Meet the South African who made 'Dumbo' fly

Hal Couzens, visual effects producer for Disney's latest blockbuster, tells Sue de Groot how he arrived in a world where imaginary creatures are real

07 April 2019 - 00:00 By Sue de Groot
Disney's new film 'Dumbo' has a proudly South African connection.
Disney's new film 'Dumbo' has a proudly South African connection.
Image: Supplied

People can be in strange places when the call comes through that will change their lives. Hal Couzens was up a tree in the Hollywood Hills. It was 2014 and he was living in New York City. Between projects, he'd gone to Los Angeles to look for work in visual effects (VFX).

"I'd been working on first The Bourne Legacy and then A New York Winter's Tale," says Couzens. "I wanted to stay in New York but there wasn't a lot of film work going. I'd been offered a Monsanto 'Frankenstein' corn commercial and I knew I couldn't possibly do that. I went to LA and took a hike up the Hollywood Hills.

"I'd just climbed a tree from which to contemplate life's choices when my phone rang. It was Nigel Gostelow, one of the producers on Tim Burton's next film, offering me the role of VFX producer on Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

"It meant moving back to London but it wasn't a hard choice. Ever since Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton had been in my pantheon of gods. And I've now spent nearly five years doing two films with him, filming in Cornwall, Blackpool, Florida, LA, Belgium and all over London, making the impossible possible."

For the last three years that impossibility has taken the shape of a big-eared baby elephant called Dumbo. Burton's adaptation of the 1941 Disney film opened in cinemas a week ago, but few of those watching it know that one of the people most instrumental in bringing the baby elephant to life is a South African.

Couzens did not plan a career involving imaginary elephants. He grew up in Parkhurst, Johannesburg (his father was the much-loved author, academic and historian Tim Couzens), went to Greenside High School and graduated from Wits University with an honours degree in philosophy, earned while "misspending my youth on the banks of the Braamfontein Spruit and in the bars of Yeoville".

Since there wasn't a huge demand for salaried philosophers, he thought the creative side of advertising might be a career option.

"My housemate at the time was working as a sound engineer and he said there was a woman at work who needed an assistant. So I met Shirley Sunter in 1994. We talked about life for half an hour, then she asked me if I knew how to make a cup of tea. I said yes, and she said, 'In that case I can teach you the rest.' And so began my career in VFX."

Sunter ran a visual effects production company called The House Next Door, which was part of the Video Lab group, a force on SA's advertising scene in the '90s.

Whenever a classic film is remade there will be fans of the original who throw up their hands in purist horror at the sacrilege - all the while secretly enjoying the magic that can be wrought with the tools available today

"It was pretty early days for VFX in SA and Shirley was one of the few people who knew much about it," says Couzens, who took to the work like a flying elephant to the sky.

Demand for VFX work was exploding, which Couzens attributes to the rapid acceleration of computing power combined with an appetite for high-end commercials.

In 1996 he moved to London and got work at legendary VFX studio The Mill. It was the heyday of lavish music videos and TV ads, but in 1999, Couzens saw his first total solar eclipse, "a thing of great beauty", and it moved him to change the trajectory of his life.

"I felt I had to explore creating more of a legacy," he says. "Commercials disappear, never to be seen again. I had also become increasingly disillusioned by trading time and creativity to tell a lie so a brand could make more money.

"I halved my salary and got a production gig on a low-budget British feature film. The difference was extraordinary. Everybody was focused on telling the story and making it as amazing as possible."

The finances for that film fell through, but Couzens was hooked. In 2001 he joined the visual effects team for Bridget Jones's Diary, and from there became a key player in a score of big feature films (he got Batman off the ground, which might have been useful practice for Dumbo). His reputation reached the ears of Tim Burton, and in 2014 the phone rang in the tree.

THE LITTLE ELEPHANT THAT COULD

Whenever a classic film is remade there will be fans of the original who throw up their hands in purist horror at the sacrilege - all the while secretly enjoying the magic that can be wrought with the tools available today.

Dumbo has divided critics into lovers and haters. Of the latter, some are outraged that what was in 1941 a 64-minute featurette in two-dimensional watercolour has been turned into a feature-length, three-act dramaturgy with fleshed-out storylines peopled by live-action human characters. Some dislike the elaborately surreal backdrops so beloved of director Tim Burton. Some object to the absence of talking animals.

