The magical silhouette of Iran

Arabian Night, the Magic Orient: How Aladdin was made

A look back at one of the most popular cartoons in animation history.

If your childhood was in the 1990s, the chances that you’re not familiar with Disney’s “Aladdin” are almost zero. Even if the full-length cartoon somehow slipped past you, the animated series of the same name was hard to miss. You probably still remember the opening splash screen from there, where a dynamic video with falling daggers and flashing lights sounds a charming Russian adaptation of the song Arabian Nights. Let’s also not forget the stunning platformer from Virgin Interactive, one of the most beautiful games in the Sega Genesis library.

Anyway, “Aladdin” is an integral part of the childhood of an entire generation, an undeniable classic of animation. While Guy Ritchie’s movies are playing on cinema screens, let’s remember those who had a hand in creating the drawn world of Agrabah more than a quarter of a century ago.

In addition to all the other regalia, Aladdin, released on November 25, 1992, proved to be a critical project for the rebirth period of Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) after decades of decline.

The so-called “Golden Age of Animation,” during which the foundation of the industry was laid and the most popular characters were created, finally exhausted itself in the 1960s. In 1966, Walt Disney died, and in 1971 – his older brother Roy, co-founder of the company, who helped build the financial well-being of the family empire. Along with the brothers died and the glory of the animation studio, which by that time was only part of a vast company.

After the successful adaptation of “The Jungle Book” (1967), WDAS for 20 years bogged down in a long creative crisis. This period usually includes eight feature films that appeared in the 70s and 80s: “Aristocratic Cats”, “Robin Hood”, “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”, “The Rescue”, “Fox and the Dog”, “Black Cat”, “The Great Mouseketeer” and “Oliver and Company”. At best, moderate financial results and mediocre audience reviews suggested that WDAS had lost its grip on both its creativity and its ability to make money.

“Black Cauldron” was Disney’s first ever PG-rated cartoon with computer-generated graphics. And there’s also the theory that it most directly influenced The Legend of Zelda series.

Due to the current sad state of affairs, The Walt Disney Company changed management in 1984. Major shareholder Roy Edward Disney, Walt’s nephew, chose former Paramount Pictures head Michael Eisner as CEO. Eisner in turn pulled Jeffrey Katzenberg from Paramount. Eisner himself concentrated on Disney Parks, while Katzenberg took over as head of Disney’s film, animation and TV production. Under his leadership, amid falling cartoon revenues and good prospects for the film division, the animation studio was moved from its native Burbank to a cheaper site in nearby Glendale.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the most influential people at Disney in the early ’90s. He would later become head of DreamWorks Animation and lead it to success.

However, problems continued to plague WDAS. The complete failure of the expensive “Black Cauldron” in 1985 put the studio in dire straits. When further production of full-length animated films was threatened, Roy Edward Disney, not wanting to lose the family business, began to personally adjust the work of the animation division. A few years later, the circle of executives would finally begin to bear fruit.

Future “Aladdin” directors Ron Clements and John Musker met at the turn of the ’70s and ’80s while working on “The Great Mouse Detective.” The self-taught Clements had wanted to be an animator at Disney since he was a child. His 15-minute short about Sherlock Holmes paved the way for him to enter the company’s Young Talent Program. There he quickly worked his way up the career ladder from a feature artist to assistant animator, and then began drawing storyboards. An old short film led him to the idea of adapting the Basil of Baker Street series of children’s books, a kind of interpretation of the adventures of Holmes and Watson with mice in the lead roles. Soon another young animator, John Masker, joined the project. After five years of preliminary work, Clements and Masker presented the project to new management. Eisner and Katzenberg made their edits but gave the project the green light.

“The Great Mouse Detective” was released in 1986. Masker and Clements’ debut was among Disney’s most successful animated films of the ’70s and ’80s, received favorable reviews and beat out the friends for a new project.

The idea for the adaptation of The Little Mermaid came to Ron Clements when he came across the tale in a bookstore. The beauty and poetry of the story was impressive, while at the same time offering the animators a wide range of visual possibilities. Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg approved Clements’ two-page plot outline, after which he duoed with Masker to expand what he had written to 20 pages. Together they tried to neatly smooth out the material of Andersen’s original tale for children’s audiences, introduced a full-fledged antagonist in the form of a witch and added little helper characters, Flounder and Sebastian.

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“The Little Mermaid” differed from past Disney works in its “Broadway” attitude toward musical accompaniment. The music and songs were so closely integrated into the animation and story that it was impossible to imagine the cartoon without them. Playwright and poet Howard Ashman wrote the words to music by Alan Menken for the seven compositions heard in the cartoon. Each of them was not just a striking musical number, but was critical to the unfolding of the characters and the events that took place.

