‘Dumbo’ Set Visit: Grounding a Flying Elephant Movie

‘Dumbo’ Set Visit: Grounding a Flying Elephant Movie

This March, when you see an elephant fly, you will believe it. Disney’s re-imagination of their 1941 classic Dumbo is a magical movie, for sure, but there’s also a certain reality to what Tim Burton’s achieved this time around.  While his Wonderland was the stuff of dreams, this is a story of the American Dream, and therefore had to be more relatable.

During a visit to the London set of Dumbo in 2017, we talked to a few of the human cast members, namely Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Joseph Gatt, about the physicality of the movie beyond their computer-generated co-star and what they see as a grounded flying elephant movie.


Tim Burton’s Balancing Act

The aim with the new Dumbo, from the actors’ perspective, was to set up a believable world — the setting is 1919 America, just after the end of World War I — and then drop in this incredible idea of a flying elephant into that reality. “Something as sweet and fantastical and almost otherworldly, while being grounded in some recognizable world that we can relate to,” Farrell explained of the concept.

That’s not to say this isn’t still mostly a fantasy film. “I mean, you put a flying elephant in there and it can't be anything but really fantastical,” Farrell clarified, noting that the setting of the circus is also quite marvelous. “The world that it exists within is such a world of dreams and magic and performance and a lifestyle that represents the nomadic existence of what it would have been to have lived in a traveling circus. I didn't feel like the fantastical element was diminished at all.”

Such a blending of the real and the unreal while being faithful to the tone of Dumbo could only be achieved by Burton. “Tim is really good at figuring out the balancing act between honoring the sweetness of the original story, of the allegorical element of what a baby flying elephant represents, with real world emotional concerns of families and friendships and damages in the war,” Farrell said.


Ehren Kruger’s Expansion of the Story

The animated feature is only about an hour long, and it ends with the world learning of Dumbo’s gift. It’s basically just the first act of a story, which has now been expanded upon for the live-action version. “It’s a completely new narrative,” Farrell stated of the plot, which was scripted by Ehren Kruger. “[He] wrote a really gorgeous narrative, a really beautiful story that's very kind of archetypal.”

Farrell described these new but classical characters: “There's the kind of shyster circus leader owner with a heart of gold,” he said of DeVito’s role, “then there's the evil kind of megalomaniacal owner of the really big fantastical circus that's swallowing up all the smaller circuses in America, and he's very ambitious and very rich.” That’s Michael Keaton's character.

“Then there's the one-armed cowboy who comes back from the war who has lost his wife,” a description of his own character, now a single, unemployed father, “and then there are the two kids who are really bright and really free and fun and live in a place of liberation, but they also have their scars, and they also have their wounds.”

Finally, about Eva Green’s trapeze artist, Farrell acknowledged, “Then there's the seemingly cold from a distance lady of the skies who is French and has climbed her way up in a male-dominated world. There are all these beautiful archetypes. The majority of audiences will be able to find some relatability to at least one of the characters.”

Joseph Gatt, who plays another archetypal character, the villainous henchman security guard Neils Skellig, also commended Kruger on the evolution of the story. “He’s done such an amazing job at taking all of the best stuff from the original movie and then expanding it and putting in all of these incredible human characters,” he said.

But the main character is still Dumbo, he affirmed. “It's all about Dumbo. This is Dumbo's movie. We're just there. I mean, Ehren's written some great characters, but it all facilitates the story of Dumbo and his journey from birth to the end of the movie and his future, so to speak.”

As for what’s been left out, Gatt recognized the not-so-best parts from the 1941 version. “Obviously there's a lot of stuff in the original movie, because it was very much of its time, that isn't very socially and politically correct,” he admitted. “That's now completely gone. And it's very animal-friendly. You won't see elephants standing on top of each other and that kind of thing. Everyone’s going to love this movie.”

DeVito revealed another change in the new Dumbo, how the title character acquires that nickname, which in the original was given to him insultingly by the other elephants. “You know, he doesn't get his name until there's a big brouhaha in the tent and the J falls and the D falls,” hinted the actor. “This is different, more of a Tim Burton-esque way of doing it that's really cool.”


Practically a Real World

Dumbo will feature some spectacular digital effects, but to maintain the grounded feel of the world around the flying elephant, Burton and Disney decided to keep the production as physically oriented as they could. “It's all practical sets,” Farrell celebrated, joking that they probably would have kept everything tangible if it were possible. “They didn't have time to get their hands on a flying elephant. They couldn't seem to locate one of those, so it’s the ol' look at the tennis ball as it flies through the tent, which is fine.”

Gatt agreed that the sets are incredible in their functionality. “Tim really does like to have as much physically there for the actors as possible, which is fantastic because there are certain other directors that would do this completely green screen and we'd have to imagine everything,” he said. “Tim is giving us so much.”

The approach to Dumbo is different from some of the other Disney reimagining on the way. “I'm sure the film will look extraordinary,” Farrell stated of the upcoming live-action remake of The Lion King, which has no human characters. “The Jungle Book was mind-blowingly beautiful. But there's nothing on the set. This, at least, we arrive on the set and as you can see it's all practically built, from the big top to…you should see Cardington.”

He referred to Cardington Studios, where much of Dumbo was filmed. “That stage is like nothing I've ever seen,” Farrell claimed. “And I've been lucky enough in the last 20 years to be around some extraordinary sets. Like Alexander — they made some amazing sets at Pinewood. But I've never seen anything like the boulevard [set].”

