Tusk master

Ben Davis BSC / Dumbo

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Tusk master

Ben Davis BSC / Dumbo

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Below is only a teaser, and the full interview can be found in the March 2019 issue (92) of British Cinematographer magazine.

If you purchase a year’s digital subscription from just £30, or a year’s all-inclusive subscription from just £64, you can read the interview in Issue 92 by clicking HERE. You will also receive access to the rest of our extensive back catalogue.

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Travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), to care for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughing stock in a struggling company.

But when they discover that Dumbo can fly, the circus makes an incredible comeback, attracting large crowds as well as the attentions of persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits the peculiar pachyderm as the star for his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland.

Dumbo soars to new heights alongside a charming and spectacular aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), until Holt learns that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is brimming with dark secrets.

Directed by Tim Burton from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger and produced by Justin Springer, Kruger, Katterli Frauenfelder and Derek Frey, Disney’s Dumbo flies into cinemas around the world at the end of March 2019. The live-action fantasy adventure is loosely inspired by Walt Disney's 1941 animated film of the same name, itself based on the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. Norwegian singer Aurora performed a haunting cover version of the original film's song "Baby Mine" for the remake.

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Cinematography on Dumbo fell under the auspices of cinematographer Ben Davis BSC, whose major works include Hannibal Rising (2007), Kick-Ass (2010) and the Marvel films Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014), Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), Doctor Strange (2016) and Captain Marvel (2019). Davis was also the DP on the 2017 Oscar-winning feature Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, earning BAFTA, BIFA and Camerimage nominations for his work, along with the 2017 Camerimage Audience Award, amongst others.

Dumbo was Davis’ first collaboration with Tim Burton. Principal photography began in July 2017 in the United Kingdom, lasting until November. The feature was entirely studio-based on practical sets, with no locations used except for a modicum of second unit aerials. Pinewood Studios housed the Medici Circus, whilst both the exterior and interior of Dreamland were encapsulated under the same roof of one of the voluminous, former aircraft hangars, at Cardington, near Bedford. Including prep, pre-production, the shoot and the DI grade, Dumbo represented a year’s work for Davis.

Ben Davis

As the character of Dumbo was CG-animated, elephant props were used during filming to give the production team an idea of his size and shape in each of his many scenes, as well as accurate cues for the lighting and the camera movement.

Along with his collaboration with Burton, Davis necessarily had to work closely with production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and VFX supervisor Richard Stammers, to develop the stylised world inside Burton’s imagination, and also to ensure that Dumbo fitted naturally in this fantastic setting.

Davis took time out from his current production, Kingsman: The Great Game, to reveal more details about his work on Dumbo.

Photo by Jay Maidment
Photo by Jay Maidment

"The composite exterior/interior set of Dreamland must have been one of the biggest ever built. Biggles (John Higgins) and I had to light that with a really big rig - as the roof height is 180ft, we built a gantry the entire length of the hangar, 80ft above the set, with the lights on electric tackles."

- Ben Davis BSC

What was your initial reaction to the idea of shooting this live-action re-imagining a Disney animated classic?

BD: It’s a great idea. There’s a generation out there now who are not aware of the original animated classic films. Whilst those are works of art in their own right, there are some elements in them that might not have stood the test of time politically and socially. So it’s good to remake those and present them to a fresh audience. Also, the technology now exists where you really can remake them convincingly in live-action, to a very high-level visually.

And how about working with Tim Burton for the first time?

BD: That was exciting. We met very briefly about a year before the film actually started pre-production, and he asked if I was interested. Of course I said I was. I think the fact that I have worked on a number of large-scale, big-budget films, with various levels of VFX in them, went for me. But I think the fact that we got on really well from the start, is what went for me the most. I knew that working on Tim’s films is a family affair, that he prefers to work closely with people he likes and trusts – actors as well as the crew – and I was delighted to be invited to be part of that.

For various reasons the production date was pushed back and it became a waiting game for me. Other features came my way, but I decided to wait on the chance that Dumbo would happen. And the gamble paid off.

I met Tim again just before the prep started. It was a brief meeting, but there’s a lot of information that gets imparted to you over a very short period of time, and you’d better make sure you are listening.

What were your initial creative considerations regarding Dumbo?

BD: Starting out, the biggest conversations were about deciding how Dumbo was going to be represented. He was always going to be a CG/VFX creation, with live-action going on all around him. Whilst all of the textures of his body needed to be photoreal, he could not be a typically photoreal character per se, because of his shape, expressions and movement. He has big ears, gets shot out of canons and flies. No such beasts exist, and believe you me we looked high and low, but there were no flying baby elephants to be had out there!

READ IT ALL

The full interview can be found in the March 2019 issue (92) of British Cinematographer magazine.

If you purchase a year’s digital subscription from just £30, or a year’s all-inclusive subscription from just £64, you can read the interview in Issue 92 by clicking HERE. You will also receive access to the rest of our extensive back catalogue.

CLICK TO BUY A DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION
CLICK TO BUY A PRINT & DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION