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Fun Tidbits About Design, Costumes, Music and More on Disney's 'Dumbo'

26 Mar, 2019    added by : Kit Bowen
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It’s a pretty good day to sit in the same room with director Tim Burton collaborators like composer Danny Elfman, costume designer Colleen Atwood and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Seeing their talents on display in Burton’s take on Dumbo is a real treat – and at a recent press day, they all gave some insights into working with the director and turning the animated Disney classic into a visually stunning and heartwarming live-action movie.

On creating the look of a Tim Burton film and why this is the perfect time for this kind of reimagining:

RICK HEINRICHS (Production Designer): Every movie I’ve worked with Tim on with, and I’ve known Tim for almost 40 years now, has been an adventure unto itself. What I would say is that there is a shared visual shorthand and I’m sure that all of his collaborators would say the same. The exciting thing about working with Tim is in many respects, you dig deep into the history and the period and all of the things that one normally does to bring all the toys to play with on the table. Then Tim sweeps all that aside and you sort of put it back together as a Tim Burton film. It’s always a blank canvas that you start with. It feels dangerous and exciting and challenging and Dumbo is certainly no different from any other time.

DEREK FREY (Producer):  From Tim’s perspective, when we were handed the screenplay from Ehren [Kruger], it just seemed like a story that could be expanded upon. The original is 63 minutes. Tim was aware that the technology had reached a point where you could successfully render an elephant into a live action environment. It just seemed like, for Tim, he’s obviously done some re-imaginings in the past, and every film that he takes on, it’s not like a simple decision. He knows that Disney has been going back into their catalogue of films. But Dumbo is one of the original outsiders in a way — and Tim’s films are populated with outsider characters. So I think for Tim, it was the combination of knowing that the technology was there to render this character and that pulled upon all of his strengths as an animator with his Disney background. It’s almost like Dumbo is almost like a personification of himself in a way which is interesting. In terms of the time, so much time has gone by since the original. It’s a simple and beautiful story. I think a lot of the themes in the story that Ehren created, they’re universal things. It’s about family. It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about overcoming judgment and people looking at you in a certain way. Dumbo is kind of a bullied character. I know that’s something that we’re dealing with socially right now. To place it back in a time period and have this heightened reality, I think we can learn a lot now by looking back.

KATTERLI FRAUENFELDER (Producer):  It started with Tim’s sketches, which everything starts from. It was a lot of work. Everybody was involved, but basically, it was Tim’s eye that kept evolving towards how he wanted to see Dumbo. He didn’t want a photo real character. But he wanted something heightened. The work on the skin and the eyes and the movements and the flying. It was just his eye in collaborations with the people he worked with to create Dumbo that pushed forward continuously until I think last week was the end of the push. But it’s basically his vision of what Dumbo should be in the world.

On how this project challenged Atwood after collaborating with Burton for so many films:

COLLEEN ATWOOD (Costume Designer):  I know somebody just told me, I think we’ve done 11 projects together, Tim and I. But I think the idea of creating a world on a performance level and on a kind of level period level together is always an interesting challenge. It sort of bridges between fantasy and reality and the sort of challenge of combining five circuses, how they would all look, how the people in them would look, was a huge challenge. Then just managing the whole 500 people a day for months on end. Things like that were a different kind of challenge. Because the one thing that’s really amazing about this movie is that so much of it is real in the room. The sets for the big circus parade and the stuff. When you’re in the room with all that going on, you realize you’re in a really magical, very rare place that you might not ever be in again in your life because movies are changing so quickly. And the sort of whole digital world is changing so quickly. But you really felt like you were in the moment in an old time movie when we were shooting it a lot of times. Which made it a really special experience for me. Forget the challenge. It was just the experience that was great.

On Eva Green’s amazing costumes:

ATWOOD: Traditionally aerialists wore capes as their presentation. They would come out with a cape over their costume and ta-da! The cape would come off. But because she didn’t mount the stairs the way a traditional aerialist would, we didn’t have what you call shoe leather. You needed the moment to be a little different moment. So her moment was coming up and doing the traditional aerialist thing and then dropping the skirt to float to the ground. I made the skirt out of a material that a lot of it is tulle. But it’s also material, it’s aluminum and nylon which is very lightweight. So it didn’t just drop like an anchor to the ground when she dropped it to keep it so it caught air and kind of floated down. It kept the weight off it when she was walking around it because it’s a lot of skirt. That was kind of where that came from.

On the process like between Burton and Elfman:

DANNY ELFMAN (Composer):  You know, it’s funny, this is our 17th film – and I still never know what to expect from Tim at all. People think that “Oh, you must have the shorthand, where it’s real simple.” And I go “No, actually, working with Tim is a lot less simple than a lot of other directors.” His mind is strange and interesting.

