cameras and Lighting

The underwater scenes in “The Little Mermaid” required high-definition cameras capable of capturing detailed and clear footage. Specially designed underwater housings protected the cameras while allowing full control over focus, exposure, and other settings. These cameras were able to capture the subtle nuances of underwater light and movement, essential for creating a believable underwater world.

Lighting underwater presents unique challenges due to the way light behaves in water. It scatters and diffuses more than in air, requiring powerful and carefully positioned lights to achieve the desired effect. The cinematography team used a combination of practical lights and digital enhancements to create the ethereal and magical look of the underwater scenes.

See also: 7 Reasons Why Disney Chose Halle As Ariel

Visual Effects and Post-Production

CGI and Digital Environments

The underwater world of “The Little Mermaid” relied heavily on CGI to enhance and complete the scenes filmed using practical effects. The VFX team created detailed digital environments, including coral reefs, underwater plants, and marine life, which were integrated with the live-action footage.

Digital water effects were used to simulate the movement of water, bubbles, and other elements. These effects added depth and realism to the scenes, enhancing the illusion of being underwater. The VFX team worked closely with the cinematographers and editors to ensure a seamless blend between practical and digital elements.

Animation of Marine Life

Animating the marine life in “The Little Mermaid” was a complex task. Fish, sea turtles, and other creatures needed to move naturally and interact convincingly with the live-action characters. The animation team studied real marine life to understand their movements and behaviors, which were then replicated using advanced animation techniques.

The interactions between Ariel and the marine life were meticulously planned and executed. Motion capture data from actors portraying these creatures was combined with keyframe animation to achieve realistic and expressive performances. This approach ensured that the animated marine life felt like integral parts of the underwater world.

Sound Design and Music

Creating the underwater soundscape for “The Little Mermaid” was another crucial aspect of the film. Sound behaves differently underwater, with muffled and distorted qualities. The sound design team used a combination of recorded underwater sounds and digital effects to create an immersive audio experience.

The iconic songs of “The Little Mermaid,” composed by Alan Menken, were reimagined to fit the new live-action format. The music had to complement the underwater visuals while retaining the charm and magic of the original score. This required careful orchestration and recording techniques to capture the ethereal quality of underwater acoustics.

Safety and Comfort Considerations

Actor Safety Protocols

Ensuring the safety of the cast and crew was a top priority during the production of “The Little Mermaid.” Filming underwater or simulating underwater conditions can be physically demanding and potentially hazardous. Comprehensive safety protocols were established to mitigate risks and ensure a safe working environment.

Safety divers were present during all underwater shoots, ready to assist actors and crew members if needed. Regular breaks were scheduled to prevent fatigue, and the actors’ physical condition was closely monitored. The production team also used communication devices to maintain constant contact with the actors while they were submerged.

Comfort Measures

Comfort measures were also taken to ensure the well-being of the actors during long filming sessions. Heated water tanks, dry suits, and other protective gear helped keep the actors warm and comfortable. The production team provided warm beverages, snacks, and rest areas to help the actors recover between takes.

The Role of Collaboration and Creativity

The successful creation of the underwater scenes in “The Little Mermaid” was the result of extensive collaboration between various departments. Directors, actors, cinematographers, stunt coordinators, VFX artists, and many others worked together to overcome the challenges and bring the magical underwater world to life.

The production team continually adapted and innovated, finding creative solutions to the unique problems posed by underwater filming. This spirit of collaboration and creativity was essential in achieving the film’s vision and delivering a visually stunning and captivating adaptation of the beloved classic.


The underwater scenes in “The Little Mermaid” are a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of the filmmakers. Through a combination of practical effects, advanced technology, and creative problem-solving, they succeeded in creating a believable and enchanting underwater world. The film stands as a remarkable achievement in modern filmmaking, showcasing the possibilities when imagination and technology come together.

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