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As a child growing up in Macerata, Italy, Dante Ferretti — the renowned production designer who won Oscars for Hugo, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and The Aviator — first saw Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella in a theater with his parents.
Decades later, he was inspired by its grandeur when he watched it again, this time after being approached to do production design for Kenneth Branagh’s grand retelling of the classic story for Disney, which, since opening on March 13, has already topped $135 million worldwide.
“I began doing a lot of research and ended up drawing the bulk of my inspiration from architecture in Northern Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,” Ferretti told The Hollywood Reporter. “Since this is a fairy tale, we didn’t have to remain faithful to one specific time period, but Ken Branagh wanted the look to be sort of 19th century, which gave us the opportunity to incorporate earlier styles of architecture into our designs.”
“The characters live amid locations that were built centuries before the setting in which the film takes place, and I was particularly drawn to the magical, opulent feel of the baroque period. I set out to create a world that is based in historical realism but mixed with fantasy, as I wanted the atmosphere to be both believable and fantastic at the same time,” said Ferretti.
The effort again involved collaboration with his wife, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo. The pair have worked together for 30 years and shared the aforementioned trio of Oscars. “I do all the sketches, and she then reviews everything to make sure all the details are accurate,” said Ferretti of the process. “I didn’t want anything to look too perfect, however, so we intentionally left small and very deliberate errors on all our designs to make it feel more real.”
To give the palace a magical feel, Ferretti referred to French architecture including the Louvre, the Palais Garnier and the Palace of Versailles — all of which have grand staircases. “We started with the stairs and then created everything from there, like the main entrance with its big arch and the fountains inside,” he said.
The ballroom set — built on the 007 stage at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. — was 30 feet high, with an additional 60-70-foot digital-set extension. “Then we added our own touches, like the frescoes, the sconces and all of the set decoration, which included 5,000 oil candles, which had to be lit by hand, and 17 enormous chandeliers,” said Ferretti. “For the chandeliers, which adorn the corridor leading into the ballroom and the ballroom itself, Francesca wanted to make sure they were over-the-top, so we had them custom-made in Venice, and they are works of art themselves.”
The clock tower, featured at the stroke of midnight, was a model — an original design, though also based on period references.
Ferretti went for something quite unique when designing another key part of the production — Cinderella’s magical carriage — which he likened to a piece of jewelry.
“We decided that the pumpkin carriage should be a beautiful jewel which enfolds Cinderella — who is, in fact, the real jewel in the story,” he said. “The carriage, which was made piece by piece by a sculptor, was fully functioning and sturdy enough to be pulled by four horses. We decided to have the actual transformation take place in the glass greenhouse in Cinderella’s backyard where she had grown the original pumpkin, so we incorporated architectural elements of the greenhouse into our design of the carriage.”
Production design, of course, worked closely with visual effects, led by VFX house MPC, whose contributions included the carriage transformation, as well as the ballroom and other CGI environment work.
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