Despite the aim for a grounded reality and practical effects, interestingly enough none of Dumbo has been filmed in the actual world. There are no exterior shots, even for outdoor scenes. “I've never done [that],” Farrell confessed. “It's all stage. There'll be skies and there'll be sunrise and sunset and birds flying across the clouds for sure [added digitally later]. But I feel like I'm existing in a practical world. It's not asking me to imagine too many things that aren't there, save for that flying pachyderm.”


That Flying Pachyderm

As for bringing Dumbo and some of the other animal characters to life, including Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, that’s only partly the job of the digital effects wizards. But to really make the main character seem real, the human actors had to believe he was right there with them. “I've never done that before,” DeVito admitted of his task of acting opposite what will be a computer-generated character and the practical stand-ins for the elephant.

“We have a couple people in green suits. We have these big aluminum outlines of how big an elephant would be, with tennis balls, and they're carried by a person in green so you know where it's gonna be. There’s nothing there,” he explained about the process, which also entailed his interactions with Mrs. Jumbo, describing hydraulic effects employed for when she is coming down a ramp from a boxcar. “I thought that was the coolest thing.”

“We have this guy called Ed, who is put into like a green costume that vaguely mimics the right size and shape of what Dumbo would be,” Gatt said, more specifically, “and it's great having him there because he'll actually be there and physically interact with us and move around a little bit. It helps us get an idea of the elephant's energy. It's very rarely that we're doing the work with nothing there at all. There's always something there for us to use as a reference, a little bit more than a tennis ball.”

DeVito detailed another scene where his character has just purchased Mrs. Jumbo and she’s laying in hay in a boxcar and they realize she’s pregnant. "There's a fake trunk just coming out. She's not there,” he explained. “Then the special effects people have little filaments that move the hay. It's really cool watching all that. I think that's fascinating.” 


Characters Based in Reality

Although many of the characters are archetypical, Kruger has also given them a lot of realistic depth and backstory, and the actors flesh out the roles as much as makes sense for the family-friendly story. “He's been on the frontlines for years,” Farrell said of his character, a World War I vet. “He's seen men die to his left and to his right, some horrific things. But it's all treated gently. It's not like he has PTSD. It's not that kind of gig.”

For DeVito, his circus owner character, who is partly based on the ringmaster from the 1941 original, had to be more grounded here, both in terms of his choices and how he’s led to those choices. “Contrary to what it was in the movie, where the mouse gives the head of the circus all the ideas, this is kind of like life itself puts us in a spot. For some reason we're having a very difficult time getting people in the seats, and we get a windfall when I buy Mrs. Jumbo.”

Even the villains had to be more realistic than they are in Disney’s animated classics. “It would be very easy to imagine a Disney villain being a more over-the-top kind of thing,” Gatt recognized. “But Tim wants everyone playing everything very real, just very held back. Not forced. Nothing over the top even to the point where you feel like, ‘Did I do enough?’”

Gatt said it actually begins with Kruger’s script, in which everything is written as “very real, very down-to-earth and grounded.” He confessed that he expects people to despise his character even more for not being cartoonish and acknowledged the challenge of playing such a realistic evil role. “You just find something about the character that you can relate to, anything. As long as you can find something you like about the character, then you can connect.”

The actor also brought in some inspiration from real people. “A lot of people that I hate very much,” he specified. “I'm very anti-hunting and I've been involved in a lot of charities and work against hunting and big game hunting. So I know a lot of people that I can reference this particular character to, none that I would want to be friends with or recommend being friends with.”


Dreams Coming True

Creating the balance of the real and the fantastical still requires a lot of visionary work, and the imaginative design and craftsmanship on display in Dumbo can not be denied. “I come to work every day and I see all this - you know, it's amazing. Really. It really, really is,” Farrell lauded. “You know, in 20 years of doing this job, it's one of the greatest pleasures I've had to arrive on the set everyday and just see the beauty of the craftsmanship.”

Compared to other movies, Dumbo certainly isn’t the most grounded project. “Sometimes you go and you work on a film and it's set very much in the real world with real world concerns that affect us all at various stages in our lives -- sickness, loss, love, fear, whatever it may be.

“And then sometimes you go to work on things that are just so bewitching in how you see the imagination of some very talented, very imaginative people made manifest in a physical sense. That's what this is,” Farrell said. “You just see the imagination of the production designer, you see the imagination of [costume designer] Colleen Atwood, you see the imagination of, obviously, Tim at every turn, and it's extraordinary to be around.


Happily Ever After

This is also a movie, and a Disney movie at that. While the reimagined Dumbo exists in a relatively grounded world with some relatable and frighteningly realistic drama and characters, in the end it’s a feel-good experience with an upbeat message.

“The one central thing that holds true in both the original and this is the flying elephant and the story of believing in yourself and finding something inside you that allows you to become the best version of what you never thought you could even be,” Farrell affirmed.

“And that we're all — regardless of the things that society says should arrive us at being outcasts, they're the things that make us all individual and special and beautiful regardless of how crippling a certain thing may be or how polarizing a certain physical attribute even may be.”

DeVito also championed the movie’s message. “It’s a very positive, hopeful, never give up kinda thing,” he agreed. “That kind of theme. You see all the different things that infiltrate the good in life, and the things that surprise you come out of nowhere. Maybe someone is duplicitous or whatever.

“You can't always believe what somebody tells you. Sometimes it messes up all your hopes and dreams. But if you all stick together possibly you can get out of it and there'll be a happy ending, and dreams do come true.”

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