“The Little Mermaid” was a resounding success at the box office, an enthusiastic critical response and two Oscars (for Best Song and Best Music; the award for animated film was not given at that time). It was with The Little Mermaid that one would count the Disney Renaissance, a decade-long renaissance of the animation division, when the studio produced several monumental feature films. On the other hand, it was the Renaissance that marked the decline of traditional American animation. Throughout these ten years, computer technology would actively invade the classic methods of animation, until it finally forced it out of the market.

The idea of adapting the Arabian tale of Aladdin owes its origin to Howard Ashman, the same author of the lyrics to the songs from “The Little Mermaid. In 1988, Ashman submitted his 40-page “Aladdin” storyline and six songs for it to the head of the production Jeffrey Katzenberg. However, the latter shelved the proposal and asked Ashman to work on the songs for “Beauty and the Beast”, which would conquer the audience even more than “The Little Mermaid” a couple of years later. Subsequently, Ashman’s story was finalized by screenwriter Linda Wolverton, adding in particular the villain Jafar. And only then were Clements and Masker assigned to the project, who were just looking for their next project after The Little Mermaid. Katzenberg offered them three options: an adaptation of “Swan Lake”, the original “King of the Jungle” and the long-awaited “Aladdin”. Clements and Masker found “The Lake” too similar to “The Little Mermaid”, and of the two remaining “Aladdin” seemed to them more fun to produce (it is worth noting that “The King of the Jungle” would turn into the legendary “The Lion King” a few years later).

A new script draft from Clements and Masker was soon ready and presented to Jeffrey Katzenberg, but he was not at all satisfied with the result. Then, a year and a half before the scheduled release of the cartoon, the management decided to rewrite the story in its entirety, without paying much attention to the work of Ashman and Wolverton.

To help Clements and Masker, the studio sent young screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who by then had no experience in writing for animation (years later they would write “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”). In the next version, Jasmine was given a more determined character, Aladdin’s elderly mother was removed from the story, and the main character became less like the overly idealized Disney princes.

Meeting during the creation of storyboards based on the script (from left to right: Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott, John Masker and Ron Clements).

It was not until October 1991 that Katzenberg approved the final version of the script. Despite all the delays that occurred, no one was even going to move the premiere date. This meant that the team needed to manage the production in a year. Clements and Masker structured the film into 28 segments and divided their direction equally among themselves.

Plot-wise, “Aladdin” had to work on two levels at once: first, a vivid adventure for children, and second, a story about self-actualization for adults. The moral of the cartoon was based on the superiority of internal values over external ones. An important theme for the characters was freedom.

All of the characters in the film are constrained by something. Aladdin is constrained by his social status. Jinni is constrained by his lamp. Jafar feels constrained because he has to answer to the Sultan, whom he thinks is an idiot. The Sultan is bound by a stupid law, so he tries to marry off his daughter to someone she doesn’t want to choose. And it’s the same with the princess.

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Meanwhile, the script kept evolving as it went along at the expense of the ideas of a lot of people, from the storyboard artists to the voice actors.

It is worth noting that “Aladdin” was a rare example at the time when a famous actor was involved in the voiceover of a cartoon. Despite the casting suggestions of Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin by Katzenberg, Clements and Masker had decided in advance on Robin Williams for the role of the genie. Moreover, in many of the dialogues, Williams was allowed to improvise: in place of some of his lines in the script, only a general theme was indicated and the actor made up the words of Genie as he went along. For Williams, with his successful stand-up career, the process was extremely easy. During the recording, he talked about 30 hours of material, often going into political and social references. Of course, only appropriate line choices were chosen for the family cartoon.

The voiceover was recorded before animation began. The artists relied, among other things, on the voices and facial expressions of the actors in their work.

Initially, Williams wanted to withdraw altogether, as he did not like Disney’s well-known love of making huge profits from the sale of merchandise. He was later persuaded and Williams agreed to the role at a modest fee for an actor of his stature of $75,000. The actor’s condition was that his name or image not be in the cartoon commercial. So in John Calhain’s book Disney’s Aladdin – The Making of an Animated Film, Williams’ name is replaced by wording like “the actor who performed the role of Jeannie.” Far from it, however, the company has worked honestly. For obvious financial reasons, Disney used Jeannie’s voice and image of the character in merchandise sales. When Williams got upset and went to conflict, the corporation shifted the blame for the incident to outside companies. The situation was not resolved until several years later. After Jeffrey Katzenberg left, the new head of the animation studio, Joe Roth, orchestrated a public apology to Williams on behalf of the company.

