By Francesca Scrimgeour, Walt Disney Archives
Infinite Mystery! Unearthly Beauty! Fathomless Oceans! Claimed as “the mightiest motion picture of them all,” 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is one of the most ambitious films ever created at The Walt Disney Studios. Both challenging to produce and legendary in its creative legacy, the movie is replete with silver-screen action of all kinds, including a terrifying battle between a giant squid and the crew of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine. The thrilling scene was filmed at the Disney studio lot in Stage 3, which was constructed specifically with the production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in mind. The stage was built to hold a pool of water that ranged from three- to 18-feet deep, and allowed for the large-scale dramatic staging of scenes featuring a full-size deck of the Nautilus clashing with the giant squid.
Originally, the sequence featuring the squid battle was written to happen at sunset with a deep, red afterglow in the sky. However, that staging ended up feeling too peaceful, preventing the squid from coming across as the convincing, menacing creature of the deep it needed to be. Technical difficulties that the crew faced in bringing this behemoth puppet to life included visible wires, breaking cables, and the squid’s unstable and absorbent body material. Due to these challenges, shooting the sequence was halted, which was a disheartening moment for the production team. However, soon the tides began to turn for this underwater encounter.
Filmmakers had a breakthrough idea—to stage the scene in the dark of night, battered by a powerful storm with blustery wind, torrential rain, and gigantic waves. An updated squid featuring different coloring, a bulbous shape, and a menacing brow would soon bow to rapt acclaim. The creature’s tentacles also became tapered at the end, making them more snake-like, and they could stretch to twice their length. Twenty-eight puppeteers brought the monster squid to life (now with eight writhing tentacles). To help augment the illusion of the chaotic storm, the production acquired wind machines, water cannons, and wave makers, all of which further heightened the drama that would end up on screen.
Through the brilliant decision to change the mood of this epic struggle, the filmmakers crafted an over-the-top masterpiece—audiences couldn’t get enough of the “whale of a tale” that was created. The production team’s artistic vision in creating a larger-than-life action sequence made motion picture history and went on to win Academy Awards® for Special Effects and Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration. Marvel at the majesty of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Disney+, and as Captain Nemo once said: “The real story of the ocean’s depth begins where you left off.”