Magnificent Maleficent
June 11, 2014

Magnificent Maleficent

Fifty-five years ago, the character Maleficent placed a spell on the young Sleeping Beauty in the animated feature released by Disney in 1959. Now, this popular villain has taken human form, stepping out of the traditionally animated cel and onto the live-action set infused with state-of-the-art CGI in this classic story as Disney once again brings this fantastic tale to the big screen.

In “Maleficent,” the story focus is on the title character rather than the sleeping princess Aurora, as was the case in the original animated film. 

“This movie is about a character we’ve only known as hard-hearted, and our story answers the question, ‘Why?’ I’d like audiences to feel like they’ve entered a world they’ve never seen before with ‘Maleficent,’ and I hope they come away feeling like no one is beyond redemption,” says producer Joe Roth.

“Maleficent” explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic “Sleeping Beauty,” and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As she grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever. 

The movie is directed by Robert Stromberg.

Historical Perspective

The character Maleficent was a Disney creation introduced in the 1959 animated movie “Sleeping Beauty,” but the story of the princess who falls under a spell of eternal sleep has been told for many years – at least four hundred years, under various titles, and maybe even longer still. The Brothers Grimm even borrowed heavily from a 1697 version of the story by Charles Perrault. Throughout its long history, the elements of the story have changed, with the only consistent one being the spinning wheel, which has caused all the princesses of this tale to fall into a deep slumber.

Maleficent had been portrayed as a jealous, vengeful villainess married to the king, and as a wicked fairy in the version by Perrault. The latter is the course Disney chose for the 2014 movie. Yet, it was important to Stromberg to have enough elements of the Disney animated “Sleeping Beauty” so people would not be disappointed. “It was important that those people who recognize and are fans of the original classic film feel that they cannot only see it realized in a new light, but also see the genesis of some of those things they saw in the original film,” he explains. “So, it’s a new spin on Maleficent, but at the same time, we’ve woven in enough elements that people will immediately recognize to be from the original film.”

Writer Linda Moolverton came up with a past for the character that leads up to the moment when she curses the baby Aurora. “It’s a reinvention; it’s not just a retelling of the same story,” she says.

Visual Magic

“Maleficent” began production on June 11, 2012, at England’s Pinewood Studios, where most of the filming took place. It required five months of shooting on six soundstages and thousands of yards of back lot and paddock area to complete principal photography. 

The production used a number of extraordinary physical sets, both interior and exterior. In all, there are about 40 sets, from a 12-foot-square room to the 5,000-square-foot Great Hall. “They’re complicated sets architecturally and technically,” says production designer Gary Freeman. 

But the “real” sets had limitations. So, a plethora of digital backgrounds – and characters – were made. Performance capture was used to create the CG versions of the pixies when they are small. (See “Tricky Pixies” in the May/June 2014 issue of CGW.) Another digital challenge was the creation of Maleficent’s wings (also detailed in that story).

The shape-changing Diaval was also a challenge for the VFX team. Originally just a raven in the animated film, he is transformed in the latest movie into any animal Maleficent wishes. “Those transformations made creating this character very difficult for us, especially because you see different transformations throughout the film. You want every one of those transformations to not be exactly the same, so what we tried to do is have whatever’s happening in that scene, his body motion or the body of the raven as it’s flying through the shot, help motivate some of this transformation,” says Cary Villegas, senior visual effects supervisor.

Villegas incorporated birdlike elements into the Diaval character when he transformed. “We tried to incorporate the feathers in some way in each of the forms that he took,” he says. “For the wolf, we took the feet of the raven and transferred them onto the wolf. But the feet of the raven are so delicate that it was quite a challenge to make those delicate structures fit into a creature as large as the wolf.”

The artists also had to bring all the fairy creatures that inhabited Maleficent’s fairy kingdom to life, from the pixies to the moorland fairy creatures. “We had to create every facet of those characters, like how their hair responds to gravity or to wind, and adjust every little nuance of what their skin looks like ,or the fur or the clothing that they may be wearing,” says Villegas.

In all, bringing the characters, architecture, and scenery from an animation to reality, albeit one augmented by CGI, was a daunting task. But a successful one at that, judging by the box-office numbers the movie is generating. It’s a perfect example of revamping a classic concept into one for a modern generation.