Of the six songs Ashman and Menken had composed for the first draft of their script, the final film included three: Friend Like Me, Arabian Nights and Prince Ali. The others were crossed out because they didn’t fit the spirit of the new script with its increased comic elements and focus on Jasmine and Aladdin’s Love Story. Some of the songs had to be replaced, but Howard Ashman was no longer able to participate. In March 1991, he passed away at the age of 40 due to complications from AIDS. Tim Rice came to Menken’s aid in working on the new compositions A Whole New World and One Jump Ahead and wrote the lyrics to them.

While painting A Whole New World on the carpet, A Whole New World was played throughout the studio. The artists bounced off the music and vocals, trying to capture the mood and translate it into pictures.

Almost every track in Aladdin plays its own important role in the narrative. Arabian Nights presents the viewer with the world of the cartoon. One Jump Ahead, which Aladdin sings during the market chase, defines the personality of the main character, his desires and hopes. Friend Like Me reveals the role of Al and Jeannie’s friendship for the story. A Whole New World establishes a romantic connection between the main characters. And except that Prince Ali stands out, accompanying the carnival procession through the streets of Agrabah and acting only as support for the lush visuals.

In terms of design, “Aladdin” is still one of the most unique and recognizable Disney feature films. The creation of the visual style was supervised by production designer Richard Vander Wende, who had previously drawn concepts at ILM. His idea was to strengthen the connections between the characters and the environment relative to other Disney cartoons. “Aladdin” was to get a single, cohesive style to tie the characters and setting together and support the story being told.

In defining the style itself, Vander Wende drew on medieval Persian paintings and Arabic calligraphy. A little later other sources of inspiration were added: Victorian depictions of the Middle East, the classic animation of Walt Disney in the 40s and 50s, and the equally classic 1940 fairy tale “The Thief of Baghdad.” Vander Wende developed, among other things, the cartoon’s color scheme. The color blue in “Aladdin” is responsible for goodness, idealism, romance, creativity, as well as the sky and water. The rich, “hot” red color stands for fire, evil, destruction. Green emphasizes “good,” natural locations. Finally, yellow plays an ambiguous role. On the one hand, its bright hue carries a negative meaning – it is excessive material wealth, i.e. gold, the Cave of Wonders, the palace. However, the more neutral yellow looks much more positive. It is the color of many natural elements, sand and Agrabah itself.

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Bill Perkins, the art director of the cartoon and the second person on the design team after Vander Wende, spent two weeks in the Disney libraries before starting work. He analyzed the stylizations of the studio’s three classics, “101 Dalmatians,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “Sleeping Beauty. Perkins tried to understand their use of three key visual elements: line, mass and form. He concluded that lines dominated “The Dalmatians,” form dominated “Lady and the Tramp,” and mass dominated “Sleeping Beauty.” Next, he had to answer the question of which element would be dominant in “Aladdin.” He turned to Persian painting and realized that it relied heavily on silhouettes for rich detail. Consequently, Perkins considered mass to be the dominant element in Persian painting.

Thus Aladdin acquired its signature style based on simple silhouettes. When it came to characters, Vander Wende and Perkins took the work of The New York Times cartoonist Albert Hirschfeld as their reference point. In his drawings they found exactly what they needed: clean, simple lines, flowing shapes, expressiveness, and instantly readable poses.

Moreover, Hirschfeld’s style of characters perfectly matched the ornate Arabic calligraphy underlying the visuals of Aladdin. Compared to other Disney works, this character design was an obvious simplification (fewer lines, fewer angles), but it gave the animators the freedom to convey the emotions of the characters.

A sketch of the basic shapes for the characters. Aladdin – high waist, broad shoulders, legs spread wide. Jasmine looks like an hourglass. Sultan looks like an egg. The rug looks like a rectangle.

Visually, the cartoon characters, as conceived by Vander Wende, were in harmony with their surroundings. For example, the silhouette of the Sultan, resembling an egg, is reflected in the design of the throne room. The shape of the columns, the lamps, the throne itself – everything is reminiscent of its master. But as soon as Jafar seizes power, the same place is immediately transformed. The most noticeable change is in the palette. Cold blue gives way to hot red and bright yellow. The elephant-shaped Sultan’s throne turns into a cobra-shaped throne. Even the patterns on the walls change shape. They now look like flames, which in turn resemble the shape of Jafar’s turban and shoulders.

