Chris Lebenzon, Tim Burton’s regular collaborator in the edit room, explains how they brought their CG lead character to life

Dumbo is not only Disney’s latest live action remake of its classic feature animations but also the new film from Tim Burton, the auteur director whose quirky style frequently draws on elements of gothic, fantasy and the macabre.


Chris Lebenzon

“I think what attracted Tim to this project was that of all the legacy fairy tales that Disney were re-imagining as live action - from Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin - this story offered him more freedom to tell the story his way,” says Chris Lebenzon, ACE, the film’s editor and Burton’s regular collaborator.

A story about a semi-anthropomorphic circus elephant with massive ears who is teased, entrapped and given a cruel nickname also has the dark undertones that would appeal to the director of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Batman Returns.

“His past work has featured likeable but offbeat characters whom the audience rallies around but Dumbo is not really a character that we know too well so a lot of the work on this film was finding out who Dumbo is and making him emotionally relatable.”

This is Lebenzon’s twelfth film with Burton, taking in all the director’s movies since Batman Returns in 1991. Like many long-term creative partnerships the pair have developed a trust and intuition that barely needs explaining.

“The only film Tim has really spoken to me at length about at the outset was Sweeney Todd (The Demon of Barber Street, a musical),” explains Lebenzon. “On that occasion he reminded me that neither of us had done attempted a film like this before.

“Tim prefers to react spontaneously to material and we have such a shorthand and understand each other pretty well without over analysing things.”

Lebenzon did revisit the original cartoon but realised that a straight remake was never on the cards. Jive-talking cigar smoking black crows, presented as comic relief in the original 1941 version, wouldn’t pass any level of respect today. A famous scene in which Dumbo hallucinates pink elephants while unwittingly intoxicated on champagne (created by the same team behind Fantasia) was also not going to deliver the family picture Disney wanted in 2019.

“I’ve done hard-edged R rated action and more general, softer or PG rated movies but when I start any job I try and put myself in the place of the audience,” Lebenzon says. “In this case that meant a ten-year-old. It’s a family movie of course, but I tried to channel the ten-year-old in me – which wasn’t that difficult. I read the script once but rarely referred to it because I wanted to approach a live action Dumbo as a blank canvas, just like the audience would.”

On set for shooting
Principal photography began at Pinewood in July 2017 and lasted for five months. Lebenzon’s work on the project extended a year and half. Most editors don’t get to visit the set during principal photography and some directors can happily work at arms’ length from their editor, often in different continents. Burton, however, wanted Lebenzon close at hand.

“I was always there a short bike ride away from the set and Tim was in and out of the cutting room during the day. He’d shoot around the cut. I’d often take a feed directly from the camera and select shots to construct the scene that day. The next morning, after reviewing the cut, we’d look at the dailies with the DP and if we needed any pick-ups we had all the actors and sets there ready to go. So, I was happily very much part of production.”

dumbo official poster credit walt disney pictures

Dumbo Official Poster 

Source: Walt Disney Studios

While production was like a conventional live action shoot with actors Colin Farrell, Danny de Vito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green, post felt more like an animated feature as the photorealistic CG lead was gradually inked in. It was a process which required Lebenzon to continually mould the story as Dumbo took shape as a character.

“They’d shoot scenes using props in place of Dumbo to give an idea of his size and shape and we had an actor [Edd Osmond] in a green suit to represent the character for certain scenes. The real challenge was to cut the pure live action material with shots of Dumbo when for the most part we were cutting to a background plate or a black banner. I’d insert this just as a guide to constructing the scene. I’d turn over shots to the animators [at MPC, Framestore and Rise FX] with notes as to what I thought Dumbo should do given the action around him.”

Making Dumbo real
Burton’s background is in animation (having begun his career at Walt Disney as animator, storyboard and concept artist on films like Tron (1982) and The Black Cauldron (1985)). But even for an editor of Lebenzon’s experience, the process of shaping an identity for the main character was a new and exciting one.

“The VFX department would start to feed us rough animations, and Tim and I would talk about it and share feedback. Then we would meet with Richard Stammers (VFX supervisor) and his team and talk through the shots. This iteration went on for about a year as final visual effects were slowly delivered. As we got more of the rendered animation for each scene we’d hone it, trim it and rework it until it was right. As Dumbo’s character was revealed it informed us where else we should cut to him.”

It was also exhausting given that he was away from home in London for the entire period.

“The sound mix was finished before all the visual effects were complete which is a first for me. In fact, we only dropped in the last final Dumbo shots a few days before the world premiere.”

Rather than completely rely on VFX environments, Burton insisted on shooting on practical sets for which production designer Rick Heinrichs built massive interiors and exteriors at Pinewood and at the giant former airship hangers at Cardington near Bedford.

A difference from previous Burton films is the use of multiple cameras. This was a request of cinematographer Ben Davis, BSC (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Captain Marvel) who expressed an interest in shooting with several cameras rather than lighting just for one.

“I’m used to working with commercial directors who shoot a lot of angles with multi-cameras but Tim is different,” Lebenzon says. “He is very precise and will call for more takes but less coverage. I encouraged Ben’s idea though and he agreed. Ben would often put up two or three cameras for a scene. I was happy to get more coverage since it can really help widen your options.”

