How Tim Burton brought a CGI 'Dumbo' to life in Disney's new remake

Watch the skies… Dumbo is about to take flight (Disney)
Watch the skies… Dumbo is about to take flight (Disney)

Disney’s live action remake of Dumbo is ready to take to the air in March this year. Based on the 1941 animation of the same name, Tim Burton’s adaptation of Walt Disney’s fourth full-length feature is – of course – centred on a young circus elephant who can fly.

But where the original ends with Dumbo’s first public flight, that iconic moment is merely the leaping off point (pun intended) for this new adventure, Burton’s second live action Disney redo after his Alice In Wonderland kicked off the studio’s remake cycle in 2010.

Unsurprisingly the young elephant is an entirely CGI creation. “They didn’t have time to get their hands on a real flying elephant,” joked Colin Farrell, who plays one-armed war veteran and former circus performer Holt Farrier in the new film.

“They couldn’t seem to locate one of those, so there’s the old ‘look at the tennis ball as it flies through the tent’ thing, which is fine.”

More surprisingly, we learned that all the skies you see in the film are CGI too. And with a flying elephant, there’s a lot of sky to be seen.

“None of this film do we shoot exteriors at all, which I’ve never done,” explained Farrell while taking a break from filming back in 2017, “It’s all stage, but there’ll be skies and there’ll be sunrise, and there’ll be sunset and birds flying across the clouds I’m sure.”

Colin Farrell and Tim Burton on the set of <i>Dumbo</i> (Disney)
Colin Farrell and Tim Burton on the set of Dumbo (Disney)

All the huge circus interiors and exteriors have been built inside on the cavernous sound stages at Pinewood, with blue screens erected above eye level, ready to be replaced in post-production.

Farrell’s Farrier has returned from the Great War a changed man. Not only has he lost an arm in the conflict, but his wife – the mother of his two children – has also passed away. To make matters worse his boss – shyster Medici, played by Danny DeVito – has sold all of his horses after his circus hits the skids. Medici takes pity on him though, and he’s soon rehired to take care of young Dumbo after his two children bond with the baby elephant born to the circus.

Although no real elephants appear in the film, Burton went to extraordinary lengths to give his cast something to act against whenever Dumbo was on screen.

“We have this guy called Ed who is put into a green costume that vaguely mimics the right size and shape of what of what Dumbo would be,” explains Joseph Gatt who plays baddie Neils Skellig. “And he’s there, and it’s great having him there because he’ll actually be there and physically interact with us and move around a little bit.”

“Especially with the kids, they have a lot of very specific interaction with him, so it really helps them, and it helps us get an idea of the elephant’s energy. Ed’s really great at that, at bringing the character to life.”

Joseph Gatt’s behatted Skellig guards Vandemere’s car as Michael Keaton exits. (Disney)
Joseph Gatt’s behatted Skellig guards Vandemere’s car as Michael Keaton exits. (Disney)

“When I show them Mrs. Jumbo that I bought, it’s my big acquisition, like I’m really excited,” adds DeVito, keen to share another way the elephants are brought to life on set. “There’s a fake trunk that’s just coming out of [nowhere] – she’s not there. And then the special effects people have little filaments that move the hay [around her].”

This is the third time DeVito has played a circus ringmaster for Tim Burton following Batman Returns (1992) and Big Fish (2003) – “This is the completion of the circus trilogy” the Always Sunny In Philadelphia star jokes.

“It was 1919, that’s when [Dumbo] takes place, and the little circuses were fading because all the big ones were taking over,” explains DeVito. Waiting in the wings to snap up Medici’s circus and exploit its star elephant is Vandemere’s huge corporate circus Dreamland.

Playing the ruthless and enigmatic entrepreneur V.A. Vandemere is another Burton alumni, Michael Keaton, who played Batman to DeVito’s Penguin in Burton’s second Batman film. “He was playing the good guy in that movie – I’m the good guy in this movie. So there’s a little bit of an evolution here,” laughs DeVito.

Tim Burton and Danny DeVito on the circus set for <i>Dumbo</i> (Disney)
Tim Burton and Danny DeVito on the circus set for Dumbo (Disney)

27 years have passed since that fateful DC sequel, but DeVito insists his director hasn’t changed at all. “You know, I’ll get emotional thinking about how much I care about him. Always spirited, always an artist, always thinking about the craft, always just painting with his mind.”

One thing that has changed to the story of Dumbo though is how the young elephant gets his name. In the 1941 original Mrs. Jumbo christens her new baby Jumbo Junior when he’s delivered by the stork. But when he sneezes and reveals his oversized ears, one of the gossipy circus elephants renames him when she says “Jumbo? … you mean Dumbo!”

This has been changed for the new film explains DeVito, who references a neat-sounding sight gag involving a sign in the circus tent that houses the elephants: “This is different, this is a more Tim Burton-esque way of doing it. It’s really cool.”

“You know he doesn’t get his name Dumbo until there’s a big brouhaha in the tent and the J falls and the D falls…”

The original film is very sleight, clocking in at just 64 minutes long. It’s not clear yet how long the new Dumbo will be, but it sounds like the story of the animation will take up the first third of the film. It’s also taken out some of the more unsavoury elements of the original film too.

“It’s a completely new narrative, and the one central thing that holds true in both the original animation and this, is the flying elephant, and the story of believing in yourself,” explains Farrell.

“It’s very, very positive and hopeful,” adds DeVito, “You know, almost a never-give-up kind of thing, that kind of theme.”

“I was speaking to [screenwriter Ehren Kruger] yesterday,” adds Gatt. “I met him for the first time and I just congratulated him because he’s done such an amazing job at taking all of the best stuff from the original movie and then expanding it and putting in all these incredible human characters, but still the main character is Dumbo. It’s all about Dumbo.”

“And it’s made very politically correct, because obviously there’s a lot of stuff in the original movie, because it was very much of its time, and there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t very socially or politically correct – that’s now completely gone. It’s very animal friendly. You won’t see elephants standing on top of each other and all that kind of thing. Everyone’s going to love this movie.”

Dumbo flies into cinemas in March.

Read more
New Nolan movie details
All the live action Disneys in development
8 Marvel movie characters that Disney still doesn’t own