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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Richard Stammers, VFX Supervisor (Dumbo) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Richard Stammers, Visual Effects Supervisor with the Moving Picture Company (MPC), is a veteran in the world of VFX. With more than 20 years’ experience bringing the magical, the terrifying, and the fantastic to life in films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Prometheus, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, he’s highly regarded and respected in his field. His most recent work was helping bring to life the sweet baby elephant for Disney’s live-action remake of Dumbo.

With an eye toward reverence for the animated classic, and a semi-realistic approach to the large-eared delightful circus animal, Stammers and team worked closely with just about every aspect of production to deliver director Tim Burton’s vision for the film, and with partner effects houses under his supervision to ensure a seamless, unified world for the magical tale to unfold.

Stammers spoke with Home Theater Forum from the MPC offices in London about the challenges they faced with Dumbo, his approach to delivering VFX, and some of the impactful and inspiration films that drive him to create world-class results.

DUMBO is available to now rent and purchase at all major retailers on DVD, Blu-Ray, 4K and Digital.

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HTF: When the Moving Picture Company (MPC) first comes aboard to a project, and you first step into the role of the Visual Effects Supervisor, what's your process? What's the first step to understanding the creative vision that the director and the producers have for that project?

Richard Stammers: When I come on board, it's right at the very beginning. Usually, when the director starts on the project the Visual Effects Supervisor is often brought on at the same time as the production designer. We're working out everything to do before we even start filming, months in advance of the shoot, and starting to solve many of the problems that are going to face us when we start that. I tend to come on right at the beginning, and then my team at MPC sort of drip feed into the process and build up during the course of the shoot to the point where, once we get to postproduction, there's a much fuller team working on things. And the initial kind of process for my MPC team is very much about building the assets we're going to use or animate during postproduction.

“I had to get this really nice character, sort of a slight caricature of a real elephant that was a nice blend between reality and the original cartoon, very much to the proportions that Tim wanted. It was detailed with all the subtlety and nuances of what you'd see on a real elephant but with the exaggerated head size and larger eyes…”

But in the case of Dumbo, literally, the first thing was, "Right. We've got to get a design for Dumbo." We need to know what he looks like, how big he's going to be, how he's going to move, what his character is like before we start filming. That was really important because I needed to make sure that we had some kind of physical representation of him on set when filming, whether that was a lighting reference, a stand-in, or something we could pose, there was always something that we could offer up for a composition. As we developed it further, we got to the point where it was like, "Okay, with him at this size, we know that we can fit a performer inside the body shape if we have someone small enough." And we ended up casting someone so all that could be achieved with a special suit that someone would wear based on a design that we had to get done during preproduction.

So that process was really interesting. I had to get this really nice character, sort of a slight caricature of a real elephant that was a nice blend between reality and the original cartoon, very much to the proportions that Tim wanted. It was detailed with all the subtlety and nuances of what you'd see on a real elephant but with the exaggerated head size and larger eyes that were blue rather than brown. And with that came some character development in the form of animation styles, as well.

HTF: And then how do you proceed?

Richard Stammers: My first colleague from the MPC team was our animation supervisor, Catherine Mullan, and together, we had a team of people just working on what does Dumbo look like? How does he walk? How does he walk when he's sad? What does he look like when he's happy? What can we do for the body language to make him feel this level of emotion? So those are the things we sort of started exploring early on to help figure out him as a character so we could present things to Tim and get his feedback on which way to go.

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HTF: I imagine creating a semi real-world version of Dumbo where the we’ve all seen and appreciated him from his very animated form in the original film had to have been the chief challenge or the hardest thing, right, or a quick process?

“…we found that sort of halfway medium between the two where we could pose our computer-generated elephant in a way that a real elephant would but still mimic some of the qualities of the original cartoon.”

Richard Stammers: It's never a quick process, but you must approach it in a very methodical [way]. For me, it's like, "Okay. Let's get the design. Let's get a shape." Well, once we know what size he is, "Why does he need to be this size? Why can't it be that size?" And then it's knowing that, ultimately, people are going to have to ride on Dumbo. It's like, "Okay. Well, so he'll have to grow to a certain size." So, there's practical requirements. You have to accommodate, "Oh, okay. Well, if he's this big, he's not as cute as when he's this small." So, during the story, we've got to make him grow. At the beginning, he's got to be smaller than he is at the end, so you find ways to accommodate this sort of process. And once you've worked out those things, it's like, "Okay. So how do we pose him? What's the nicest way to pose him to get these cute things that were so beautiful in the original cartoon?" And a key process there was to look at the cartoon and how they posed Dumbo and what they did with his eyes and compare that to what a real elephant would do. And we found that sort of halfway medium between the two where we could pose our computer-generated elephant in a way that a real elephant would but still mimic some of the qualities of the original cartoon.

