Original Animated Film
The basic story of “Dumbo” dates back to 1939 as a planned novelty item called a Roll-A-Book—a box with little knobs that readers turned to read the story through a window. Authors Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl wrote the story “Dumbo the Flying Elephant.” Whether the Roll-A-Book was ever produced is a mystery—none have been located—but when Walt Disney purchased the rights to the story, he published about 1,430 copies of a regular book version of the story.
“Dumbo” was one of the first feature films finished at Disney’s new Burbank studio lot, which opened in 1940. It was built thanks to profits from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“Dumbo” was originally slated as a 30-minute short film. It ultimately expanded to just under 64 minutes (Disney’s second shortest animated feature film behind 1942’s “Saludos Amigos,” which was just 42 minutes).
In the original animated film, Dumbo—who won the hearts of viewers around the world—doesn’t speak, though Mrs. Jumbo, Timothy Mouse and many other animals do. In Tim Burton’s reimagining of the story, none of the animals speak.
Director Tim Burton studied animation at CalArts alongside a host of future Disney filmmakers, including Chris Buck (“Frozen”), John Musker (“Moana”), Mike Giaimo (“Frozen”), Glen Keane (“Tangled”) and Rich Moore (“Ralph Breaks the Internet”). Burton worked at Disney Animation in the early 1980s, and directed two shorts for the studio (“Vincent” and the live-action short “Frankenweenie”) and later wrote and produced the 1993 stop-motion cult phenomenon “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Burton’s 2010 reimagining of “Alice in Wonderland” won Oscars for best achievement in costume design (Colleen Atwood) and best achievement in art direction (Robert Stromberg, production designer, and Karen O’Hara, set decorator).
The live-action reimagining of “Dumbo” utilizes state-of-the-art visual effects to portray Dumbo and many of his four-legged counterparts.
Utilizing the design of the train in the animated film “Dumbo,” filmmakers behind the live-action reimagining constructed a full-scale Casey Jr. train for the film. However, since the Medici Bros. Circus is far from new and shiny, the train had to be aged with chipped paint and wear and tear to aptly reflect the state of the circus.
Director Tim Burton and his production team wanted to honor the minimal and expressionistic look of the original animated film. To bring the look into the live-action realm, they studied film noir to develop stripped-down environments and lighting strategies—ultimately striking a balance between reality and expressionism.
“Dumbo” was shot just outside London on soundstages at Pinewood Studios East—becoming the second film to shoot in the new section of the famous film lot.
The production team built as much of Medici Bros. Circus and Dreamland as possible to ground the story in the environment.
Colin Farrell is no stranger to horses, having appeared in several films that required extensive horse riding (“Alexander,” “Winter’s Tale,” among others). But when the “Dumbo” script described his character as a former circus star with a popular equestrian act, Farrell trained with a lasso and horse-riding instructor.
The props department armed Milly with books by physicist Marie Curie to showcase the character’s passion for science. Nico Parker, who portrays Milly, spent some time studying the books to better understand her character—but says she doesn’t share Milly’s scientific leanings.
Actor Roshan Seth, who portrays snake charmer Premesh Singh, comfortably carried a live python around his neck in most scenes that featured him.
The tank that houses Miss Atlantis was constructed with double walls—a narrow internal tank that lined the bigger tank was filled with water and fish to create the illusion that she was underwater.
Miss Atlantis’ costume consisted of more than 100 overlapping scales, which were hand stitched. Alternating rows of black and turquoise, the scales were constructed from 3-4 layers of fabric with sequin borders to give each scale a reflective quality.
In the film, Ivan the Wonderful and Catherine the Greater are a husband-and-wife team of illusionists who care for Milly and Joe after their mother passes and before their father returns from war. Real-life couple Miguel Munoz and Zenaida Alcalde portrays the duo. The Spanish performers specialize in physical theater, trapeze and magic.
Filmmakers felt strongly about featuring real circus performers to infuse a sense of authenticity to their circus. Fourth-generation circus performer Kristian Kristof from Hungary was hired to share not only his extensive knowledge of the circus, but his international circus connections. The result was a multicultural array of performers, including jugglers, clowns, knife throwers, contortionists, a dog trainer and more.
The circus troupe assembled for the film hailed from all over the world. The significant language barriers made it difficult for the performers to connect—that is until they set up a Ping-Pong table.
Eva Green portrays aerialist Colette Marchant—but the actress joined the production with a serious fear of heights. A professional aerialist was hired to double for Green as needed, and worked with the actress to build her confidence in the air. In the end, Green conquered much of her fear and was able to perform a lot of the choreography.
To play the role of aerialist Colette Marchant, Eva Green had to exude not only the physique, but the fluidity such a performer would embody. Personal trainer and aerialist Francesca Jaynes was tapped to work with Green. One of the strategies employed to build strength and elegance was ballet.
In the film, Milly and Joe have a little mouse circus—a nod to Timothy Q. Mouse in the animated movie.
Since Dumbo, Mrs. Jumbo and the other elephants in the film are added in post-production by the visual effects department, the production team had to build on-set stand-ins for fellow performers to act opposite. Lifelike replications were created in some cases to assist in lighting certain scenes. In other cases, crew members dressed in green—making them easy to remove in post—and carried elephant-sized frames to demonstrate where the elephants would ultimately be placed. Green stuffies and elephant suits were also created to help establish eye-lines.
Sharon Rooney, who plays Miss Atlantis, was tapped to sing the iconic song “Baby Mine” in the film. The song holds a special place in Rooney’s heart—her grandmother used to sing it to her when she was a child. Rooney also had to play the ukulele for the scene—she’d never picked up the instrument before. It took her just a week to learn to play the song.
For Dreamland’s parade sequence, costume designer Colleen Atwood’s team created more than 200 costumes for the performers, plus an additional 500 for the crowd characters.
The team behind the elephants’ animation pushed available technology to the next level, adding sliding skin, flexing muscles and jiggling fat to give the animals a sense of mass.