Opinions of the film might be mixed but praise for its titular star is universal. Even the least effusive reviewers raved. "Dumbo is as expressively adorable as any human actor in the film" ... "A CGI creation with big ocean-blue eyes and those lovably floppy ears" ... "Of all the CGI makeovers, this Dumbo is the most textured, sweetest and most soulful of creatures" ... "An adorable CGI flying elephant" ... and so on.

Hal Couzens at the world premiere of Disney's new 'Dumbo' at El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, California, last month.
Hal Couzens at the world premiere of Disney's new 'Dumbo' at El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, California, last month.
Image: Getty Images for Disney/ Alberto E Rodriguez

Everyone loves Dumbo, but the reviewers gushing about a "CGI elephant" haven't got it quite right. The labour-intensive animation was closer in spirit to what Disney would have done in 1941 than to what the less technical among us might understand as computer-generated imagery (CGI).

"We did not use any motion capture," says Couzens. "It was only hand-animated by a team from the Moving Picture Company MPC, headed by Catherine Mullan and involving more than 1,500 people around the world. It's really hard to make an elephant fly.

"Keeping Dumbo, with his strange proportions and blue eyes, looking believably real was a challenge. We looked at a lot of different types of flying animals to try and pick a style that could help Dumbo appear real - bees, birds, butterflies, even underwater creatures like manta rays.

"Somewhat surprisingly, we found at least some of the answers in the most obvious place - elephants swimming, with a touch of the swallow for the faster stuff. 'Float like an elephant, sting like a butterfly' became our motto for the gentle star of this film."

In the new version, Dumbo's friends are children rather than talking crows and a mouse. Child actors need to engage with the character they're talking to on set, which is where "green Dumbo" came in.

"We filmed it like a normal film," says Couzens, "with a small person called Edd Osmond inside a Dumbo-shaped green suit; we'd give him direction through a microphone.

We were working with an eight-year-old and a 12-year-old and it's important for them to have something they can act against. We also had a picture up of what the final Dumbo would look like, for the actors to see and as a lighting reference. He's supercute."

He's not only cute; Couzens says there are also things we can learn from the brave little elephant.

"This film, like the original, is still about being an outsider," he says. "It's about trusting and knowing your own internal strength; that everything you need to succeed is inside yourself; that the very thing you think makes you an outsider is the thing that makes you distinct and magical. It tells you to shed those self-limiting beliefs and dream big."

He is looking forward to a break after years of intensive work on Dumbo. He has just packed up his production office and is speaking on the phone from London while pushing a baby stroller around a park.

In the background is a sudden commotion of flapping and quacking. "Ducks!" he yells, and his infant daughter squeals with joy.

Just wait until she discovers her dad can make elephants fly.

ON TIM BURTON

Tim Burton surrounds himself with amazing people, says Hal Couzens.
Tim Burton surrounds himself with amazing people, says Hal Couzens.
Image: Franco Origlia/WireImage

"One of the nicest things about Tim is the people that surround him. Many of the teams around the most prestigious directors are quite mean and protective of their 'privileged' positions so when you come on board as a new person they are very suspicious and cagey.

Not Tim's people, they're just super nice, supportive and welcomingly helpful to the newbies as a film starts up. I think this speaks volumes about Tim's character."

ON ACRONYMS

"Visual effects [VFX] are anything that cannot be achieved 'in-camera' and require some kind of digital manipulation in post-production. Special effects [SFX] are practical effects achieved on set, like rain or fire. SFX includes the use of animatronics, models and mechanical rigs.

VFX often makes use of SFX elements, such as combining an actor on green screen with something dangerous such as an explosion. VFX ranges from the mundane - makeup, cosmetic fixes, removing TV aerials from period movies - to the fantastical, such as dinosaurs, space, and, of course, flying elephants.SFX technicians are extraordinary individuals who literally get their hands dirty

.VFX folk tend to be the kind that are OK sitting in dark rooms for long periods, micro-noodling pixels . but having an artistic eye for whatever looks real is still an advantage and while it can involve a lot of time in front of a monitor, it is also hugely creative."

Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton and starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Eva Green, with visual effects produced by Hal Couzens, is in cinemas.

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