And once we started getting into the details of the eyes and how they'd look, where he would get that real emotion with him being a nonspeaking role obviously, and not actually moving an awful lot in the film, there was so much emotion conveyed through his eyes. They're like the window to his soul. And a combination of good body language and good facial posing was really important. But we also had to be careful not to over-animate him. And that was something Tim was very conscious of. It was a common feedback for us to contain the movement a little bit more so there was a bit less of it. Let's just see his eyes. Let's just see him looking straight at Medici, for instance, and, it's almost like this sort of deadpan look he sometimes has, but you sort of feel more for him when you see that. It was an interesting way of finding him as a character.

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HTF: One of my favorite moments in the film, is when Dumbo takes his first flight publicly in the tent after the fire. Obviously, there's the narrative drama, Danny Elfman's gorgeous music is playing, and the effects work is all coming together. And you get an emotional response. Do you have a moment or a sequence within the film that you take away, that you're like, "That's the moment that I really connect to or are particularly proud of?"

“…we were always slightly challenged with Dumbo being a simplified version of an elephant, and there were a lot of details that Tim didn't want to be included on the face like a lot of hair or extra wrinkles that baby elephants have. And, I think seeing him come out in that scene with makeup on his face-and the clown makeup was utterly adorable-I love his look in that.”

Richard Stammers: Yeah. I think that's a really good one that you've brought up. I mean, for me it’s actually the beginning of that scene when he's painted in makeup is just lovely. I think we were always slightly challenged with Dumbo being a simplified version of an elephant, and there were a lot of details that Tim didn't want to be included on the face like a lot of hair or extra wrinkles that baby elephants have. And, I think seeing him come out in that scene with makeup on his face-and the clown makeup was utterly adorable-I love his look in that. I was really, really pleased with the result. But I think there's also other points from an animation point of view, like when his mom gets taken away. That whole scene of just seeing his face drop at the end as she gets taken away in the truck is a real kind of emotional drive in there! And hearing that with the music was something that had a real impact on me because you tend to work a little more coldly with what you're doing. You know what your end goal is, but I think once it comes together with everybody else's contributions, it's amazing the result and impact that can have. And whilst that was also great and emotional, the scene before, when he goes to visit his mom when she's locked up also has that effect. And Mrs. Jumbo's trunk curling around Dumbo's head and that trunk cuddling around his cheek is amazing and a lovely moment, as well.

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HTF: I think you're exactly right there. On a film like Dumbo, which has an enormous amount of visual effects and not just for what's going on, a character or a tweak here and there, the entire environments are realized through visual effects, is it hard to keep the creative DNA or the esthetic uniform when you're having to farm out bits and pieces to other houses and managing all of that to keep it cohesive? Is that generally difficult or are you so used to dealing with multiple effects houses and bringing them all together under one roof and realizing the creative vision?

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Richard Stammers: Well, you know what? It's very much part of the job. But keeping that visual flow and consistency through the movie is obviously an important part of what I have to do. But in my mind, I don't find it as hard as it may sound because you make the right choices with where you put the work. So, for Dumbo, MPC did a huge portion of film, and we're very much responsible for the environment that Dumbo was in for the first half. But when we came to Dreamland we felt like there was actually just too much going on with Dreamland and its destruction that we had to have another vendor, Framestore, take on the building of the world of Dreamland, which meant that we were sharing shots between two vendors. So, Framestore were responsible for creating the background, but MPC were putting Dumbo in as the foreground. That has its own challenges, but that was the way we felt we had to break up the work. And because they were different parts of the film and moving from one location to another, that allowed any jump in consistency [to be] almost acceptable because you're changing locations.

“We chose many skies before we started shooting that would guide [Director of Photography, Ben Davis] on how we wanted to light the scene, so we had ideas of how we wanted each scene to look. He had his lighting plan of how that would flow through the film, and we had to try and find a visual style to the sky that would tie in with his lighting.”

But with that, there's still a look. All the skies had to be harmonized, and Tim helped us with that. He was very particular about how the skies [looked] throughout the entire film and not wanting them to be as hyperreal as something that you would shoot on a location. He wanted to simplify the clouds and create something that had more of a storybook feel. That was very much a common thread throughout the whole of the film. And I think that [went] a long way to visually linking everything together throughout. A lot of that we'd planned for with the director of photography, Ben Davis. We chose many skies before we started shooting that would guide him on how we wanted to light the scene, so we had ideas of how we wanted each scene to look. [Ben] had his lighting plan of how that would flow through the film, and we had to try and find a visual style to the sky that would tie in with his lighting. And he would shoot the photography based on a certain sky, and Tim would then tweak that sky and we would adjust it, put it into the backgrounds and see how it flowed all the way through, and we'd make adjustments as we went. But when the process is in place, it works very well generally. And getting that visual flow through the film, it's certainly achievable when everybody's working together for the same goals. It very rarely falls heavily on my shoulders to sort things out that are very different because we've planned it carefully beforehand to make sure that it is all going to fit together like a nice jigsaw, hopefully [laughter].

