VFX: Disney's <I>Dumbo</I>
Karen Moltenbrey
Issue: March/April 2019

VFX: Disney's Dumbo

In 1941, Disney introduced audiences to Dumbo, a baby elephant with quite the unusual features and, as it turns out, quite a unique ability — using his especially large ears to fly. The low-budget animated film was meant to boost the then-fledgling studio’s bottom line. To that end, the animation was far less detailed than Disney’s previous three features (Fantasia, Pinocchio and Snow White) in terms of character designs and environments. Nevertheless, the film did as intended, achieving financial success at the box office, even winning an Oscar for best scoring.

Just recently, Disney released a remake of Dumbo, the latest of the studio’s classical 2D animated productions to receive a live-action/CGI re-imagining, only this time the effort taken to create the film is far from economical, with its incredible attention to detail as the hero animals are brought to life in a manner that the original artists never could have dreamed of almost 80 years ago!

Directed by Tim Burton, the 2019 Dumbo explores a far more expanded story line loosely inspired by the 1941 version, doubling the length of the original 64-minute feature (one of Disney’s shortest). It also introduces a number of new human characters played by well-known actors, including Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito. In addition, it features a number of stylistic-bordering-on-realistic CG animals, including the star: the semi-anthropomorphic young pachyderm, Dumbo. 

Richard Stammers served as overall visual effects supervisor, with a number of studios providing the VFX, including MPC, Framestore, Rise Visual Effects Studios, Rising Sun Pictures and Rodeo FX. In fact, MPC, under the supervision of Patrick Ledda, delivered the lion’s share of the shots — 1,150, from its team of more than 1,200 artists. This encompasses all the character work, including the creation of Dumbo — approximately 800 of MPC’s shots involved the character. In addition, the studio handled three environments: the Medici Circus, 1930s Manhattan and the jungle at the end of the film. 


According to Ledda, MPC had been working on the film for more than two years. An early concept initially called for a realistic-looking elephant with large ears, but when Burton signed on, he wanted an idealized version that referenced the cartoon. “Big, blue eyes and obviously big ears, but in general, a cute-looking elephant,” says Ledda. “Not necessarily cartoony, but a little bit of a caricature only with realistic attributes, such as bone structure, muscle movement and skin wrinkles.”

The hardest part, though, was finding the right balance between a physically-accurate elephant and one that is “quite adorable.” 

“When you start analyzing their facial features, you see they have a lot of wrinkles. They look a bit like old men. What Tim wanted was almost a human baby version: round and chubby, not overly wrinkled. And, very clean, opposed to actual elephants, which tend to have lots of scars and stretch marks, and they’re always covered in mud.”

Dumbo is quite the character, particularly given his unusual eyes and ears. Nevertheless, animators needed to find the right amount of expressiveness without making him over-emote. Like the original character, the modern-day Dumbo does not speak in the film, nor do any of the other animals in the remake, giving the world a more realistic feel.
“We wanted to keep it more in the realm of real animals, which are not hugely expressive; a lot of their expression comes from their body language,” Ledda points out. As a result, the animators toned down a lot of the animation, and Dumbo’s facial expression is quite subtle. At the same time, however, the audience had to identify and understand the character’s feelings and emotions.

The team at MPC’s Character Lab spent a year developing Dumbo, starting from 3D scans of a sculpt that was then modified as needed in order to animate the digital character correctly. They also used the maquette — which Ledda estimates to be about a meter (3.2 feet) high — for lighting reference and eye lines on set. “We kept the essence of it but had to change it to work in the movie — the trunk length, the knee joints… all the joints, really,” Ledda adds.
And then there were those signature ears. “How would we rig them and deal with them? We had to control them creatively, and that was not necessarily the easiest task, particularly when Dumbo is flying versus when he’s not flying,” Ledda notes. 

Dumbo was animated entirely by hand. Ledda describes Dumbo’s entire rig as “intricate,” due to all the dynamic settings. The artists spent significant time at the zoo observing the pachyderms for reference, although no motion capture was used even for basic movement. Of course, that reference was of no assistance when it came to animating Dumbo as he takes flight. Instead, the artists turned to other species for guidance, such as the shape of the manta ray as it relates to the way Dumbo’s ears flutter, as well as large birds in how their wings flap. “We also had great reference in the original cartoon,” he adds.

The animators gave Dumbo a small gallop when he flies. “Imagine Pegasus flying,” says Ledda. “We also had to change the angle of the ear bone slightly when he flies. And, we did some nice cloth simulation and skin simulation for detail in terms of fluttering and secondary motion.” 

For scenes when the children ride Dumbo as he flies, MPC created animation cycles, which, in turn, drove a motion base; actors then rode the motion base and were subsequently composited atop the CG character using Foundry’s Nuke.