Another example is Jasmine’s room in the palace. It’s not easy to spot, but the shapes of the columns there are slightly stylized to resemble the silhouette of a birdcage. The same can be said of the wall ornaments. In general, the “bird in a cage” motif defines Jasmine best and the authors make no secret of this. In her first scene, the girl takes the bird out of its spacious cage, leaving the doors open. You may notice that it is Sultan who closes the cage, having taken the bird from Jasmine before doing so. An exhaustive description of the princess’ entire life.

After writing the script, recording the voiceover, defining the design and the concepts, the next stage of production was the creation of the storyboard. It was a special department (Layout Department), whose task was to collect on paper the entire cartoon. Sketches were made in special workbooks on the basis of Storyboards, determining angles, close-ups, camera movements, duration of scenes and transitions between them. The storyboard artists, in fact, made the work of the cameraman and editor out of conventional cinema. In close collaboration with the directors, of course. Careful planning was crucial to the final result. Later, the notebooks with the storyboard were handed over to the animators and background artists so that they understood how the cartoon should look like.

It is interesting that the storyboard of “Aladdin” was directed by Iranian Rasul Azadani. He also made another contribution to the cartoon. Having traveled to his native Iranian city Isfahan in advance, he took more than 1,800 photographs of buildings and interiors. These references later greatly helped the production designer, art director, animators and even Azadani himself.

The magical silhouette of Iran

Iran is not the most obvious destination to travel to. The closed and therefore mysterious country beckons travelers with the bright turquoise tiles on ancient mosques, the fragrance of quiet gardens with majestic centuries-old trees, narrow streets, where the uncomplicated walls hide magnificent palaces. Noisy colorful bazaars delight the eye with brightly colored carpets. Glazed pottery glitters dazzlingly. The aroma of tea and spices makes you dizzy.

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A trip to Iran only seems fantastic and unlikely. Thanks to the possibility of getting a two-week visa on arrival, this destination is becoming increasingly popular.

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The magical silhouette of Iran

Plan such a trip preferably for a week, or better yet two, to get a feel for the local flavor and see as much as possible. Leave your worries behind and visit the friendliest country in the Middle East. Iran has very friendly people who respect traditions and try to help tourists.

Tehran – in the metropolitan rhythm of modern Iran

The cap of smog always hangs over the Iranian capital as travelers arrive in Tehran. The city is noisy and crowded like every metropolis, but there are many sights worth seeing. They should be visited before you start traveling around the country. The first is the palace of Golestan, which amazes with the mirrored glow of exquisite mosaics and an amazing collection of numerous works of art.

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Tehran – in the metropolitan rhythm of modern Iran

Golestan is a complex of twenty 16th-19th century Shah’s palaces, including the Anthropological and Photo Museum, several picture galleries, the Diamond Hall and the Throne Room. The latter is the traditional place of the Shah’s coronation. At different periods of the Shah’s reign the new palaces were built next to each other, now the buildings form a circle. There is a big pond and a garden inside – a magical place where the Iranian shahs loved to relax and where you would surely want to relax too.

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Tehran – in the metropolitan rhythm of modern Iran

The National Treasury located in the building of the Central Bank of Iran strikes not only with the beauty and richness of the exhibits but also with the incredible size of collection diamonds, sapphires, rubies, sparkling and shimmering in the subdued light of the exhibition hall. The entire history of Iran can be traced in this collection: antique hand-cut diamonds are kept next to the magnificent crowns of the last Shahin Shah Pahlavi and his wife.

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Tehran – in the metropolitan rhythm of modern Iran

Do not forget to visit the capital market . There is no need to try to bypass it completely. The bazaar in Tehran is as endless as the city itself. Take a walk through the bazaar streets and marvel at the craftsmanship of Iranian craftsmen. Look, smell, smell, taste… The bazaar is the best place to talk to people, get impressions and experience the flavor of Tehran. In the evening, it does not hurt to take a stroll along the longest street of the Iranian capital. Boulevard Vali Asr also called “Tehran Broadway” stretches from the north to the south for 18 km. It consists of expensive stores, night clubs and restaurants where the local youths like to have a good time.

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Tehran – in the metropolitan rhythm of modern Iran

Shiraz – to the origins of the Persian Kingdom

Shiraz is one of the coziest megalopolises of Iran. The former capital of the country is today famous for its environs – the majestic ruins of Persepolis, founded by Cyrus, the conqueror of the East. In the past Persepolis was unlucky: Alexander the Great led his troops here, captured and destroyed the city. Not much is left of the majestic ancient temple. But even now it amazes with its scale, the size of its columns, the craftsmanship of its reliefs and the grandeur of its design. But the tomb of King of Persia Darius the Third has not been found, no matter how many times they tried.

