Back in the long-ago forgotten days of 2017, Collider and a few other journalists visited the United Kingdom set of Tim Burton‘s live-action Dumbo. Unfortunately, not even Disney money could procure an actual flying elephant (yet), but what we did see in the flesh was pretty awe-inspiring. Fully functioning trapeze contraptions. Hundreds, if not thousands of extras in period-piece carnival attire. Colin Farrell fell out of a chair. It was wild, man.
But what do you expect when your set is, quite literally, a circus? Dumbo‘s production took place completely indoors, mostly in Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood Studios and partially in the studios at Cardington Airfield. The film is not only the long-beloved story of a soaring pachyderm, but also a tale of two circuses: the down-on-its-luck traveling Medici Circus run by Danny DeVito‘s Max Medici, and the magical, state-of-the-art event space known as Dreamland run by Michael Keaton‘s V. A. Vandevere. Opting to go without exterior shots, production constructed several three-ring circuses’ worth of pageantry inside.
“Making movies are kind of a circus anyway. That’s what’s so funny to see,” producer Justin Springer. “That idea that you have when you see a movie about making movies, it’s like, there’s clowns walking around on the backlot, and there’s roustabouts, and it’s this exaggerated version of what a movie set is like. But that’s actually what our movie set is like. There’s poodles running by.”
There were poodles. And clowns, and jugglers, and fire breathers. More clowns (lotta’ clowns). But the most surprising sight by far was, at the center, Tim Burton, who is roughly 100-times more joyous on set than you’re probably imagining. We only watched one scene being filmed, but it was a huge, crowded one, delayed by an issue with one lightbulb. (Burton joked, “You just saw the most expensive lightbulb change in history.”)
Once everything was in place, the scene ran into another problem; DeVito, decked out in a red suit and top hat regalia extremely reminiscent of his role in Burton’s Big Fish, just could not say his single tongue-twister of a line correctly. (The sight of Danny DeVito yelling “Oh, shit!” on the set of a Disney movie was worth the trip alone.) But each time, the scarecrow-like director would huddle together with his actor, the duo essentially making a human number “10”, laughing like only two long-time collaborators can as dozens upon dozens of background actors reset their complex placements. I can’t speak for the magic of the finished product that debuts this month—this was 2017, remember—but I can report the people behind the scenes were having a dang magical time making it.
And, eventually, DeVito got the line right. Mostly. Kind of.
“I’m gonna’ vote for that one,” Devito said, already taking off the top hat. “That was the best one.”
Here are 30 more things we saw, learned, and experienced on the set of Tim Burton’s Dumbo:
Tim Burton, when asked what tone he was aiming for, noted “I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a drama yet. I’ll let you know when I’m done with it.”
- Producers Justin Springer and Derek Frey told us that, while this movie still sees Dumbo learning to fly, the story essentially starts with the elephant discovering his abilities relatively early on, and then the plot becomes about saving his mother, Mrs. Jumbo.
- Despite the addition of live-action main characters played by DeVito, Keaton, Farrell, and Eva Green, the creative team was adamant that this was still Dumbo’s movie. “In the screenplay that Ehrin Kreuger wrote, a lot of it is still from Dumbo’s perspective,” Frey said. “Tim’s really made it a point to bring the camera into Dumbo’s perspective or see things from his view. That’s built into the story.”
- Just color-wise, the film is much brighter and more colorful than Burton’s usual go-to palette. Despite the presence of Keaton and DeVito, there were far more comparisons to Big Fish being thrown around than Batman Returns.
- The circus scenes contained between 500 and 600 extras at a time at the Pinewood Studios location. At Cardington, the number got as high as 700.
There were absolutely no exterior shots in the film, but Burton and the producers worked overtime to make sure the actors were interacting with physical sets, even for outdoor scenes. “For the most part on our sets, we’re just filling in skies and the background, the horizon [with CGI]”, Spring said, “but our characters completely interact in a real set.”
- That goes for Dumbo himself, too. Edd Osmond, who has also did creature and droid work on Solo and The Last Jedi, would be “put into a green costume that vaguely mimics the size and shape of what Dumbo would be,” according to actor Joseph Gatt.
- Gatt, who played the warg-ed out Thenn in Game of Thrones and a Frost Giant in the original Thor, portrays Neils Skellig, who he describes as the Darth Vader to V.A. Vandevere’s Emperor.