dumbo set visit report

Tim Burton is distracted. He’s in the middle of directing the live-action adaptation of Dumbo, an ambitious, big-budget production that requires balancing fantastical and elaborate sets with even more fantastical visual effects. But I got the feeling that this harried appearance was just part of Burton’s nature — a million thoughts racing at once while he attempts to answer press questions. It’s a surprisingly energetic persona from a man who is famous for donning all black and a dour complexion, but maybe that’s why he always wears the grim color: he can’t be bothered to think about anything else.

“It’s hard for me to talk [about Dumbo] right now because I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a drama,” Burton hurriedly tells us in between takes. “But I’ll let you know when I’m done with it.”

Hearing Burton refer to his Dumbo live-action adaptation as a comedy might be a bit confusing — humor isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about a Tim Burton movie, or the melancholic 1941 animated movie, either. But there is an unexpected warmth emanating from the Dumbo director and from the lavish, sprawling set around which he paces.

/Film got the chance to visit the set of Dumbo in London along with a group of other journalists, where I was immediately transported back into a storybook version of 1919. Here, a modest barn interior with a dirt floor and pieces of rope sits a couple hundred feet away from an elegant, Art Deco-style apartment decorated with vintage movie posters and marble floors. There, warm pinks and faded yellows adorn the backs of children running through a brightly lit town square.

And there isn’t a Gothic Victorian castle in sight.

dumbo set visit report

Tim Burton Sees the Light

Tim Burton’s name has become synonymous with highly stylized, baroque films that largely put aesthetics before emotion. Even his last stab at a Disney live-action adaptation, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, received mixed reviews for its prioritization of lavish visuals over heart. But with Dumbo, it seems that heart is where Burton’s, well, heart is.

“It’s really nice to see the lightness of Tim that’s always present in his films but because he’s so known for the dark he gets tagged with that. But it’s really not, this movie’s a very light movie, it’s very full of life, color, and joy,” said costume designer Colleen Atwood, a frequent collaborator with Burton. Producer Derek Frey, another longtime collaborator, agreed.

“I think the difference with this is that he’s choosing a palette that really is brighter, tonally it’s brighter, it’s warmer, it’s more inviting. I don’t know if that’s a conscious thing, but I do think he looks toward the palette of the animated film for the foundation of this. Obviously, there are heavy and sad moments in the original, as there are in a lot of early Disney films, and that does provide a foundation for some of the emotional points in this film. But I wouldn’t say that we’re embedded in darkness, or murkiness, or fogginess. He’s actually surprised me in the trajectory he’s taken, that it is quite bright and inviting.”

The 1941 Dumbo isn’t particularly known for being a ray of sunshine. The animated film is quite infamous, in fact, for having some of the darkest and most frightening sequences in a Disney film to this day. The original film’s story follows the semi-anthropomorphic elephant cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo,” for his unusually large ears. Born to a circus elephant named Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo is tormented by both human boys and fellow circus animals alike. But his sad existence is only worsened when his protective mom steps in, causing her to be thrown into a cage — leading to the film’s famously heartrending “Baby Mine” sequence — and Dumbo to be left to his lonesome. Through a friendship with a sympathetic mouse, Timothy, Dumbo discovers that he has the power of flight and becomes a media sensation. The film was a touching, if traumatizing, touchstone of many a movie lover’s childhood.

The original film’s color palette served as one of the main sources of inspiration for Atwood’s costumes. “The cartoon is really important to me as far as the telling of the story,” Atwood said, adding that the warmer approach seemed to have brought out Burton’s animation roots as well (the director got his start working as an artist at Walt Disney’s animation studio). “When you look at Tim’s movie… [it] is very, very based in animation and I think as a designer you have to anticipate that,” she said. For Atwood, that meant more golds, pinks, turquoises — dirtied up to match the shabby traveling circus run by Danny DeVito’s Medici, who first acquires Mrs. Jumbo and her newborn. And later on, bright, bold “red, white, and blue, which is very Americana,” Atwood said of the destination circus Dreamland, run by Michael Keaton’s slick businessman V. A. Vandevere.

“There’s a storybook sort of feel [to the set],” said production designer Rick Heinrichs. Dumbo is filmed exclusively on stages, in elaborate sets that range from dusty American heartland to opulent circuses with “glittering spires” and Great Gatsby-inspired spectacle. “One of the decisions we made early on was that we were going to do this entire film on stage instead of [on location],” Heinrichs said, noting that this is the one aspect that would be familiar to Burton fans. “Being on stage allows you to focus more, and to light expressively and focus the audience’s attention much more specifically, which, if you’re familiar with Tim’s movies, he loves to do.”

The key to Dumbo, producer Justin Springer said, is striking that balance between Burton’s signature visual style and the emotional resonance of the original film.

“You don’t want to sidestep that feeling that you remember from the original. You want to capture that, it’s really poignant and very memorable from all the classic Disney films. And then you just have to find ways to counterbalance that with the magic and joy of this elephant flying and the way the color palette is. So it’s just about trying to find a balance where you have the highs and lows.”

dumbo set visit report

Family Steps Into the Spotlight

The 1941 film upon which Burton’s Dumbo is based ran at 64 minutes — one of Disney’s shortest animated features. To make the leap to live-action, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger had to pad out the story with a new human element that didn’t exist in the original film. That human element comes in the form of Colin Farrell, who plays Holt Farrier, a widowed war veteran and former star circus performer who returns to Medici’s circus to care for his children and the new baby elephant. Holt’s two young children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are the ones who discover Dumbo’s amazing ability of flight. While many Disney fans are understandably wary of different elements brought into classics, the story of Holt and his family plays perfectly into the original film’s themes of family.

“The emotional core of the movie is twofold,” Springer said. “One is still Dumbo’s story: Him coming into this world and being different, and being looked down upon, and using this gift to create a better situation for himself. It’s very much in the way the original film was, so you have to make sure you shoot it in the way that you get that emotionality. Then with the live-action movie, we have this father coming back to the circus, having just come out of the war. He used to be the lead actor in the circus, then he fought in the cavalry and is coming home to take care of his children but he finds out his act has been sold.”

Farrell and his family provide the emotional throughline needed to bring Dumbo to modern audiences, Springer noted. With the universal themes of family, and the lavish historical setting, “it’s a little bit for everybody,” Frey added. Springer agreed, saying:

“So you’re kind of in this human perspective simultaneously, and it’s their story of discovery and this family putting together the pieces of their life again through their experience with Dumbo. Which is nice, because I think it opens up the movie to a wider audience, and when you do a live-action, you sort of need that human connection.”

“Family…[is] really what this film is about,” Heinrichs said. “Because Dumbo in our film, like the animated film in which there are a lot [of] similarities, he’s kind of the prime motivator for a lot of the main characters.” Whether that is to motivate the characters to respond with love and kindness, or to seek to exploit him, is the impetus for the movie. Which is where Keaton’s P.T. Barnum surrogate, V. A. Vandevere, comes in.

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