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Interview: Production Designer Rick Heinrichs on Making ‘Dumbo’ Soar

July 8, 2019Ben MK

One of Disney's most beloved animated classics, Dumbo is a film that has endeared itself to the hearts of generations of moviegoers. Now, with director Tim Burton's live-action reimagining, a whole new generation gets to experience the story of Dumbo like never before.

With an all-star cast that includes Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, Dumbo transports viewers to a world where traveling circuses roam America and where a flying elephant becomes a star attraction. It's also a world where a mega theme park called Dreamland promises to change the entertainment landscape forever. However, at its core, this is still a story about a baby and his quest to be reunited with his mother.

I caught up with production designer Rick Henrichs to chat about his career, his work on Dumbo, and his decades-long collaboration with Tim Burton.

You've worked on many different genres — from sci-fi to fantasy to horror — and many big name films, including the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What have you found to be the one constant in your work across all these different types of movies?

Heinrichs: I do like to mix it up, if I can. You don't want to be known as just any one particular sort of production designer. You want to be able to explore many different sort of things, and not just be gothic or rom-com or whatever. But I do tend to gravitate towards world-building, I would say; and some of the more sci-fi and fantasy elements that I've worked on in the past have been towards bespoke worlds that you have to create and customize the look and feel from the ground up. I love leading a team of artists in the exploration of that, with all the research and reference and intuition trails that you chase down on the road to hopefully creating something that feels appropriate, but also surprises and delights the audience.

Aside from the original animated version, what did you draw inspiration from in creating the live-action world of Dumbo?

Heinrichs: On Dumbo, the exploration that we went through was interesting, because there was a lot of historical reference for the whole period, from the turn of the century through the Depression years of circuses and the different states that they were in. That is to say, during the Depression and when circuses became more mobile, in terms of being on trains and being able to move [around], that became a highly perfected way of working and bringing entertainment to the masses in a way that we're used to with television these days. But in those days, they would have the advance publicity, and they would paper a town with all the posters and everything for it, so that the arrival is prepared for. That was part of the excitement of it, and we were able to work some of that aspect into the heartland imagery that we wanted to evoke with the first part of the film.

The fantastical elements of Dreamland and all of that were rooted also in historical records to begin with; there actually was a Dreamland at Coney Island back at the turn of the century, that burned down. But what was interesting about that for me was how Tim [Burton] wanted to expand on the reality of it, and almost create an amusement facility that was novel for its time and period. In other words, not a place that a traveling group of circus people would arrive at. But rather, in a modern sense almost, a destination park for the circus to end up in, which gives you a lot more opportunities to really create a whole world.

Speaking of Tim Burton, you've worked with him on several projects. Can you tell me more about his influence on your production design work?

Heinrichs: I've known Tim for many, many years. We both came out of the Disney studio animation system of working together. Very early on, we were on Black Cauldron concepts that never ended up being used because they were, at the time, a little too odd for the producers of the film. And as we worked together, we started to develop an aesthetic that had a lot of very graphic, two-dimensional elements in it that got expanded to a 3D environment. So a lot of the expressive designs we were playing with we were able to put in the third dimension, which really was the root of everything that we then developed, from Vincent through to The Nightmare Before Christmas and excursions early on into live-action, like with [the short] Frankenweenie and later on with Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice.

And then just over the years, developing and refining that collaboration, so that on Dumbo, a lot of the exploration we did very early on in the work that we did together is still there. All the expressive work that the Disney artists did back in the '30s when they were developing [the original] is very much something that we could identify with. So part of our goal and our challenge was to bring that expression into the live-action world, and I think that you see that in the film — the commitment to creating a great image that reads well as a two-dimensional image that can also operate as a window into this storybook environment.

You sort of touched on your favorite element of the film to work on earlier, but what was the most challenging element to work on?

Heinrichs: Coming up with the character of Dreamland was the biggest challenge. Working with Tim, you work with his desire for a look that is both, as I say, expressive but also very much to the point of what the characters are all about. So we wanted to make sure that [Michael Keaton's character] Vandevere always came across as an evil character but that he also has a vision at the beginning, in terms of this idea of a destination park that you can go to that is filled with fantasy and elements that take [visitors] out of their drab, everyday world and expand their horizons into all this exotic subject matter and storybook look and feel.

We were looking ahead to some of the '30s Art Deco-inspired New York World's Fair, and there was a fabulous fair in San Francisco earlier on in that decade. There was a Tomorrowland, forward-looking look and feel to it, but at the same time it was anchored in the concept of these almost Victorian pleasure parks. So we were pinging between those two elements of the old and the new, and making sure that at the end of the day this park was exciting and inspiring and stimulating and, within its context, very forward-looking and mind-blowing.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone hoping to break into your industry?

Heinrichs: I think that you have to be curious about the world. You have to have the sort of mind that wonders "What if?" so that you can see things as they are an imagine things in an almost alternative reality. And you have to think about things comprehensively. This whole world-building thing that one does when one is creating the environments for a story like Dumbo, that only can exist if you can come up with enough of the underpinnings and the foundation of what that's all based on. So there's a great deal of thought that one needs to put into that.

It's a combination of the ability to imagine things as they need to be to tell a story, along with having the skills of an artist and of a modeller. That's one of the big elements that we use, is 3D modelling, so that there's a good line of communication between what we do and what visual effects is going to do when they continue on with the work after production's wrapped. And to be able to communicate with the cinematographer and the director. So it's a combination of skills, interest and curiosity about life and history and what makes one thing happen based on something else — making those connections. And just an artistic taste and take on the world.

Dumbo is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD.

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