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April 08
2019

ISSUE

Spring 2019

Walking a Tightrope on Tim Burton’s DUMBO

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Director Tim Burton had a small green-suited performer stand in for CG Dumbo on set so the actors could seem to physically interact with the character. (Photo: Jay Maidment) All images © Disney Enterprises Inc.

 

Dumbo first took flight in the pages of an illustrated children’s book, before Walt Disney selected it as an inexpensive follow-up to a pair of costly (and at that point not yet profitable) animated features released in 1940, Pinocchio and Fantasia. The tale of an ostracized baby circus elephant who becomes the big top’s star attraction when it’s discovered that by flapping his ears, he can fly, Dumbo warmed hearts for multiple generations, spanning four theatrical reissues as well as strong success in home video, while the ‘Dumbo the Flying Elephant’ ride has become a staple at the various Disney theme parks.

An animated sequel was announced in 2001 and quietly canceled a few years later, so it was not until 2014 that the live-action remake secured approval, with director Tim Burton coming on board the following year. In the film, this little elephant not only rejuvenates the circus’ business, but draws the attention of one V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who intends to feature Dumbo in his spectacular Dreamland facility, where some things wicked lie beneath.

Burton selected Richard Stammers (Prometheus, The Martian) as his VFX supervisor. “Tim’s original brief was that this be an expressionist movie,” Stammers recalls. “We needed to approach realism, but you can’t go too far in that direction because his take always has a heightened reality that won’t work with a documentary look, [resulting in] the constant striving for us to maintain visual credibility while also incorporating Tim’s stylistic needs.”

Before overseeing the contributions of several VFX vendors, Stammers, along with key production leads, re-screened the original cartoon. “That was mainly to see how the emotions played during key character moments,” he reports. “There are certainly aspects and qualities of the animation in the original that we wanted to carry over, but most of the time our animation had real elephant behavior as a starting point. There was a ton of great reference provided that allowed us to study both grown and baby elephants, seeing exactly how they move.

Colin Farrell, who plays Holt Farrier, a former circus star hired to take care of Dumbo, on set with full-scale elephant models and helpers in green. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

 

“The ears on baby elephants really do look huge, and we took note of the kind of cycle that represented their normal ear flapping. In Dumbo’s case, he’d really need the most enormous ears to carry that size and weight; they’d be dragging on the floor as he walked around, and that was going a bridge too far design-wise for us. We looked at the cartilage that supports the ears, too. We considered including some translucency in there, but Tim didn’t like seeing veins and blood vessels when we tested the look, so we decided to keep them opaque. I must say, there was a bat-wing quality to the translucent look, so the thick leathery look worked best, and carried a sense of weight with it that helped with the idea that the ears were strong enough to keep him airborne.”

Among the key first calls was determining the size and shape of Dumbo’s head. “One thing that came out of our earliest explorations was that a normal-sized elephant head didn’t work with these larger ears,” says Stammers. “So the design of Dumbo evolved from a slightly larger head with correspondingly larger features like the eyes. This actually helped with the performance and allows the audience to see these expressive features even more clearly. There was some to-and-fro with facial elements being resized based on how well they worked to create a character that was cute and relatable. I think this time up front was very well spent, so by the time we started shooting, the design issues were mostly resolved. Tim was happy with things, and we all agreed to stick with this look through principal photography. This allowed us to set up our interactives appropriately on set and to establish eyelines for the actors on a consistent basis.”

But while the elephant in the room was being dealt with, the pachyderm in the air remained an issue. “There’s just not much to rely upon regarding the physics of flying baby elephant ears,” declares Stammers. “So we took the flight cycle from a large bird and applied that for a series of animation tests that were aimed at letting us see what might work, that you would believe an elephant could fly. There wasn’t anything in the original film’s animation that helped us convey an actual physicality to his flying, so it was definitely new ground being pioneered, to make it feel right with that weight. There wasn’t going to be any single solution that was enough in and of itself. This required us to make a leap of faith when depicting something that weighs 80 kilos [176 lbs.] and flies by flapping its ears.”

Stammers recalls Burton being much impressed with MPC’s character work on The Jungle Book. “Facility skillsets is a major factor when deciding how to award the work,” he acknowledges. “MPC did a marvelous job matching the set lighting, which got us about 90% of the way there pretty quickly with their lighting model. But since Dumbo is the star, there was the matter of adding another pass, one that makes the hero character the focus of the scene, much as beauty lighting on set brings out the lead actor and actress. We’d often add small levels of bounce light to fill in the shadow side of Dumbo’s face.”

Production’s creature effects team was able to build a full-size practical Dumbo, textured with appropriate skin and hair, and even correct eye color, for use on set. “Even though it was not 100% accurate to what we eventually finalized during post, it was definitely close enough in scale and color to be a very useful lighting reference in every live-action setup shot by [director of photography] Ben Davis. He could see how the physical stand-in would read, and in darker scenes he would know to add lights to suggest kicks and glints in the eyes. So when we shot our HDRIs and silver/ gray balls, it let us match his work with our CG lighting when adding CG Dumbo into the plates. Sometimes we might embellish the eye glint, because those caustics in the eye really helped bring his iris to life.”

