Taking on the Turn of the Century

While the setting of the 1941 animated Dumbo was vaguely somewhere in the early 20th century, the 2019 Dumbo is set firmly in 1919…for the most part.

“Well, it’s not a documentary,” Atwood quipped. But Atwood and Heinrichs took the historical accuracy of the film seriously, diving into researching the fashion and architecture of the time period. Heinrichs looked at period architecture and photographs from just after the first World War, as well as the paintings of American realist painter Edward Hopper, whose famous oil painting “Nighthawks” is perhaps the embodiment of melancholic Americana. Meanwhile, about 90% of Atwood’s costumes were authentic vintage dresses and menswear, tailored to fit modern-day bodies, with a few reproductions thrown in. But with the circus costumes, she allowed herself a little creative license.

“With the show costumes, the fantasy and the animation elements come into it more. So it’s a combination of the feeling that Tim wanted with the costumes, with the patina of time. The guards there are kind of based on World Fair uniforms so it’s pretty close but it’s not precious. It’s not that kind of movie.”

The glamorous Dreamland circus, which is Vandervere’s newfangled “destination circus” modeled off of Coney Island, is where Atwood and Heinrichs draw the distinction between historical accuracy and fantasy. A place that’s “both Coney Island amusement park as well as circus and spectacle,” Heinrichs wanted to create an over-the-top vision of the future that didn’t exactly match with the more post-Victorian looks of the actual period. “We bent the rules a little bit and added ‘30s deco and some of the more futuristic shapes of World Fairs from the ‘30s,” Heinrichs said. “We want this to feel like Oz to these yokels from the Heartland and quite over-the-top.”

The divide between Medici’s raggedy traveling circus and Vandervere’s glitzy Dreamland also offered a central conflict for the film. “It’s the Heartland vs. the Dreamland,” Heinrichs said. “The Heartland wants to feel like your own family, the Dreamland is the big city, it’s more glittering spires and surface spectacle. Medici’s circus is more heart and family.”

All About the Elephant

We’ve talked about everything but the most important character in Dumbo: the elephant. Dumbo presented a special hurdle for the crew, who had to not only structure the film around an entirely CG-animated character, but make him look as adorable as he’s remembered in the 1941 animated film. Luckily, they didn’t have to venture too far from the real thing. 

“The original animated film is so cute and such a performance, but if you look at actual real baby elephants, they’re not far off from that,” Frey said. “They almost seem as if they’re from an animated world, just how cute they are and how expressive they are. They feel like babies. So I think the reference for our Dumbo, it is kind of a cross between the original animated [character] and a real baby elephant.”

Added Springer, “He has to kind of feel like he hits and exists in the real world, but maybe slightly cuter and more impressive.”

But as cute as the real things were, there was still the issue of creating a realistic-looking baby elephant with giant ears that didn’t look like an uncanny monster. The solution: start from square one. The visual effects team approached Dumbo’s design “as if it were an animated cartoon,” Heinrichs said. “And then we started to bring in more of the elements that felt real, and the idea that we’re in a storybook because elephants don’t really fly.” But that line between fantasy and reality was something that the team had to constantly toe.

“The things that do need sell, is when we have any scene with any of our virtual actors, we want to believe it. You have to believe it. So you do need to take physics into consideration and the way things really look, but at the same time if you get too hung up with the reality of everything, you’re almost undoing your work. It’s a fine line, you keep going back and forth until you feel like you’re getting into the groove.”

However, being cute is just one part of being Dumbo. The elephant, who doesn’t talk in either the 1941 animated or the 2019 live-action film, had to carry the emotional weight of the movie alongside Holt and his children. “We really wanted to make Dumbo not just look cute, but…that your heart was with him,” Heinrichs said. That’s an obstacle when the character is literally dumb, but Dumbo’s perspective is “built into the movie” through Kruger’s screenplay and Burton’s camera work, Frey said.

“The thing is we try to keep Dumbo grounded other than when he takes flight. Obviously like in the animated one, it’s not going to come easily to him, he’s not going to nail this flight thing. There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve. So to try to make that as real — if an elephant was born with big ears and could fly — the challenge was how to design an elephant with ears that are big enough that aren’t ridiculous but that if he had control of them, what makes it look real so this elephant could carry that weight and take flight? So that makes it a bit of a challenge. But I feel like they’re cracking it. You’ll believe!”

Dumbo opens in theaters on March 29, 2019.

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