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How MPC Animated the High-Flying Elephant for Tim Burton’s ‘Dumbo’

From defying gravity to expressing emotion in a believable way, reality was key for animation supervisor Catherine Mullan and the team of artists at MPC.

For Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Dumbo,’ director Tim Burton wanted the baby elephant to feel joyous and free as he flew through the air. Images ©2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Unlike other visual effects-oriented movies MPC Animation Supervisor Catherine Mullan (Monster Trucks) has worked on, the live-action remake of Dumbo directed by Tim Burton (Dark Shadows) was all about portraying the performance of the title character. “I came on during the preproduction stage and was involved quite heavily with the rig for Dumbo,” says Mullan. “When the asset was being built there was some back and forth to make sure that the design would work for the animation. I was working quite closely with [Production VFX Supervisor] Richard Stammers [The Martian] throughout. There were certain actions and scenes that people thought could have been problematic so at an early stage we started to develop how Dumbo would fly, move, and emote. When shooting began we continued with the character development and showed some key pieces to Tim Burton for feedback.”

Rather than the traditional shot-per-shot approach, the previs team worked on grand master scenes. “Previs could go in and add cameras to help define the shoot process,” Mullan explains. “While they were trying to figure logistics, the animation department was refining and polishing the way in which Dumbo expresses himself and how real he would look amongst the characters.”

Stuffies and a stand-in played by Edd Osmond were used on-set while animation tests were shown to cast members to give them a sense of how Dumbo would look like and move. “Edd had a headdress that he wore that showed the position of his eyes because Dumbo’s head is so much bigger,” Mullan recounts.

Mullan and Stammers directed Osmond as to what was needed for certain scenes. “There is so much that happens and develops on-set that being there you automatically know the history behind the plates and why decisions were made. You’re also there to look ahead and try to inform the decisions that are being made on-set,” she says.

“We had done some tests [before principal photography] on what we thought Dumbo’s takeoff would look like as well as how long it would take for a character of that size to get off of the ground,” Mullan continues. “We could look our tests and at what they were shooting and judge whether that would actually work once we got it into post.”

Part of the research involved examining footage of baby elephants to see how they move. It was important to show that he was very weighty when on the ground but with the flight there is an element of suspension of disbelief. “Tim wanted Dumbo to feel joyous and free, and when he’s in flight it’s natural to him,” Mullans says, noting that the takeoff shots were the bridge between Dumbo’s weightiness on the ground compared to his relative weightlessness as he flies through the air.