MPC, Framestore, RodeoFX, DNEG & Rise VFX worked on VFX for Disney’ live-action remake of Dumbo.
MPC did the vast majority of the visual effects, delivering 1,150 shots, primarily for the character animation of Dumbo, the little elephant who can fly. The visual effects supervisor for MPC was Patrick Ledda.
The film was primarily shot at Pinewood and Cardington studios and MPC’s initial involvement was to assist and provide guidance to the Production VFX Supervisor and Producer.
The work on set varied greatly due to the large number of scenes and nature of the work that MPC was involved with—from blue screen set extensions to overseeing shots related to character animation and second unit shoots. Of particular interest was working on the motion-base shoot, for which animators created animation cycles that drove the motion base. This allowed actors to ride the motion base and subsequently integrate them with a CG flying Dumbo.
MPC began by working with Tim Burton to create concept art and designs for Dumbo’s world. MPC’s VFX artists then started working on the creation of CG characters and animation cycles. Its Character Lab team created several characters, including the film’s hero character Dumbo, which took more than a year to develop—although some initial tests at Disney started earlier. From the overall appearance, to how he would physically move, it was both a challenging and creative process. The main challenge was how to get the balance right between what a real and an idealised elephant looked like. MPC wanted to reference the original cartoon as much as possible while working with more realistic attributes.
For the other elephants, the director’s vision was that they would be visually attractive, healthy specimens. This meant they shouldn’t be too dirty, wrinkly or hairy and have an attractive build. Several months were taken working on the desired look, using huge amounts of reference material.
Another iconic character MPC crafted was Dumbo’s mother, Mrs Jumbo. Artists used adult Asian elephants as a reference, researching online videos, as well as going on shoots at various zoos to study them in more detail. The team focused to a great extent on creating a realistic looking elephant with complex textural and wrinkle detail.
MPC R&D developed a key technological advancement for this project: the creation of a resolution skin simulation setup that allowed artists to simulate individual wrinkles on the elephants in detail. This, in turn, allowed the team to mimic the complex dynamic effect of pulling and stretching wrinkles as the elephants walk and move, resulting in skin meshes that are up to 10 times more detailed than any MPC had created in the past.
MPC also worked on secondary characters, including Barrymore the Capuchin monkey, mice, a python and other additional background animals. Digi-double versions of Joe, Milly and Colette were also created for use during complex flying shots where there was no motion-base element.
One of the standout sequences in the film is when Dumbo is given a bath. The most challenging aspects of the scene were how to create and simulate realistic bath foam—Burton wanted to use the foam as a representation of Dumbo’s mood, so significant creative control was needed. The final result was a combination of computer generated and practical foam which was shot at MPC.
MPC also focused on environments like the Medici Bros. Circus. This required the creation of a replica of the practical circus shot on set. MPC’s Digital Environments team had to meticulously match the existing set while creating additional CG tents and trees. Most shots in the opening few scenes feature a combination of live action and CG circus. Beyond the circus, MPC created CG fields and meadows, and were also responsible for the scene in which the Big Top collapses.
MPC also created an expressionistic version of 1930s Manhattan, with the highlight being fully CG shots of Dumbo flying over Brooklyn Bridge with Joe and Milly on his back.
Given that the movie was entirely shot on sound stages, a large number of sequences required set extensions and skies. The director was heavily involved in the look of the skies in particular, with every sequence having its own mood and feel. The composition of clouds and colors became very important.
Another challenging sequence was the creation of a jungle, perhaps the most complex environment in the movie with waterfalls, trees, plants and complex water simulation and elephants. The large number of elephants was created using a combination of hand animation and MPC’s proprietary crowd software.
Rising Sun Pictures also delivered multiple shots for the movie. Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) was tasked with creating an army of marching elephants for a scene that harkens back to one of the most magical moments from the animated original.
In the 1941 film, Dumbo and his friend, Timothy Q. Mouse, imagine pink elephants and other apparitions as part of a psychedelic music sequence. In the new film, a group of female dancers, performing in the mammoth entertainment park known as Dreamland, use hoops to create huge, wobbly bubbles that take the shape of pachyderms bouncing to a merry beat.
RSP worked under the direction of production VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers and VFX Producer Hal Couzens, in carrying out Tim Burton’s playful vision. “It’s a spectacular CG bubble show,” says RSP VFX Supervisor Dennis Jones. “It captures the essence of the magical place, Dreamland, welcoming you into a world where everything that happens is extraordinary.”
Jones and his team, which included Lead Animator Victor Glushchenko, VFX Lead Sam Hancock, Lighting Lead Arthur Moody and Compositing Lead Andrew Savchenko, spent months establishing a look for the shimmering bubbles and choreographing their mesmerizing transformations. As they did so, the original concept for an 8-shot tableau evolved into a 52-shot extravaganza centered on a group of performing elephants. “It’s slapstick, a bit bombastic and has an engaging, upbeat energy,” observes Jones. “It was fun to watch it develop.”
While the team was wrestling with the creative challenges of orchestrating the scene, they were also confronted with technical hurdles involved in pulling it off. Among the biggest was finding a way to make the irregularly shaped bubbles evolve smoothly into animal shapes. The methodology they ultimately chose involved breaking the animation into its component parts. “We built animation rigs that were used to control bubbles, and others that we used for legs, heads and other body parts,” explains Jones. “That allowed us to blend a bubble into a leg, have the leg connect to another leg, and so on. We then applied skinning, surfacing and lighting.”
The technique enabled the animators to control bubbles and characters through a few simple commands, and manipulate their movement and shape-shifting in a manner similar to working a puppet. “An animator could trigger an effect by ticking a box,” notes Jones. “Our guys had it so down pat, they could take animation to final, with colored surfacing, in just a few days.” As a result, adds Jones, animators found it easy to experiment with movement and respond quickly to feedback from the director and production team.
Finding the right balance between realism and magic also took great care. For example, as the bubbles transform into elephants, they retain some of the qualities of soap; and their shapes continue to wiggle. Production VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers suggested the addition of ripples to the elephants’ skin to further their bubble-like quality. “That look was very difficult to get just right,” recalls Jones. “If you went too smooth, it looked like blown glass. If you went too far the other way, their skin resembled rubber. Ultimately, we ended up a bit on the shiny side, with lots of high-frequency ripples moving through the surface, generated by the characters’ performances.”
Due to the ephemeral quality of such effects, Jones adds, RSP chose to produce the scene in native 3D. “The CG is very reflective and transmissive; rendering the sequence in true 3D helped to preserve those qualities,” he explains. “The plates are being dimensionalized for the final release, but we rendered our scene in true 3D with stereo camera setups.”
Jones says the team was guided throughout by Tim Burton and his distinctive aesthetic vision and he expects audiences will be delighted with the results. “This scene follows a dramatic moment in the film and offers the audience a breather and a laugh,” he says. “It’s a big spectacle and a bit of fun that certainly stands out.”
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