Burton also made use of a small green-suited performer who could stand in for Dumbo on set. “We put a kind of tortoise shell on his back so the actors could seem to have physical interaction with the character. Sometimes the actions would have to get painted out if the scene evolved, but it was enough so that Tim could direct the scene with confidence.”

Holt Farrier’s children, Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly (Nico Parker) riding a “flying” Dumbo model against bluescreen, with special effects bringing in the wind. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

“There’s just not much to rely upon regarding the physics of flying baby elephant ears. So we took the flight cycle from a large bird and applied that for a series of animation tests that were aimed at letting us see what might work, that you would believe an elephant could fly.”

—Richard Stammers, VFX Supervisor

Aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) poses atop Dumbo rig as Tim Burton and lighting crew prep scene. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Burton on set directing Eva Green with a full-size, practical Dumbo, textured with appropriate skin and hair. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Dumbo’s green-suited stand-in emerges from his circus train cage under the watchful eye of director Tim Burton. (Photo: Leah Gallo)

“This feature is shot entirely onstage, which meant having to create horizons and set extensions when portraying exterior environments shot against greenscreen. Much of the film’s third act takes place in a locale called Dreamland, and Framestore handled a lot of standalone shots there.”

—Richard Stammers, VFX Supervisor

Previs was principally limited to flying scenes. “When Dumbo was on the ground, it wasn’t often needed,” affirms Stammers, “but if he went flying past camera, cues had to be worked up so special effects could bring the wind to blow off people’s hats or kick up some hay. The previs also helped with figuring out moving eyelines – we could see if the old tennis-ball-on-a-stick would work for specific cuts. When flying the camera round to represent Dumbo’s POV, we also had a programmable winch system, so the crowds knew where to look as he traveled above their heads. That technique also allowed us to direct spotlights to pan along and follow his flight path.”

Production utilized the ACES [Academy Color Encoding Specification] pipeline, which incorporated a film-emulation show LUT favored by cinematographer Davis. “The whole delivery process from the original pulls, to Pinewood Digital [for dailies], editorial and back to DI is working very well,” reports Stammers. “There are a lot of seamlessly shared shots where Framestore created backgrounds that MPC put their Dumbo into, and other shots involving either or both of them and Rodeo FX. Having a robust pipeline is essential when you’re taking something like this on.” Stammers also relied upon an in-house VFX team that tackled various scenes in concert with other vendors, which included Rising Sun Pictures in Australia, Atomic Arts in London and Germany’s RISE.

Of the film’s 1,800 VFX shots, only about 800 feature digital elephants. “This feature is shot entirely onstage, which meant having to create horizons and set extensions when portraying exterior environments shot against greenscreen,” notes Stammers. “Much of the film’s third act takes place in a locale called Dreamland, and Framestore handled a lot of standalone shots there.”

Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Deobia Oparei and cast encounter Dumbo in the form of a green stand-in. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell and cast respond to a stick-and-ball figure of Dumbo against bluescreen, and in the final shot with Dumbo shielded by a pile of hay. (Photos: Jay Maidment)

The skies of Dumbo reflect Burton’s dictum about expressionism.

“Each cloud has been placed after its position has been considered for compositional value, and the same is true for the color values in the sky,” Stammers notes. “We shot about 300 skydomes to capture the range of looks demanded. And all this happened while we worked closely with Ben. He dealt with these very large set builds, but since we were adding the skies, that would have a massive effect on his lighting. Ben did his pre-lights while referencing the colors we had chosen. His lighting came from a giant RGB LED lightbox over the whole stage, one that could be set to particular color temperatures. If we needed a very red sunset, that whole lightbox could reflect that. He also had a hard key light for the sun that was sometimes in frame to give us the proper flaring, but the lightbox was crucial, giving us the color of the ambients that was so very important in creating the hues that tied into our CG skies.”

While the 3D conversion was handled by Double Negative, Stammers notes that the HDR version will require careful attention. “We’re trying to be very mindful of how it will impact things, especially with the bright lights in the circus scenes, which could distract away from the film’s focus. Even the glints in Dumbo’s eyes could pop too much, registering overly bright in a jarring manner. So that is going to be a matter of riding careful herd to preserve those nice rolloffs in the highlights. I make a point of letting the colorist [Darren Rae] know in advance about the shots when this might become a factor and require addressing.”

“For a circus picture, it’s rather amusing to find we’re walking a bit of a tightrope through post, balancing stylization against credibility,” Stammers laughs. “I think the fact we can keep it under control shows it paid dividends to work so much out in advance of shooting.”

Director Tim Burton wanted Dumbo to be an Expressionist film, with an emphasis on emotional shadings, compositional and color values. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito), circus performer Rongo the Strongo (Deobia Oparai) and the rest of the big-top team welcome a newborn Dumbo into their tight-knit family.

Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly (Nico Parker) working with a full-size, greensuited Dumbo model. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers and the production team studied grown and baby elephants to see exactly how they move. They studied elephants’ ears and how they flapped, their size, weight, texture and translucency.

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