Dumbo is the latest iconic Disney treasure to make the leap from beloved mid-century cell animation to live-action feature film for the new millennium, joining Snow White, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, to name but a few. Among the many underlying motivations for Disney’s trend, beyond marketing savvy and estimated profits, is the mere fact that it’s possible. The evolution of visual effects and other production technologies has reached a point where the fantastic – say, a flying baby elephant, for example – can comfortably and convincingly share the screen with humans and other relatively mundane elements, drawing in today’s visually savvy audiences.
Richard Stammers of MPC in London served as visual effects supervisor on the new Dumbo. His experience includes work on various Harry Potter, X-Men, and Chronicles of Narnia features, as well as Robin Hood, Prometheus and The Martian.
“The digital era has certainly made the process simpler, even though we still strive for the filmic look and dynamic range of film emulsion,” Stammers says. “But one thing that has made a big difference is the way that captured images today have so much detail, sharpness and clarity, with no loss of generation through the process of the digital effects pipeline. What you end up with on screen can be nearly identical to what’s captured. Despite all the advancement in technology, the way we composited shots 20 years ago is not massively different from what we do now. We’ve got better tools that allow the artist to work quicker and more efficiently, and maybe the aesthetic has improved. But essentially, the processes are incredibly similar. I think we’re just able to do better work with better capture and carry through the process to the very end without any diminishment of what was captured on the sensor.”
Stammers, along with director Tim Burton and director of photography Ben Davis, BSC decided very early on that retelling the Dumbo story would require stepping back slightly from perfect photographic reproduction. At the heart of the story is the elephant, of course, a CG creature with exaggerated eyes and facial expressions. The world he inhabits, therefore, should have a slightly impressionistic twist. Under Burton’s practiced eye, this mindset extended throughout the production, affecting choices in the design of the effects, the lighting, the sets, costumes and beyond.
According to Davis, “Tim’s an extraordinary man, and the films he makes are unique. He has an amazing vision of what he wants to create. The longer I’ve been doing this job, the more I’m looking for directors with a vision, a single voice with something to say, as well as the passion and the drive to see that through.”
Davis shot Dumbo mainly with the large format ARRI ALEXA 65 camera and ARRI Prime DNA lenses, which use older glass to achieve a warmer, softer feel. He chose a 1.85:1 aspect ratio to better frame the Big Top and the elephant. The ALEXA 65 uses an A3X CMOS sensor to capture at 6560x3102 resolution in Open Gate – an image roughly equivalent to the 5-perf 65 mm film frame. The uncompressed ARRIRAW files are written to Codex SXR Capture Drives, which were offloaded quickly, at full resolution, to the Codex Vault XL workstation by DIT Tom Gough.
Davis says that in spite of the huge amounts of data, the workflow is solid and smooth. “It took a while for digital cinematography to settle itself,” says Davis. “There were a lot of problems initially with discrepancies between what the camera team was seeing and what was being delivered to visual effects departments and editorial. Now, that’s not a problem. In terms of workflow, I’ve gone back to my film roots. I’ll have one LUT, which represents my one film stock. I don’t do any grading or CDLs on the set at all. I light and expose how I want something to look. I avoid the DIT tent, and I’m back where I was when I shot film – on the set, on the camera, where I have the joy and privilege to watch great actors work. The dailies colorist balances under my instructions, and we do projected rushes in the morning, which I find much more informative and inspiring – seeing it in the format that we’re aiming for in the released movie.”
Davis worked closely with Stammers on the distinctive skies above Dumbo’s world. Most scenes take place in exteriors situations, almost always filmed on stages at Pinewood. Stammers’ team shot more than 300 sky domes, many consisting of 90 tiles stitched together. The HDR stills comprising these 360-degree sky domes combined to deliver the equivalent of about 50K resolution. These skies we sometimes augmented with cut-and-paste cloud and color elements or matte-paintings to achieve Burton’s vision of a more “storybook” feeling, while still working in harmony with Davis’s close lighting design. In some cases, Davis could see on-set live composites as he lit and shot, choosing the right sky with Burton and Stammers.
The main set was the theme park where Dumbo lives. Massive sets were built, and made bigger still through set extensions generated from Framestore. Hubert Maston oversaw Framestore’s contributions, which required gathering extensive HDR LIDAR scans of existing sets and lighting setups, along with lens, exposure and other metadata captured by the ALEXA 65 camera system and recorded with the picture data. When it came to compositing the visual effects scenes, seamlessly blending a flying elephant into a real world, the data-rich ARRIRAW image files were crucial.
“The ability to shoot RAW, with as much data as possible, definitely plays a part in how flexible we are when we actually do the visual effects work,” says Maston. “It also plays a part in what we can actually leverage from a plate. If it has a very wide gamut, we can do more.”
THE ABILITY TO SHOOT RAW, WITH AS MUCH DATA AS POSSIBLE, DEFINITELY PLAYS A PART IN HOW FLEXIBLE WE ARE WHEN WE ACTUALLY DO THE VISUAL EFFECTS WORK
Richer data can also lead to greater efficiency – enabling the vast expansion of what can be done with a given budget and schedule and making possible endeavors like Disney’s big push into live-action.
“The volume has definitely increased,” says Maston. “I remember Titanic having about 800 visual effects shots. Now, twice that is standard, and some projects have more. With the increase in computing capacity, a lot of possibilities have been opened up. We use models for lighting and rendering that we simply couldn’t use before because of computing limitations. We can leverage more of the data that comes from set. We can use the HDRIs to recall what the state of light was on the set, and we can use realistic materials to better simulate the look of an object. In the past five or ten years, there’s been an important transition from a more ad hoc rendering approach to methods that rely much more on physical material and accurate translation of light. In the theater, it becomes more and more difficult to sort out what’s real and what’s not. At the same time, it’s been an evolution for our industry to be able to cope with the tremendous amounts of data that we create – literally terabytes each day. There’s been so much backline work making sure that data flows are efficient.”
Codex has been at the vanguard of this evolution in data management, devising ingenious solutions to the technical challenges presented by today’s filmmakers. But the company’s success is due in no small measure to its understanding of the interpersonal side of filmmaking, which can get lost amid all the ones and zeros. The tools are used by people.
“I think the human aspects are a really important and painfully overlooked part of visual effects,” says Stammers, “especially when you talk about computer-generated imagery. Sure, it may have been rendered in a very realistic way, but it was rendered that way because the artist designed it in such a way, and put in all the hours, to make it look as real as possible. Ultimately, the technology is always there to allow the artist to work as quickly and as cheaply as possible to get the things that the director wants to see on screen. That’s always been a really key part to the visual effects process. It’s always about what gives each of the artists the best creative feedback, and the ability to iterate as many times as possible to get where we need to get to in the given amount of time. The technology exists to support that human aspect of the work.”
Camera Type: ARRI ALEXA 65
Camera Rentals by: ARRI Rental
Lenses: ARRI Prime DNA
VFX Services by: MPC
Dumbo from Camera to Post – ARRI, CODEX and DaVinci Resolve
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.