Back in November 2017, Nerdist had the opportunity to step behind the scenes of Tim Burton's Dumbo, where some of its cast—including Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Joseph Gatt—spoke about how Burton's vision for the film merges the larger-than-life with more realistic elements. You might not think a movie about a flying elephant could manage to be all that grounded, but as it turns out, Burton's film makes it feel one step closer to the possibility of true magic.
"You put a flying elephant in there, and it kind of can’t be anything but really fantastical, you know what I mean?" Farrell said, when asked about his initial reaction to reading the film's script. "When I say fantastical, it doesn’t have to be supernatural. It can be something like the circus, [because] the world that it exists within is such a world of dreams and magic and performance. ... I didn’t feel like the fantastical element that I expected was diminished at all."
Part of that was accomplished by the decision to use practical sets, while computer-generated elements were mostly equipped in the creation of Dumbo himself, and several cast members told us about the amazing sets that were constructed in places like Pinewood and Cardington to help bring the magic of the film to life. "I feel like I’m existing in a practical world, that it’s not asking me to imagine too many things that aren’t there, save that flying pachyderm," Farrell said.
"Tim [Burton] really does like to have as much physically there for the actors as possible," Gatt said, when asked how much of his acting had to be performed opposite something he had to imagine. "Which is fantastic, because there were certain other directors that would do this completely green screen and we’d have to imagine everything. But Tim is giving us so much." As for working with Dumbo specifically, Gatt told us that several life-size elephant stand-ins were built to give the actors a sense of shape and placement before being removed for filming. "But it’s very rarely that we’re doing the work with nothing there at all. There’s always something there for us to use as a reference, a little bit more than a tennis ball."
There were also other actors providing stand-in replacements for Dumbo, including those who could offer a performance — especially for some of the younger cast members. "We have this guy called Ed, who is put into a green costume that vaguely mimics the right size and shape of what the elephant would be, of what Dumbo would be," Gatt said. "And it’s great having him there, ‘cause he’ll actually be there and physically interact with us and move around a little bit. ... And it helps us kind of get an idea of the elephant’s energy and stuff."
Other practical elements were included to provide the cast with something to act against. One scene, in which an elephant will be unloaded out of a boxcar on a ramp, used a hidden set of hydraulics, as DeVito revealed to us: "There’s nothing coming down the ramp, right? Oh, there’s a guy with a big rig coming down the ramp and the ramp has got a hydraulic thingy that pulls it down. Man, it was deep. I thought that was the coolest thing."
At one point, Farrell told us that he'd always been looking for a project of this kind until Dumbo fell into his lap. "Sometimes, you go to work on things that are just so kind of bewitching in how you see the imagination of some very talented, very imaginative people made manifest in a physical sense," he said. "And that’s what this is. I mean, you just see the imagination of the production designer [Rick Heinrichs]. You see the imagination of [costume designer] Colleen Atwood. You see the imagination, obviously, of Tim at every turn, and it’s extraordinary to be around."
Dumbo is currently slated for a U.S. release on March 29.