Jamal Sims Shares His Magical Experience Choreographing for 'Aladdin'
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
Jamal Sims is best known for his work on Step Up, the Footloose reboot and So You Think You Can Dance. Over the last year, he's rewritten his story. After directing his first documentary, When The Beat Drops, Sims jumped into choreographing for Disney's Aladdin, starring Will Smith. Then he worked on Descendants 3 with Kenny Ortega and took an on-screen role as the villain, Dr. Facilier.
Dance Dish last spoke with him during his press tour for When the Beat Drops, so it was a thrill to hear all of the exciting news that has been coming his way.
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Dance Dish: How did the Aladdin project come your way?
Jamal Sims: The music supervisor I worked with on Hannah Montana called me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in working on Aladdin. I had just finished the documentary and I said I really wanted to do a musical next. I said that on Wednesday, and then on Friday, I got the call.
I made a vision board on Wednesday and I put Africa in the middle and then I put two tickets to represent a musical. He told me Aladdin was going to shoot a bit in Morocco and London. It felt like a wish come true. It was magical from the very beginning.
DD: Since Aladdin is a live-action film, you are dealing with humans and CGI. How challenging was that for you as a choreographer?
Jamal: What was cool about our team was that we had the best of the best in the business — everybody from production design to costumes to special effects. We knew the enormity of this project and what it means to people, so we didn't want to mess it up.
I would choreograph some stuff just out of the blue and then they would design some CGI animation and we would meet in the middle and find a way to marry these two. We would do meetings where we would discuss what can we do physically and what can we do with the special effects to discover how that combines together.
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DD: You also performed as a dance double in the film. Who did you double?
Jamal: Yes! They told me that some of the characters were going to be CGI, so they had me jump in and do it. I fit the height for some of the genie stuff, but Will did most of the work. For some of the other characters, I would come in and put on the motion-capture suit and go to work.
You have to be so specific working with CGI because the timing has to be right. We had some great days, just me and my core dancers, dressed up in those suits and playing. We got to be the monkey, Abu, and we got to be the carpet — it was incredible!
DD: What was it like to work with Will Smith?
Jamal: The vibe of the set starts at the top. When you work with huge actors, like Will, if they come in and they have this attitude that's not friendly or kind, it trickles down to every department. With Will, he came in consistently kind, friendly and inspiring. The dancers couldn't wait to be around him.
He talked to everybody and that vibe made it so fun that I think that's what transfers over into the film. That joy is seen in numbers like "Friend Like Me." I think that all started with Will. It made coming to work just a pleasure.
DD: What number stands out as your favorite in the film?
Jamal: The one that I really love is the "Prince Ali" parade. First of all, we had 300 dancers in the middle of this huge set, which was in Aqaba [in Jordan]. We had eight horses. We had six camels. I had to choreograph something with live animals. We had people, we had floats. It was just crazy. You get to see all of these different styles of dance that are incorporated into the number, I think that's the spectacle of the film.
I couldn't fit everybody into one rehearsal space, so I had to schedule a certain amount of people for a certain amount of hours, and then the next group of key people would come in. It was like a factory. When we got to do it in the street the first time, it was fantastic!
DD: Let's talk about Descendants 3 and Dr. Facilier.
Jamal: It was my first time working with Kenny Ortega, I had never met him before. I've seen him out, but I have never really been introduced to him, even though I've always been a fan of his work — especially as a choreographer turned director. I just admired him for so long, so to be able to meet him after I did Aladdin and then working on the film was incredible.
I am a villain. It's so funny, I told Kenny, "I laugh too much. I smile too much. Are you sure?" He insisted that I was a perfect villain. It's awesome to be able to do something else outside of what I am known for.
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DD: What's next for you?
Jamal: Right now, I'm directing a short film that's a musical and it's loosely based on my life. I'm preparing for that and I'm going to do that this summer.
DD: Any chance we will see you back on So You Think You Can Dance?
Jamal: I would absolutely love to. For the past three seasons, I've been out of the country. I would love to come back.
Aladdin opens nationwide on Friday, May 25. Descendants 3 is set to premiere in August on Disney Channel.
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