Source: Walt Disney Studios

Dumbo Official Trailer

Trimming to fit
All movies in their first cut tend to be long. Editing is the art of removing what is not necessary in order to find the pace and balance of the story and to tighten the picture to a suitable run time.

Lebenzon removed three scenes from the initial first cut including the original introduction to one of the film’s villains, Rufus. “We were lucky in that next time we meet him, with a few minor adjustments, it served perfectly well as an introduction as well as clarifying the narrative.”

Another cut scene featured De Vito’s circus boss Max Medici. “Max is excited about Dumbo being born and there’s a walk and talk ending up looking over Dumbo’s crib - but he’s not yet arrived. It has a strong emotional beat and it’s very charming but it wasn’t advancing the story. It was a hard choice to lose the scene but it was bottling up act one and not moving us swiftly to Dumbo’s birth.”

“Editing never used to require much social interaction. But these days on the larger budget projects there are many voices so the skill is to take that on board but not get distracted from one’s own sensibility to the material.”

The third scene dropped from the final edit outlined how Dumbo and his mother are going to be set free. Lebenzon explains, “We felt that it would play better for the audience to learn how it will happen by showing them rather than being told. It’s rule number one of cinema really – show don’t tell because it brings the audience into participating in the experience.”

Losing that scene had implications for the next which was intended as the curtain raiser to act three.

“Since we are no longer describing what is about to happen we still had to set it up, so the challenge was to build close-ups and add dramatic music to escalate the momentum into the final act.”

Burton is one of the few directors able to command final cut on his films but Disney were also keen to protect their highly valuable property.

“This is a priceless story for the studio and quite rightly they were there to guide us and protect their brand,” Lebenzon says. “They have to hit home runs to continue their success on movies of this scale. There were a lot of notes and give and take. Tim held firm on some issues he was adamant about and the studio also had great ideas. With all the conflicting thoughts that tends to go on with any movie of this scale I’d say we landed in a great place. It has emotion and a strong story and is realised in the world that Tim set out to create - one that no other director could have made.”

Hollywood Top Gun
Lebenzon had no formal training as an editor. He studied a communications degree and says he always preferred drawing to math but it wasn’t until he moved from San Francisco to LA in the mid-1970s that he came into contact with the film industry.

His roommate for a while was Michael Wadleigh, the director and cinematographer renowned for his documentary of the 1969 Woodstock Festival.

“He gave me an opportunity to get on a KEM [a film cutting machine used in pre-digital days] and see how it worked. I realised then that editing is like sculpting,” Lebenzon says. “It’s about selecting the best pieces of performances like glints in the eye and selecting the best moments to tell the story. These dictate when you cut and when you don’t cut, all the while never boring or confusing the audience.”

He was an assistant editor on Francis Coppola’s One from the Heart (1981) and The Outsiders (1983) before the runaway smash of Top Gun in 1986 established Lebenzon as one of the best of his generation.

A feature of his work on Top Gun, which helped land both him and co-editor Billy Weber an Oscar nomination, was the skilful construction of high-octane aerial dogfights largely from second unit footage.

“Billy and I cut montages of the best aerial photography the second unit had filmed and added sound and music. They looked like great videos but there was no story. Then weeks later Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and the other actors were filmed on a soundstage in cockpit with pilot’s masks. That meant there was no sense of the dialogue but it did mean we could create a story intercutting the actors with the mid-air footage and then later add dialogue to service the story we’d constructed.”

“Editing is like sculpting. It’s about selecting the best pieces of performances like glints in the eye and selecting the best moments to tell the story. These dictate when you cut and when you don’t cut, all the while never boring or confusing the audience.”

Top Gun provided the template for Hollywood action movies throughout the eighties and nineties and was the start of a hugely successful relationship with director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Together they went on to make Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, Enemy of the State, Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable. For Michael Bay he made Armageddon and Pearl Harbour. Other credits include the action blockbusters Con Air, xXx and Gone in 60 Seconds.

Asked to pick one of which he is most proud, Lebenzon selects Scott’s 1995 submarine thriller Crimson Tide for which he received a second Oscar nod.

“This came together in a way that would be impossible today. We’d filmed the screenplay (by Michael Schiffer) then Tony would call in different writers and I’d present a rough cut of what we’d shot. These weren’t any writers, these were superstars, friends of Tony’s really. One was Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) who came in, saw my cut, and wrote a new opening for the movie. Another was Quentin Tarantino who came and wrote an amazing sequence in which Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington stand-off for control of the sub. You’d never have the time or luxury of editing a movie like that now.

“Of Tim’s films, I like Ed Wood because this was a low budget throwback to zero-budget movies. It was almost an arthouse film and the studio treated it as such. We didn’t get one note from them. It was a film that didn’t have to succeed at the box office in order to be successful. I look back fondly on that time.

“Editing never used to require much social interaction. But these days on the larger budget projects there are many voices so the skill is to take that on board but not get distracted from one’s own sensibility to the material.”