This past March, Disney’s live-action Dumbo remake soared into theatres on a pair of supersized ears. Directed by Tim Burton, the reimagining updates Dumbo’s classic formula for a new generation. This modern take swaps out talking animals for a charming cast of humans, eco-conscious themes, and eye-popping production design. To mark the release of Dumbo on Blu-ray, I interviewed the film’s Academy Award-winning Production Designer, Rick Heinrichs.
I can’t overstate how excited I was to speak with Heinrichs about his work. He’s a long-time collaborator with Burton, and the fruit of their labour includes the most Tim Burton-y movies ever made: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Sleepy Hollow, to name a few.
Heinrichs is the sort of person you want to corner at a dinner party. I can’t imagine how many behind-the-scenes stories he stockpiled during his accomplished career. This is a guy who worked on two of the Coen brothers most beloved films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), a Marvel movie (Captain America: The First Avenger) and the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy (Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
Our conversation focused on Heinrichs’ time working on Dumbo. The interview touched on the film’s captivating production design, working with Tim Burton, and of course, what wonderful collectible he has on his shelf.
Victor Stiff – Dumbo dazzled me from the opening frame. How did you go about giving this film it’s distinct look?
Rick Heinrichs – It’s been noted before that both Tim and I came out of the animation world. We went to CalArts, we were invited to studios, working on some Disney films early on. I do think that there is a way of looking at the world that someone who is used to caricaturing and stylizing it in the manner one does for animation and cartooning, that trains you to observe, to imagine, and push characteristics that create something similar.
If one is coming in with that sort of a [process] towards live-action, I think that you end up with something that is much more visually interesting. Interesting to watch because people involved with this were after very specific things. As Tim always says when he is working, he’s really interested in capturing the feeling of what his original inspiration was that lead him to take on an assignment. And I very much agree with that.
It’s all about that emotional connection with the audience. Hopefully, that comes not just out of the story, but as animators know and are trained to do: show it instead of telling it. Instead of it being an expository exercise of the story, of the history, it ends up being evident from the appearance of the characters. And the characters’ environments tell who they are and explains their motivations and makes you feel that the world they are living in is believable within the context of the story. The audience can immerse in it, and it doesn’t feel manipulative.
I loved the different vibes between the two circuses. Can you discuss how you went about contrasting the warmth of the Medici Circus with the colder, futuristic looking Dreamland?
The feel we were trying to get, going back to the emotional connection, was that of the heartland versus the dreamland. And to me the central characteristic of one is… they’re both about introducing the audience to something exotic. On the one hand, in the context of the heartland, the Medici Circus could come in and really talk to you at your own level, to entertain you. And there’s something, in a way sad but kind of endearing about that.
Dreamland, on the other hand, is meant to really blow your mind with amusements and rides and characters; visuals that are just beyond your experience to the point of, literally stupefying you, putting you into a dreamland. And there is a nice story contrast that comes from those two things.
The idea of something that is more homespun and family-oriented on the one hand and that feels kind of real to peoples’ lives in a way. Versus something that is literally a spectacle that you are in awe of and almost don’t participate in because it’s beyond your experience. All the design elements were rooted in those two contrasting themes.
As a theme, there’s not anything necessarily original about that. There’s certainly that aspect in Wizard of Oz, of Kansas versus Oz. That was really the basis of what we were trying to do. The foundational element of making sure what ended up being important was the connection people were making with themselves and these animals and that theme of family versus the cold corporate world out there. That is also an element that set the basis, the foundation of what we were doing.
We’ve seen countless movies depict circuses. At the start of production, do you set out to create something that hasn’t been done before? Or do you stick to your own vision and if there’s some overlap with other films, so be it?
It depends on who you’re working for or with. Working for Tim, you’re always wanting to do something that both feels appropriate but also surprises and hopefully delights the audience. Part of it is his own take on things and to be from a point of view you’re a little less familiar with. It always starts by digging into the research, the historical nature of things. And I think that it’s important to make use of that so there’s a continuity to the characters and in general the story. So, you feel it’s really rooted in some place real.
But then within that context, once I felt that we have got a good handle on what the reality of it was, then that really does allow me to have license to expand and stylize and still feel rooted but at the same time, someone like Tim for instance, isn’t particularly interested in the year-to-year historical accuracy of everything. So, there are elements in dreamland that are more ‘50s inspired, let’s say. That’s intentional, the point of it is not a history lesson in this particular case. The history is just there to help to anchor the characters in the story. But it’s a valid point to make sure, at the same time, that Dreamland felt very advanced and not futuristic.
There’s an emotional truth to it.
There’s an emotional truth to it and that it feels like a place that our characters need to somehow take in and pull back the layers to truly understand. There was a function to the way everything looked. It needs to be very attractive and pull you in until you kind of reveal what’s at the heart of it, and that’s when you want to pull back from it.
Is there an element of the production that stands out to you?
The biggest impression I got from doing Dumbo, it was an extremely arduous prep and build – as with all of these projects that are worth doing. There’s a challenge there in which you’re not absolutely sure you know where you’re going from the beginning. And so part of the pleasure and the gratifying aspect of it is the ability to surprise and hopefully delight yourself in what it is you’re able to discover that you couldn’t anticipate.
That’s what this was really like for me. The gratification of being able to walk onto the Cardington Hangar, which is where we built Dreamland. To see this set as it was continuously built, meaning that you walk off the street, through the gates, and through the main boulevard all the way to the Coliseum. That was really there. And then you could walk from the exterior of the Coliseum all the way inside it.
Everybody working on the film was also anchored to the geography of it. It felt right. It felt like they were in a real place and the things that obviously were going to be extended by visual effects weren’t onerously crowding out the acting and intruding as much.
There was a lot of very real stuff right there. In fact, everything up to a certain height was real there. That was tremendously gratifying, to see that all come together and be able to wander around in it. It’s sort of like wandering around inside of your mind [with visuals] you’ve been living with for a long time.
What cool collectible do you have put away on your shelf?
Lots! I’ve got a lot of the work I did for The Nightmare Before Christmas. The original Jack Skellington from the early ‘80s. I’ve pretty much have kept most everything that was part of my collaborations in the early days with Tim.
I’ve moved my studio a few times, and things fall off the truck along the way. When you pour yourself into an object, and back in those days, I was sculpting and drawing like crazy. I draw like crazy these days, but I do much less sculpting, sadly. When you pour yourself into those objects, they tend to take on a life of their own well beyond the time and energy put into it. So it’s been nice to be able to see those elements in the museum shows like that.
Dumbo is now available on Digital, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD.