The early years of Disney Animation are marked by some of the most seminal classics in the history of everyone’s childhood. Among one of the most dear and tearfully sentimental was 1941’s Dumbo. It came at a time when folks had never conceived of the possibility of seeing something as grand as an elephant flying. But Walt Disney, and the first generation of Disney animators, dreamed of what it would look like and brought it to life in vibrant colors and adorable designs. And the results have since become something of legend.
Now today, in 2019, the company founded by dear old Walt, has taken on the gargantuan task of bringing this classic to life before our very eyes. Naturally, the man for the job was Tim Burton — the director extraordinaire who brought Alice in Wonderland to live action in 2010. But to assist a ringmaster of such high regard requires a circus troupe of resources to match his talent and prestige. Enter the crew of Burton film staples, costume designer Colleen Atwood and composer Danny Elfman, as well as production designer Rich Heinrichs and screenwriter Ehren Krueger. Burton’s crew, along with Dumbo producers Justin Springer, Derek Frey, and Katterli Frauenfelder joined members of the press in Los Angeles to share their process of creating a unified vision to bring everyone’s favorite flying elephant to life.
When asked about creating the unique Tim Burton-signature style in this film and other Burton films, production designer and frequent collaborator, Rick Heinrichs had this to say:
“Every movie I’ve worked with Tim on, and I’ve known Tim for almost 40 years now, has been an adventure unto itself. What I would say is that there is a shared visual shorthand and I’m sure that all of his collaborators would say the same. And the exciting thing about working with Tim is in many respects, you dig deep into the history and the period and all of the things that one normally does to bring all the toys to play with on the table. And then Tim sweeps all that aside and you sort of put it back together as a Tim Burton film. And it’s always a blank canvas that you start with. It feels dangerous and exciting and challenging and Dumbo is certainly no different from any other time.”
Naturally a classic like Dumbo is one that has withstood the test of time. There naturally was a bit of skepticism about reimagining it for 2019. However, it was something the crew and Burton felt was necessary.
“From I think Tim’s perspective, when we were handed the screenplay from Ehren, it just seemed like a story that could be expanded upon,” stated producer, Derek Frey. “Tim was aware that the technology had reached a point where you could successfully render an elephant into a live action environment. And it just seemed like for Tim, he’s obviously done some reimaginings in the past. And every film that he takes on, it’s not like a simple decision. And he knows that Disney has been going back into their catalogue of films. But Dumbo is one of the original outsiders in a way. And Tim’s films are populated with outsider characters. So I think for Tim, it was the combination of knowing that the technology was there to render this character and that pulled upon all of his strengths as an animator with his Disney background. It’s almost like Dumbo is almost like a personification of himself in a way which is interesting. In terms of the time, so much time has gone by since the original. And it’s a simple story. It’s a beautiful story. And I think a lot of the themes in the story that Ehren created, they’re universal things. It’s about family. It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about overcoming judgment and people looking at you in a certain way. Dumbo is kind of a bullied character. I know that’s something that we’re dealing with socially right now. To place it back in a time period and have this heightened reality, I think we can learn a lot now by looking back, you know, and it’s such a beautiful world that Tim’s created and Rick has created and Colleen and everybody and Danny.”
One of the film’s biggest challenges but ultimate successes was how adorable Dumbo looks in the film. The film’s VFX crew did a massively amazing job bringing him to life. When asked about the visual effects, producer Katterli Frauenfelder had this to say:
“It started with Tim’s sketches, which everything starts from. And it was a lot of work. Everybody was involved. Rick, Richard Stammers. But basically it was Tim’s eye that kept evolving towards how he wanted to see Dumbo. He didn’t want a photo real character. But he wanted something heightened. And the work on the skin and the eyes and the movements and the flying. It was just his eye in collaborations with the people he worked with to create Dumbo that pushed forward continuously until I think last week was the end of the push. But it’s basically his vision of what Dumbo should be in the world that Rick and Colleen created and how he fits in there and fits in with the live action family and circus and can bring out all the emotions that Dumbo should and does.”
The gorgeous, elaborate costumes in any of Burton’s films can be summed up in two words: Colleen Atwood! The same can be said for Dumbo. Atwood’s work in the film was absolutely stellar, as she created the most eye-catching garments adorning each of the A-list cast members of the movie. Atwood spoke about the challenges of creating the costumes for this film.
“I think we’ve done 11 projects together, Tim and I,” she stated. “But I think the idea of creating a world on a performance level and on a kind of level period level together is always an interesting challenge. It sort of bridges between fantasy and reality and the sort of challenge of combining five circuses, how they would all look, how the people in them would look, was a huge challenge. And then just managing the whole 500 people a day for months on end. And things like that were a different kind of challenge. Because the one thing that’s really amazing about this movie is that so much of it is real in the room. The sets for the big circus parade and the stuff. When you’re in the room with all that going on, you realize you’re in a really magical very rare place that you might not ever be in again in your life because movies are changing so quickly. And the sort of whole digital world is changing so quickly. But you really felt like you were in the moment in an old time movie when we were shooting it a lot of times. Which made it a really special experience for me. Forget the challenge. It was just the experience that was great.”
