For Dumbo, the reimaging of the classic film from Director Tim Burton and Walt Disney Pictures, 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.”