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Shiraz – to the origins of the Persian Kingdom

Another highlight of Shiraz are the gardens. They are incredibly beautiful. The locals often rest here. Usually they come and come in families: they set up tents, barbecue in the open air, and in summer they even spend the night in the gardens. A kind of camping – to relax in nature without leaving the city. It is worth visiting the shrine gardens, dedicated to the poets Hafiz and Saadi. Locals say that in the spring, these gardens are filled with wonderful scents of orange blossoms.

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Shiraz – to the origins of the Persian Kingdom

Isfahan – City of Craftsmen

This city of artisans is also known for its numerous arched bridges. Its fortunate location at the crossroads of trade routes contributed to the rapid development of the city. But Isfahan really flourished in the 16th century. For centuries, travellers have marveled at the city’s Islamic architecture, a vivid and exquisite remnant of a bygone era. Five ancient arched bridges span the Zayenderud River. In the late evenings, they’re beautifully lit in orange-yellow light. The C-o-Se Paul Bridge, built in 1602, hides a lovely teahouse under its arches, located almost at river level. Waiters deftly maneuver between the tables and the edge of the bridge, serving hookahs and bowls of fragrant tea.

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Isfahan – City of Craftsmen

Unlike Tehran, Isfahan has a lot of parks and greenery and the city streets are wide enough, so it is much easier to breathe here. The center of the city is the Imam Khomeini Square, around which a huge bazaar bustles. Here in small shops and workshops Isfahan craftsmen create the real masterpieces.

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Isfahan – City of Craftsmen

Silver jewelry, copper crockery, traditional wool and silk carpets, tablecloths, bedspreads, kerchiefs – all this is born practically in front of the eyes of visitors. Isfahan is the city where you want to take a walk without any purpose, completely forgetting about time, and enjoy every moment.

Beach vacations on Kish Island

Beach vacations in Iran? Yes! Iranians love to swim and sunbathe too. The coral island of Kish is located in the northeastern part of the Persian Gulf and is the most popular Iranian resort. Kish resembles European cities: in the center of the island there is an old quarter with small houses, and around lined with modern hotels and shopping centers – quite unusual, as in the European view, but very interesting architecture. Of the monuments in the north are the ruins of the ancient city of Harire, in the west – a huge ship that once ran aground. In addition to beach holidays, there is an opportunity to stroll through the wide streets of the city, visit the many parks and squares, enjoy the sculptures and dancing fountains with colored lights.

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Beach vacations on Kish Island

Kish Island, although small, some 90 square kilometers, but there is a beautiful sandy beaches and quiet sea, and for divers – the incredible beauty of coral reefs, around which abounds colorful underwater life. On local beaches, according to Muslim customs, men and women swim and sunbathe separately, and the women’s beach is fenced off by a high wall. There are several diving centers on the island, and diving takes place separately as well. Therefore, there are women’s and men’s diving in Iran. Among the popular diving clubs that organize underwater adventures, you can choose between “Big Coral”, “South Rift” and “Jurassic Park”. Diving in Iran is interesting and peculiar – the fish in this part of the Persian Gulf are not afraid of anyone, you can literally touch them with your hands.

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Beach vacations on Kish Island

People are the main value of the country

The beauty of Iran is also in its sincere, friendly people. Smiling, friendly, they look at you with genuine interest, simply because you are different from them. Iranians are willing to share what they have: treat you to sweets, give you freshly baked bread, treat you to fruit on the street and show you the way if you get lost in the maze of narrow medieval streets. The bazaar will not pester and drag by the hand, though haggling according to Eastern custom is well known and loved here. Everywhere you will be accompanied by looks full of delicate curiosity. If you catch that look, you’ll always get a big smile.

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People are the main value of the country

Iran is an absolutely safe country for travelers. There is practically no crime and poverty, and the locals do not ask for anything, and you can always count on their honesty and friendliness. In addition, young people often know English, in which all signs and names are duplicated. However, you should remember that you’re going to a Muslim country, where you have to adhere to local customs and to fulfill certain requirements, so as not to spoil your trip and get only positive impressions. It is necessary to behave modestly. For women is mandatory dress code: a headscarf (without it they do not even let into the country), closed arms, shoulders, legs. Here they respect tourists, but their own laws of etiquette for the Iranians are more important.

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To visit Iran is like traveling back in time, go back a few centuries and get to the fabulous East, which although it keeps its secrets, but willingly opens its heart to sincere friends.

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