Atwood was also asked if any of the previous roles some of Burton’s favorite actors held were influences on her designs for the film, such as Michael Keaton’s black and white stripped suit potentially being an homage to Beetlejuice.
“So not… We like a stripe, Tim and I. So there is always going to be a couple of stripes in the movie no matter how you do it. Whether it’s horizontal, vertical. It’s a graphic thing. I think we both have a graphic sensibility that binds us together in the sort of design world. But that was just happenstance that Michael was the worthy wearer of the stripe in this one.”
As the film impacted so many of us, producer Justin Springer spoke about how Dumbo impacted him growing up.
“Ehren [Kruger] and I had worked on another project at Disney together. And we were talking about other things we might want to work on together. We really enjoyed that process. And we sat down over lunch and Ehren asked me about Dumbo,” Justin began. “He said it was his favorite movie growing up as a kid and the first one that he showed his kids. And it was a movie that I remember seeing. I saw it at home. I have a very vivid picture of seeing that movie for the first time as a young kid. We just started talking about why Dumbo and why now and what might be interesting. Ehren had an early version of the story in mind that he and I started talking through. And I went to the studio and said hey, Ehren is this writer that we all know and love. And he’s really excited about this title. Would you guys consider it? Would you be willing to hear a story from us? And they said yes. But it came from a very organic place. Which I think it really speaks to sort of the development process where you have a writer who is very passionate about. Ehren and wrote a really beautiful script and an early version of that script before many people got their hands on it and went to Tim and he brought his own passion and enthusiasm from that original title to what Ehren had done. So all of that kind of came from this really sort of beautiful place of people who really loved the original film and wanted to honor that original film and find ways to carry that story forward and bring contemporary themes and ideas to it as well, but who really loved the original film. It didn’t feel like an assignment or something somebody else wanted us to do. Rather, it came from this really natural kind of place.”
Kruger, himself, was also asked about the challenges of expanding the story for this version of the movie. He stated the following:
“Dumbo is not just a Disney character. He’s a mythological character. And I wish he were real. I wish I could have been in the audience of that circus in the golden age of the circus and observe his story. And then to take the next step, not just observe his story, but imagine what it’s like to be Dumbo. And that leads you to a place where you say what would Dumbo want and is the end of the 1941 film truly a satisfying end for Dumbo of that story? And so that just organically led to expanding the story past where the animated film ends…why is Dumbo a universal character and a universally loved character? Because everyone sees themselves in the story of a character who has self doubt, who has flaws, who is defined as one thing by someone else. And has this mouse inside them telling them, maybe you’re more than that. Or maybe that negative is a positive. So we worked very hard to create a menagerie of human characters. The circus family around Dumbo who all in some way were wrestling with uncertainty about themselves and their place in the world and in fact the circus’ place in the world. So that Dumbo could be for each one of them an inspiration like he is to audiences worldwide.”
Naturally, when it came down to finding the music for Dumbo, the sole choice in Burton’s mind was good friend and long-time collaborator, Danny Elfman. When discussing his relationship with Burton, Elfman had this to say:
“You know, it’s funny, this is our 17th film. And I still never know what to expect from Tim at all. People think that oh, you must have the shorthand, where it’s real simple. And I go no, actually, working with Tim is a lot less simple than a lot of other directors. His mind is strange and interesting. And I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want. It’s always a kind of round about process of when we start the film, he’ll say very little about the music. We have a thing called a spotting session where we go through the whole film top to bottom and break it down into all the musical parts and give them all a name and a number. If the movie is an hour 45 minute long, the spotting session will be two hours and 15 minutes. If the movies is two hours, it will be two and a half hours. Real quick…I’ve done over 100 films. And most of my favorites will have been Tim’s movies. But I won’t say that many of those weren’t without great challenges. Finding where that was can be really challenging with Tim. But I don’t care. If I like the result, whether it was like a slam dunk easy thing or it really took a long process to find, it becomes irrelevant to me. It’s only the end product that matters really. It’s all you remember later anyhow. It’s kind of like having kids. If you remember the first year, you never want to look at another kid again. But then they’re so cute and it’s so great. You forget all that part. Then you go yeah. Kids are great. I find film scores to be somewhat similar. In the middle, I often say I’ll never do this again. I’m done. And then at the end, if it came out well, then I go yeah, sure, I’ll do this again. It wasn’t so hard. Was it hard? I don’t remember. It kind of gets erased.”
One thing’s for sure, bringing a flying elephant to life takes an army. Even if the story is set, and the concept is timeless, real vision needs to be crafted by hand, and executed on a level audiences have never seen before. Lucky for Dumbo, though, Burton and his army are among the best players in the industry. And for that reason, I believe, generations to come will be wowed when they can safely say after viewing the work on this film, that they’ve truly seen an elephant fly.
Dumbo soars into theaters March 29!