How 'Dumbo' Used Real-Life Circus Performers To Ground The Heightened Experience

"The unique thing about making a movie is making a sort of circus anyway," Dumbo producer Justin Springer told us and a group of journalists on the set visit to the Disney live-action movie. But Dumbo takes that circus to a whole new level.

The Tim Burton-directed movie has a fantastical bent to it, a "storybook" approach to 1919 that's seen in the anachronistic elements and the lavish settings. But there's still a more grounded feeling to Dumbo that Burton and producers Springer and Frey wanted to bring with the involvement of real-life circus performers in the film. Because Dumbo may be a CGI elephant that can fly with the help of his oversized ears, but at least everyone around him can abide by the laws of physics.

You'll believe an elephant can fly, but thanks to the presence of real-life circus performers surrounding the CGI creature, you'll really believe that you're seeing an awe-inspiring circus in Dumbo.

"All of it is trying to ground it in some reality," Springer said. To maintain that element of reality, the team behind Dumbo hired actual circus performers to work in both Medici's (Danny DeVito) traveling circus and V.A. Vandervere's (Michael Keaton) Dreamland circus. To do so, Springer described the unique hiring process they went through, including the performers putting on a show just for Burton:

So to have circus performers, it's nice to get people who are [actual performers]. They have the talents, but also the look and feel of people from that world. It gives you kind of this amazing diversity. We cast people from around the world. In maybe February or so, production brought in a bunch of different performers to put on a show for Tim, and Tim was able to see and get to know different performers. We cast out of that group. But it gives you this really great basis of performers who have these actual talents, and then you find out ways to integrate that into the story. It just gives you a greater sense of reality.

"[There's] just an authenticity that you wouldn't get with casting actors," Frey added. "These guys, when you see them doing the performing, and juggling, and breathing fire, and clown acts, you can't fake that."

The presence of those performers helped inform the production, including the staging and blocking of particular scenes. "Maybe you use them in a shot that's really organic, they're not trying to take it," Springer said. "It becomes this really symbiotic thing and that's cool."

Dumbo flies into theaters on March 29, 2019.