How Production Designer Rick Heinrichs Brought Oz to Kansas for Tim Burton’s ‘Dumbo’

We chat with the production designer about his long collaboration with Tim Burton and why we shouldn’t worry about remakes when they get together.
Dumbo Production Design
Walt Disney Studios
By  · Published on July 10th, 2019

There is no place like home. Why should we ever want to leave? The Walt Disney Company is determined to keep you at bay; working on your childhood nostalgia by revisiting their classics one at a time. Don’t resist. Accept the inevitability, and appreciate the artistry of re-examination.

We’ve never been a place to hate remakes for the sake of hating remakes. Often retrospect offers an analytical do-over, or an opportunity to twist an idea into something completely new. Retread is the danger. With Aladdin behind us, and The Lion King cresting the horizon, it’s clear that Disney is growing more confident in allowing interpretation into their live-action alterations. Reviewing the new Dumbo, which recently hit DVD/Blu-ray, the bones of the original animation are easily recognizable, but the meat of the beast is entirely different.

So, the studio may nab your curiosity with the brand, but it’s up to their assigned artists to win us over. This is a familiar task for Tim Burton and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Together they previously adapted Dark Shadows, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Planet of the Apes, and Burton’s own Frankenweenie. Not to forget other collaborations on Big Eyes and Sleepy Hollow. Remake is not a word that lives in their head. Once the script is formulated, the task becomes solely executing what’s imagined on the page.

To hear Heinrichs explain it, their process has codified with each film, but they’ve always shared a mutual understanding of how a story should be executed and what it should look like on screen. “It’s always a conversation in which Tim describes the feel of what he’s after,” he says. “We’re looking for any form of visual communication that shows people what the feeling is, and as much as possible, we make the look of things be a huge part of the story.” Story and character are essential, but the environment enhances everything.

You know the cliche – the set is another character in the story. Heinrichs is in awe of Burton’s enthusiasm for allowing his department to be the star.  He exalts Burton as a master of the stage, “I would say that he’s probably one of the foremost directors able to put that across, a sense of tone and feeling from just the environment, and the way things look and the way the characters inhabit the space and how much this says about the characters.”

The original Dumbo is a brief shock of emotional manipulation. At sixty-four minutes, the cartoon barely qualifies as a feature. Not the instant success upon release, Dumbo eventually reached iconic status based on an unforgettable character design, a soul-stabbing tune, and one re-release after the other. As such, this gave Heinrichs and Burton extra space to expand on the aesthetic, doing their own thing and not worrying if they’ve strayed too far from a proven formula.

The big task of the remake became establishing a midwest that has practically been erased from the map, and then constructing the slightly fantastical realm of the Medici Circus. “Almost like Oz compared to Kansas,” Heinrichs elaborates. “The challenge being to not just simply redo an obvious trope of what an amusement park would be like from that period, and to dive into the reality of what the Coney Island parks were like at the time.” Once he expanded upon that real-world notion, adding unique ride designs that geared towards Burton’s vision, Heinrichs lost himself to the task. The Medici Circus became his favorite obsession of the job. “That was the longest, most difficult struggle for us,” he says, “digging deep into the history and then starting to stylize and play with the tone of it until it felt right to contrast to what we had developed earlier.”

Heinrichs has had the fortune of working in a lot of big studio environments, and he’s been responsible for building many outlandish worlds. That’s not to say that research is not required. All fantasy finds its origins in reality, and on Dumbo, Heinrichs found himself hitting the books hard from the beginning. “We delved deeply into the Depression-era and Coney Island,” he says, “and we extracted the most important elements that we felt that those periods had, to help inform what we were doing.” There was never a danger of dullness; Burton cares little for mirroring actuality. “It’s never a history lesson with Tim,” Heinrichs continues. “It’s always a combination of digging into the research and figuring out from that where and how the characters and elements develop the way they are, so that you’re showing the story instead of telling it.”

Yes, step one is a kind of research session. Step two is digging into the themes of the screenplay and finding ways to incorporate them into the cinematic experience. “Part of the point of delving deeply into historical work and references is to just give yourself a good grounding in what it would take to immerse the audience in something that they believe in,” says Heinrichs. “Then you figure out where your elements and points of departure may be, and that will help to give a point of view to everything. And that would give somebody a subjective view on both the characters and on the story.” That varied POV is the whole expressionist approach to production design. “Elements get caricatured, some exaggerated. Other elements get diminished because you’ve only got so long to tell a story, and you need to do it with autonomy, and you need to do it with a point.”

Of course, we cannot forget the big-eared elephant in the room. The critical partners of the production designer have always been the director and the director of photography (Ben Davis). However, in the time that Heinrichs has been plugging away, the visual effects department has become an indispensable component. On Dumbo, Heinrichs partnered with several visual effects supervisors to fully realize the environment. “More and more we’re able, with the tools that we have technologically, to design the entire world, and hopefully do it in prep, ” he explains. “That’s a fairly new phenomenon insofar as oftentimes in the past, the expansion of the world through visual effects meant that the rest of the world got designed almost as an afterthought to what was actually physically required – to shoot the actors and the sets, things like that.”

Heinrichs marvels at what is accomplished in pre-production as a result of the technological advancements. “These days, one can just as easily do a lot of the development and design work for the vast scapes that one has to do for the film ahead of time,” he says. “That allows you then to walk on the stage, and in the case of Dreamland on Dumbo where we’d have a significant amount of build there, we could look at our set extensions using our iPads in conjunction with the physical aspect of the show, and really understand what was necessary. Now it could be lit properly, and we had clear directions for what people were seeing at all times.”

The production designer has a good thing going with Tim Burton, and his energy gets a boost whenever an opportunity to merge minds arrives. Their partnership has certainly evolved over the years and on the multiple films, but in many ways, it’s the same manner of collaboration on Dumbo as they experienced on Sleepy Hollow. “There’s a lot more ability for him to let me take the reins and present, at the right moments, to him visually,” he says. “He’s certainly always got a comment to help steer the progress, but I think that there’s a lot of mutual understanding of approach.” The trust is there, as is the hunger for the next project, be it a remake, reboot, or re-whatever. Originality will always be present in their work.

Dumbo is now available on VOD, Digital HD, DVD, and Blu-ray.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)