Lee, who had been considering a real-life Sleeping Beauty experience for a few years, used Instagram hashtags to track down the perfect creative accomplice. The search led him to Australian illustrator and character designer Kayla Coombs. Her 2019 was already booked out with projects, but over their initial Skype call, she was won over by Lee. “He was so lovely when he spoke about her," says Coombs. "His face just lit up. And from the outset, he really understood the amount of work it would take to pull it off.”
Have you seen the split-screen viral video? In the bottom half, a man and a woman are in a darkened movie theater; the top half shows what they're watching, the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty. A few seconds in, you realize that the live and animated couple are the same people, and Prince Charming is proposing to Princess Aurora onscreen and in real life. Behind this memorable event, now seen by more than a million people, were months of work, loads of talent, and several Adobe applications.
While Sthuthi David, AKA the princess, and Lee Loechler, AKA the prince, became a couple in high school, the story had its beginnings in Sthuthi's childhood, when she watched Sleeping Beauty again and again. Fast forward to spring 2019. The two are in a long-distance relationship with Sthuthi a resident cardiologist in Virginia and Lee a filmmaker in Los Angeles.
Lee felt a similar kinship with Kayla. “Even though I had just met her, it was this moment of everything you could wish for in a collaborator: someone who wants to lift you up to do your best work, and vice versa. Someone who cares about the quality of the finished product.”
To map his vision, Lee created a detailed series of screen captures from the film’s scene where Prince Phillip rushes up to Aurora’s tower chamber, awakening her with a kiss and a proposal. He annotated each "frame" with scrappy mockups to reimagine each moment in service of the new Lee-and-Sthuthi narrative.
“For example," Lee says, “there’s a moment where Sthuthi smiles when she’s waking up that is actually the animated mouth from Aurora. Since it’s all on solid color background, I was able to composite it and put it over Kayla’s illustration, instead of her drawing a million different frames of that mouth.”
Lee and Kayla leveraged their complementary skill sets—hers in illustration and character rendering, his in Adobe After Effects and sequencing—to be as efficient and effective as possible in the labor-intensive process. Kayla built a spreadsheet detailing every element that she needed to draw to comprise the entire animation. Her initial pencil sketches were workshopped by Lee and a select group of confidantes familiar with his and Sthuthi’s looks and mannerisms. "Is the nose too big? Are my eyebrows really that large?" Lee would ask. “I’d consolidate feedback and send it back to Kayla. Then she would start coloring, which is where things really started to come to life.”
Lee describes the most memorable moment in the months-long process as seeing the first drawing Kayla made of Sthuthi in profile. “It was the first time it went from ‘This is a crazy idea we’re going to try’ to ‘Oh my god, that’s my girlfriend as a Disney princess!’”
After they were satisfied with one of Kayla's initial sketches, she would import the image of the sketch over the original movie background into Adobe Illustrator Draw and, after it launched in the summer of 2019, Adobe Fresco. With the opacity dialed down to 20%, she would outline her additions atop the background. The eyedropper tool made color-matching simple for most elements.
From there, Kayla imported the drawn characters into Adobe Illustrator. "I cleaned them up around the edges where my drawing needed to blend in with the rest, maybe put a gradient in to blend it in to the shadow of the bed,” says Kayla. “Then I would give my Illustrator files to Lee. I didn’t do the animation, but I would provide him with the illustrated frames; for example, for blinks, I would draw five sets of eyes at fully open, closed, and three gradients in-between, and I’d give the files to him, and he would work his magic.”
In After Effects, Lee used keyframing and Timewarp to reduce the number of illustrations Kayla needed to make for each movement. Lee also used Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe Audition. Both Lee and Kayla noted the ongoing challenge of restraining and focusing the power of contemporary software tools to emulate the aesthetic of the 1950s animation.
“There were some parts where we would try to be too true to the original. In a lot of those movies, because they are hand-drawn, there's less detail on a farther-away shot,” Kayla explained. “And sometimes we would do that, but then you lost the sparkle in her eye. So we did tiny tweaks using modern techniques, but still with that traditional feel.”
To tie everything together, Lee used Adobe Photoshop to fake marketing materials from the Boston theater he rented out for the big night. He even fudged live links so that Sthuthi would think her favorite film was truly—coincidentally—screening in their hometown over the winter holidays. Locals filled the theater to help disguise the friends and family seated in the back. As you know, Lee and Kayla’s months of teamwork paid off, and Lee and Sthuthi are happily engaged.