I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want. It’s always a kind of roundabout process of when we start the film, he’ll say very little about the music. We have a thing called a spotting session where we go through the whole film top to bottom and break it down into all the musical parts and give them all a name and a number. If the movie is an hour 45-minute-long, the spotting session will be two hours and 15 minutes. If the movies is two hours, it will be two and a half hours. Real quick. Doesn’t want to talk about it. When there’s music to hear, then he’ll talk. So this is something that we’ve learned together. Talking about it beforehand doesn’t actually get us anywhere really. Because he’ll respond to what he hears. Then I’ll do a lot of ideas and I’ll get the sense. This one is the one you’re responding to.

One thing I do have to say is when I got the call about Dumbo, this is one of the first questions I always have, “Is Rick and Colleen on the project?” And if it is, I’m like yes.

On how the original animated influenced the music, specifically Dumbo’s main theme:

ELFMAN: I had a little theme in my head. I didn’t know a lot about Dumbo. I didn’t see it as a kid, but I remember that baby elephant loses his mom. That’s going to be bittersweet, sad, and I had a musical idea. And before I started, I went and I wrote it, played it, finished it, put it away. I’ve never done that before with Tim beforehand. A year later I came back. I said what was that thing that I did? That’s Dumbo’s theme right now.

I wrote it as a bittersweet sad theme. Because that’s always what makes me excited. And the sadder it is writing it, the happier I get as a composer. I do try to put my themes a bit of an acid test, which means I have the melody I like. Can I make it triumphant? Can I make it quirky? Can I make it silly? It’s like I’ve got to put it through each of these things. Whatever it is going to be asked to do, I need to know that it will do that. I don’t want to find out when I get there that oh my God, this music just doesn’t want to get big or triumphant. That’s part of my process.

The word [Burton] used the most in the score was soaring. He really wants to make sure that Dumbo soars. And I go, “But don’t we want Dumbo to be heartbreaking?” And he’d reply, “Oh, yeah, you got that, that’s fine. Sad stuff is all fine. But I really want to make sure he soars.” So for me, of course, the fun part is not having seen it as a kid, I didn’t have a lot of attachment other than I knew that I saw it. What was crazy was Pink Elephants on Parade. I know that really well. I don’t know how I knew it. But I knew it. Casey Jr., of course, I know that. How do I know that? I didn’t see it as a kid. There are all these elements I was hoping we could bring, wrap in. But the thing that excited me the most was that it’s going to be some heartbreak in there. That’s really where I get my jollies. [Laughter].

On incorporating some of those iconic moments from the original like the Pink Elephants on Parade:

EHREN KRUGER (Producer/Writer): I just thought about things that I associated so strongly with as a kid to the story. Pink Elephants, Casey Jr., Firefighting Clowns. These were all things without going back and watching the 1941 film.

ELFMAN:  We all have firefighting clowns in our past somewhere. If we look at our own lives. I find.

KRUGER:  In your band. Yes. Yes. You had firefighting clowns. Just the things that I remember. It’s kind of like Danny talks about. Zeitgeist memories or things in the back of your head. I remember that moment. I remember that image. And of course, in writing the film, I went back and revisited the animated movie a number of times. I really tried to get to that place of what are the core things that I associate with this? What are the simple things I associate with this story? And those have to be there.

JUSTIN SPRINGER (Producer):  Yeah. I think that kind of covers it. It’s not as if you sit down and make a list of all the things that we feel like we’re beholden to include. It’s really just you start from your own fandom and your own respect from the original and you just start to derive a story out of the stuff that feels like it’s in the essence of the movie. Those can be set pieces or visual imagery or fun little Easter eggs even or ways that music might eventually get used if you just put it on the page now. There are lots of people who will take those ideas that are on the page and turn it into beautiful sets or costumes or music. But also just in the story, what’s in the DNA of that core story that feels like it’s allowed it to have this lasting impact for 80 years? If you have that foundation, then you can take the story in all sorts of directions. We can expand out and tell a broader human story. We can see where Dumbo goes after, he flies and what the impact on the world ultimately becomes. But it all kind of comes back to what are those original elements both visual but also in the story and then the themes that feel like are core to the original movie.

On whether the animals would talk:

KRUGER: I suppose early on, we made the decision that we wanted to transport an audience to a circus world, to Dumbo’s circus world. They go and enter the circus, and that meant that it needed to feel real. So early on, we made a decision to not feature talking animals — that the most important characters in the animated film, Dumbo, doesn’t speak. It felt organic to the story to let Dumbo be a classic Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton-esque expressive silent film performer. Make the circus around him feel real. There are moments when we thought well, wouldn’t it be nice to have Timothy Q Mouse talk? He’s so cute. But we just don’t want to break the spell of where we were asking the audience to go to time travel with us to. So that you can imagine that Dumbo’s conversations with Timothy Mouse are happening off screen in between scenes of this movie.

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