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Dumbo flies into Tim Burton's world, thanks to these effects

Behind the effects that conjured a new version of Disney's beloved flying elephant.

It's one thing to draw a cute elephant. It's another to create a cute elephant that looks as real as the actors around it.

That was the challenge for the effects wizards behind the new version of Dumbo, which reimagines Disney's classic 2D animated cartoon using the cutting-edge digital technology of 2019. I went to the London offices of effects company MPC to meet Richard Stammers, the movie's visual effects supervisor, and find out how the team realized director Tim Burton's vision of the live-action remake.

Stammers worked on Dumbo, from start to finish, for two and a half years. "That's longer than most other projects I've worked on," he says. "It's just the nature of what it is -- there's so much animation in the film." The movie includes visual effects in almost every shot, whether it's digitally adding sky in the background or making an elephant fly. There are 800 shots of computer-generated elephants alone.

Tim Burton's working style also influenced the speed of the production. "Tim works at a different pace to other directors," Stammers says.

MPC, which won an Oscar for its work on Disney's earlier live-action reboot The Jungle Book, created the cute elephant Dumbo. It's customary for big effects-driven blockbusters to spread the work across different vendors, so others included Framestore, which digitally extended physical sets; Rising Sun, which handled the reimagined pink elephant sequence; and Rodeo, which digitally removed Colin Farrell's arm (he plays an amputee). 

This promotional featurette, in which the stars gush about making the film, shows the scale of the sets and the production.

To ensure the new version of Dumbo would inspire the same kind of emotional connection as the original character, it was essential to get the design right. "The original film was a really great point of reference," Stammers says. "Even though Dumbo's design doesn't really match the original cartoon, the one thing we did look at is finding areas in the script similar to the cartoon, and finding those key poses."

The young elephant's movements were also carefully considered, from the way he walked to the weight of his footsteps and the way he interacted with the environment. The effects team took trips to London Zoo to watch the real elephants, getting in close and photographing everything from their skin to the inside of their mouths.

This verisimilitude was essential to help sell the more cartoonish elements of Dumbo's design, like the adorable eyes. "Put him next to a real baby elephant, and they're worlds apart," Stammers says. "But he has so much detail and nuance in the skin, the wrinkles and the way that he moves with postures and poses that were very akin to real baby elephants that you bring back that realism."

The new Dumbo had to straddle the fantastic nature of his character and the live-action, photo-realistic world around him. Luckily, Burton's aesthetic helped the two meet in the middle. Thanks to the "slightly expressionistic" look of the costumes, sets, skies and environments, Dumbo's fantastical design fitted in seamlessly.

At the top, we see what the camera filmed: a real set, with bluescreen in the background and a stunt performer in green lycra acting out Dumbo's movements. Below we see the finished frame: The expressionistic sky has been digitally added, as has the computer-generated elephant, and other details like the straw.


In order for the actors to interact with Dumbo on set, actor and creature performer Edd Osmond donned a green lycra suit -- like a leotard made of the same color fabric as a green screen. Directed by Burton through an earpiece in the suit, he'd act out Dumbo's movements so the actors were looking in the right place when the digital elephant was painted in afterward.

To match Dumbo's proportions, Osmond wore different versions of the suit depending on what the scene called for. In scenes where Dumbo was touched or stroked, Osmond wore a larger suit. The rest of the time he wore a skinny headpiece that earned the nickname "Antman."

At the top we can see the green-suited physical version of Dumbo that the actors interacted with. Below is the finished image from the actual movie, where the digital Dumbo has been painted in.


One of the toughest sequences was the climactic scene where Dumbo flaps his ears to take to the sky, with Eva Green's character on his back. That required precision planning to match the actor's movements with the digital elements. Green was filmed riding on a motion base -- a moving platform a bit like a rodeo bull, only more controlled -- and the preplanned movements were matched to the camera's movements as it flew around the motion base on wires. "That was very difficult and time-consuming to set up," says Stammers, "and there was always that possibility that Tim may say, actually I want to do something different."

As they filmed the painstakingly preplanned sequence, the footage was handed to a compositor who mocked up a rough version of the sequence right there on the set. Fortunately, Burton liked what he saw. "That was certainly one of the most nerve-racking moments on the shoot," recalls Stammers with a smile.

At the top, the digital version of Dumbo prepares to take a leap into the unknown.


Funnily enough, none of the real elephants MPC studied could fly, so their real-life research material ended the moment Dumbo left the ground. The team had to give Dumbo a weight that would sell the illusion. "There was galloping and effort with the legs while the head was moving up and down, the ears were flapping," Stammers says, "so there was always that great sense of the effort that was going on to get him off the ground."

Cinema isn't just a visual medium, and the filmmakers had other tricks up their sleeves to sell the illusion of a speeding elephant. "When you actually hear the final audio you get this big whoosh when Dumbo flies past," Stammer says. "We look at it mute and it seems to jump quite quickly, but when you hear it with the sound it makes sense."   

Dumbo is in theaters in the US and UK now.