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HTF: You worked with Ridley Scott on a number of his films, and I'm enormously jealous that you had the chance to work with him. Alien and Blade Runner are two films from the same director in my top five films of all time. And Ridley is known for his vision and his storyboarding process. He's an artist by himself, and so he's able to sort of see the film and see the bits and pieces and put it down in his storyboarding process. Is working with a director like Ridley Scott, who doesn’t have an immutable view but does have a very precise view of his film, is that preferred over someone who maybe doesn't have the same skill set as Ridley Scott, and there is perhaps less precision and definition on the view for the film?

Richard Stammers: I mean, the short answer is yes. I think Ridley's approach, because he can visualize every step of the way and draw it for you, creates a shorthand that allows you to do things a lot more quickly. Not that there's any comparison between the type of work we did on The Martian compared to Dumbo, but The Martian was a film that we did from start to finish in a year. And Ridley wants to work quickly. He wants everything to be done quickly. He's really positive about moving forward, getting on to the next scene, the next scene, the next scene, and so on. There's a momentum and an energy that comes with that [and it] allows the whole film to sort of move forward very, very quickly.

Dumbo has a lot more animation involved, and it's just a very time-consuming process, and took two-and-a-half years to make that film. So, it's definitely a different process. And Tim Burton and Ridley Scott are also very, very different people, as well. But the information that you can get from your director is, obviously, important to be able to move forward. And there's some directors I've worked with where they're not always able to visualize every step of what they want, and it's my job as visual effects supervisor to help visualize those things and interpret what they want. And, sometimes, that means we're doing a lot of concept work to find which way or direction we need to go and creating options of concepts to go, "Oh, well, do we go more this way or do we go more that way or something in between?" And, of course, that takes longer to do, but it's a very normal way of filmmaking because many directors have skills in different areas and are able to help the visual effects team get exactly what they want because they may struggle themselves to know what some of those things may be. And we just have to help them along their way and it's an important part of the job for sure.

HTF: I spoke with someone you probably know, Sheldon Stopsack, a couple of years ago for Terminator Genysis

Richard Stammers: Oh yes, Absolutely!

HTF: I asked him a variation on this question. When I was growing up, I watched Ray Harryhausen films on TV. And then, of course, Star Wars and Star Trek and those kinds of effects-heavy but narrative-driven shows. And then Blade Runner and the aesthetic that came with that film. And then what I was asking Sheldon was when The Abyss came out in 1989 and the pseudopod sequence with that CGI creation, I think it probably took 6 months for 30 seconds of CGI at the time. It was transformative and it blew my mind. Do you recall a film or a moment in a film, effects-wise, that really stands out to you from growing up or even in the recent past that inspires you or really you look back to and go, "Man, if I could have a moment where we create something that's as landmark or as impactful as that what film or that moment in that film did for me, I will have made it [laughter]," as it were?

“[T]he thing that really made the most impact on me was Terminator 2: Judgment Day with the whole concept of this liquid metal cyborg, it was just incredible and completely blew me away.

Richard Stammers: Absolutely. I can tell you, I've actually probably got three or four moments in my kind of life that really inspired my career. I mean, like you, I love the stop motion animation of Harryhausen, it was definitely interesting to me. And that was one of the things that got me interested in animation. I did stop motion animation when I was at college, even though I was in a graphic design degree. And I specialized in animation and it was all stop motion. But once I'd finished college, between there and the first 10 years of my career, the thing that really made the most impact on me was Terminator 2: Judgment Day with the whole concept of this liquid metal cyborg, it was just incredible and completely blew me away.

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And then after I'd got my first job in the industry, I remember going with colleagues to see Jurassic Park and seeing CG dinosaurs. It was like, "Oh, my goodness. How am I ever going to be able to work on something like that? I just don't think I could ever achieve anything as amazing as that because this just is blowing my mind." And beyond that, I think things like The Matrix. Occasionally there's these groundbreaking moments where you see something that you've just never seen before. And it's just so inspiring and daunting at the same time, even though I kind of feel like we're all at the cutting edge of what we do, every now and then you see something that's, "Oh, my goodness! [laughter]." And it pushes you to go further and inspires you to know that, "Okay." Even though I've seen these amazing CG dinosaurs and think that I'd never be able to achieve anything like that in my lifetime, within two or three years, we were doing exactly the same thing [laughter]. It's quite incredible how it raises the bar in the industry in quite significant ways..

HTF: Well, I appreciate the conversation today, Richard. And I'll say that having watched Prometheus on the big screen, there was visual effects work that I thought was of such beauty that I'm going to remember that for always. When I rattle off the great visual effects work in films, besides the earlier ones like The Abyss and so on, Prometheus is always on my list, so I think you've made a huge footprint there.

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Richard Stammers: Well, that's very kind. Thank you. And I'm incredibly proud of the work. And it holds up brilliantly still, I think. So, I really appreciate that. Thank you.
 
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