Despite the complexity of the animation rig, Dumbo’s shape is relatively simplistic. His head is essential spherical, and his body is round and gray. “How do we get a nice-looking render out of that? It’s not as straightforward as it would be if you had more complex shapes and textures. Then, you could get something more interesting,” says Ledda. 

Interesting, indeed. Complicating this situation even more: The animal had to be photoreal in a sense, despite its more stylized design. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And in this case, this conundrum led to the most significant new technical development in the film: the creation of highly detailed skin wrinkles. 


MPC has created CG elephants before — including those for the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book — but instead had used displacement maps for the added detail. 

“Every project has different requirements. This time we wanted to push and get something even much more detailed,” says Ledda. “When elephants are walking, you see that the wrinkles change direction dynamically. So as they step, as they move their leg forward and backward; they have an almost crisscross pattern of wrinkles that come and go. That would have been very difficult to achieve solely with the displacement maps. So, we investigated techniques that would allow us to simulate every single wrinkle.”

This led to the development of a high-resolution skin simulation setup, which enabled the artists to generate individual wrinkles on the elephants in great detail. In turn, they were able to mimic the complex dynamic effect of pulling and stretching the wrinkles as Dumbo and the other elephants, including Dumbo’s mom, Mrs. Jumbo, walk and move.

Moreover, because Burton wanted a clean, idealized version of an elephant, the artists were unable use various “tricks,” such as adding dirt and mud to the skin to give it more visual complexity. Instead, that had to be done through the wrinkles. “We really looked at the microscopic detail of skin. If you look at Dumbo, he has thousands and thousands of microcells that we created to get all this additional detail, since we couldn’t use any other texturing tricks,” Ledda explains. “Those details, the wrinkles and microcells, made him look a bit more photorealistic and anthropomorphic, just as Tim wanted.”

The final Dumbo model is certainly not lacking in detail. As a result of the new skin system, the skin meshes for Dumbo and the other elephants are up to 10 times more detailed than any MPC had created in the past — Ledda estimates the team simulated close to 10 million polygons.
The artists also gave Dumbo his iconic blue eyes, which look nothing like those of a real elephant in terms of color and shape. They tried several designs, varying the size of the eye itself, the iris, the pupil and the amount of white that was visible. “Again, it was a matter of finding that balance between what a real elephant looks like and what Tim wanted Dumbo to look like — and what was going to reflect the best emotion,” explains Ledda. 

In the end, the artists leaned toward reality with the iris and muscle structure, before moving on to the design realm to finish this part of Dumbo’s anatomy. 


The MPC artists used the skin simulation setup on the other elephants in the film, as well. “We did Dumbo first; the other elephants came later, and we used all the techniques we had learned earlier,” says Ledda. 

The rest of the elephants more closely resemble real Asian elephants. However, they are an idealized version of an actual elephant: healthy, visually attractive, with the perfect size head, the perfect trunk, the perfect legs. Like Dumbo, the others couldn’t be dirty or hairy — or too wrinkly — per Burton’s directive. And that includes Mrs. Jumbo, who at times is shown in extreme close-up.

“It took us more than a year to develop Dumbo as a character, whereas the other elephants came along much quicker,” says Ledda.

In addition, MPC created a number of secondary CG characters, including a trio of white mice, an old, ornery Capuchin monkey named Barrymore, a python, bear, werewolf and crocodile, plus background animals. Mostly these animals are photo­real, although they are dressed in costumes in the film. For the fur, the team used the studio’s Furtility, while the cloth team (which also does skin simulations) worked closely with the riggers to develop high-res skinning and wrinkle sims.

For Dumbo and the other animals, the artists used a range of in-house and commercial software: Pixologic’s ZBrush for sculpting, Autodesk’s Maya for modeling, Foundry’s Mari for texturing, and Foundry’s Katana and Pixar’s RenderMan for rendering. For animation, they used Maya, which is customized with proprietary tools. 

The artists also created digi-doubles of the Medici children, Joe and Milly, as well as the trapeze artist Colette, for complex flying shots. 


Life under the big top can be exciting and unique; it can also be challenging. The same can be used to describe the work by the MPC artists, who had to bring this amazing world to life in a way that is very different from what we have seen before. 

Re-creating nearly lifelike versions of beloved animated characters for live-action remakes is no easy challenge, particularly when there is a fine line between realism and fantasy. But, it is one that Disney is committed to crossing with some of its most beloved properties.

“You feel a big responsibility when you work on these iconic characters; it is a huge privilege,” says Ledda, who worked on the CG characters in the 2015 live-action remake of Cinderella. “Many of us grew up watching these films, so when it’s your chance to do work on them, obviously you want to make sure it looks fantastic. And, I think we’ve come up with something that is adorable here, which is ultimately the most important thing. In the end, it needs to connect with the audience, and I think this will.” 

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW, Post's sister publication.