- The live-action “Dumbo” remake featured a baby elephant made of CGI.
- Despite that, they still needed somebody to play an elephant and interact with the cast.
- Actor Edd Osmond, a creature performer, explains how he learned to act and move like a baby elephant.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Even when a character is created completely with CGI, that doesn’t mean an actor is out of the job.
The recent live-action version of “Dumbo” featured a computer-animated version of the titular tiny, big-eared elephant. And the reason Dumbo might have felt more real to you than the average visual-effects creation: this guy.
This is Edd Osmond. He’s a creature performer and has been since he was 14 years old. You might not know his face, but you’ve seen him on screen before, under heavy prostheses or CGI.
He played Dougal in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a body double for one of the dwarves in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and one of the caretakers in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Creature performers are actors who specialize in playing all sorts of characters, whether real or fantasy, monster or animal. Typically, this involves an actor under heavy makeup or in a full bodysuit.
Edd Osmond: Yeah, it’s a very strange job. Our job is kind of, like, to be there and to give a performance of these CG creatures, or maybe it might be in a full prosthetic suit. It varies from job to job.
Narrator: To play Dumbo, Osmond wore no prostheses, just a few simple suits. Because Dumbo was created with CGI, it was his movement, not his look, that was needed here.
MPC Film, one of the VFX companies that worked on “Dumbo,” said that having an actor there in a green suit helped director Tim Burton with shot composition.
So why not just use a simple puppet or stuffed animal, or even just a head on a stick?
Well, actually, they did use what’s known as a stuffie for a few scenes. These objects help the crew figure out the lighting and camera angles. They also had an additional photo-realistic Dumbo sculpt, which was used mainly for lighting references on the skin. But having an actor there in a suit helped make it easier to create Dumbo’s movements, especially for some of the movie’s more difficult shots.
In fact, they worked so closely with the actor that visual-effects supervisor Richard Stammers could talk directly to Osmond via an earpiece while he performed.
They couldn’t get every little thing from Osmond’s performance alone. Dumbo’s expressiveness was truly a CGI marvel. It took Osmond some time before he was ready to play Dumbo. And getting to play a baby elephant, even one created with CGI, isn’t easy.
Movement was perhaps the key element in nailing down this convincing, and invisible, creature performance.
Osmond: Let it all go. I mean, you’re gonna look weird no matter what you do. Lose all your inhibitions and just go for it.
Narrator: Osmond had about four weeks to train and worked about two to three hours per day just walking on these arm extensions, which are often used for actors portraying a character who walks on all fours. He had to be prepared for long days on set of walking exclusively on extensions.
Osmond: The struggle with the arm extensions is is if you don’t get the rhythm right, if you don’t do right arm, left leg, left arm, right leg, you end up walking like a table.
Narrator: And to play Dumbo, he couldn’t simply walk around. Osmond really had to move like an elephant. Every animal has its own unique movements, and mastering those movements can make or break a creature actor’s performance.
For instance, he played a gorilla in 2013’s “Tarzan” 3D, in which he donned a motion-capture suit. Walking like a gorilla and walking like an elephant are two completely different skills. Gorillas tend to lead with one shoulder while walking or running. They can also walk on just their back legs and hold their heads similar to humans while moving.
Osmond: Elephants are, they’re very heavy on their front shoulders. So it means when you’re walking and you’re on the arm extensions, you really do have to kind of lead with your arms, which, as you can imagine, as humans, is pretty uncomfortable when you’re used to walking on your back legs.
Narrator: In general, a gorilla’s movements are very similar to a human’s, thus making them easier to emulate.
Elephants are not as easy to mimic. Osmond had to create the same shape of an elephant with his body, meaning he was always face-down, with his eyeline to the floor. And on top of all that, he was portraying a baby elephant.
Osmond: If you take on a job and you’re portraying a grown-up character, it’s quite simple, because with adult creatures or animals or humans, they’re all quite certain in the way they walk. They have a clear direction of where they want to go. They’re very certain in their movements.
Whereas with a baby character, like Dumbo, the beauty of it is, is they’re very sporadic. They have such a short attention span. They might do a couple of steps one way, and then, all of a sudden they decide they wanna go another way.
Narrator: While training, he watched hours of footage of real elephants to get a sense of how they move. He also closely watched the original animated “Dumbo” movie. He took a lot of inspiration from the film, but it wasn’t necessarily the best way to learn how a baby elephant moves.
Osmond: When you watch the original cartoon, Dumbo’s very light on his feet and he’s got these little flicks, and he’s very Disney-fied, and he’s very light.
Narrator: Getting the movements down was also important for another reason: making the cast feel like they were working alongside a real elephant. Osmond’s interactions with the actors were key, even though he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue.
The sounds Dumbo does make aren’t even him.
Osmond also spent as much time as possible off camera bonding with the cast, especially the younger cast members, so their sense of wonder about Dumbo on camera would appear even more convincing. One big factor affected how he interacted with the rest of the cast: his suits.
Being a creature actor also involves wearing a lot of different suits. For this movie alone, Osmond wore three versions. The first suit was called the performance suit. This suit is built to look just like the character. It was used for scenes where the actors needed to know the exact size of Dumbo.
So, for example, in a scene in which the actor is touching the elephant. Then, there was the more bare-bones costume, which they called the Ant-Man costume on set. This outfit came with attachable ears and gave Osmond easier movement. It came in handy during scenes that involved running, or even a landing.
Because Osmond was walking on all fours, he was facing the ground most of the time. To help him see directly in front of him, the effects team installed a camera rig inside these suits that would give him a live feed of what was happening right in front of him.
The final suit was a special, waterproof bath suit, which was made to get wet during the scene where Dumbo is getting bathed. This was especially difficult for Osmond.
Osmond: That scene meant dunking my head underwater in this full-sized suit, which also meant I couldn’t hear the director when he’d shout “action,” but I also couldn’t hear the director when he’d shout “cut.”
Narrator: Since this suit was made to get soaked, they couldn’t have a camera rig inside. One of the actors in the scene would give Osmond a tap on the back to let him know his cue.
Each suit came in different colors, which were used depending on the shot. For instance, in the scene where Dumbo is given a bath, they used a black costume, as it allowed the VFX team to separate Osmond from the foam easier.
And while it might look like he got erased from the shots he was in, his performance couldn’t be more important.
Even when they don’t have any lines, don’t forget the people behind the creatures.