×

‘Captain Marvel’ and ‘Dumbo’ Show Off the Versatility of Cinematographer Ben Davis

March is a triumphant month for Ben Davis. Two of the films shot by the DP — Disney’s “Dumbo” and Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” — are being released this month, bringing to fruition two years of hard work.

In both cases, Davis’ cinematography has classic progenitors: the iconic cel animation of the 1941 original Disney film, and the dynamic drawings of the original Marvel comic-book artists, most notably Gene Colan in 1967. Davis was aware of these cultural touchstones, but kept his focus on the visual intentions of his directors — on “Dumbo,” Tim Burton, and on “Captain Marvel,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

“For me, ‘Dumbo’ was all about Tim Burton,” says Davis. “I find that the longer I do this job, the more I look for directors with a vision and a single voice with something to say, along with the passion and drive to see that through. That was the joy of working with Tim. He’s a maverick, with amazing creative talent.”

On the smaller-scale dramas he has interspersed throughout his career, Davis begins with a singular focus on the script. “On these bigger films, you don’t always start with the script,” he says. “It becomes more about the vision and the intent. What are we trying to make this thing look like? And the script sort of develops alongside that vision.”

Popular on Variety

Both films were shot mostly with large-format Arri Alexa 65 cameras. As opposed to “Captain Marvel,” which was framed in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Davis and Burton chose 1.85:1 as the shape of their imagery in “Dumbo.” The look emphasizes simple blocks of primary colors, subtly emulating the original’s multi-plane animation.

“Elephants are kind of 1.85, when you think about it,” says Davis with a laugh. “That film was more vertical — and vertiginous — in general. You’ve got big-tops and giraffes. Tim likes 1.85, and I find that it can be more lyrical.”

As for “Captain Marvel,” Davis adds that “it’s the very personal journey of the central character. Unlike some of the other Marvel films, where you have multiple character arcs and stories, this is her story. It’s more straightforward.

One woman trying to find out who she was and where she comes from, to discover herself. So the camera has to be close to her, with a wider lens approach. I thought handheld was a good format because the camera can have an intimate relationship with her. She reacts, we react.”

Films such as “Dumbo” and “Captain Marvel” require more time and effort on pre-production and pre-visualization. “Visual-effects sequences have big-budget implications,” Davis says. “You have to be careful not to be consumed by them. My advice to Anna and Ryan was that those sequences would take care of themselves. If they’re not working, we’ll shoot more material until they are.”

But, as always, the bottom line is to please moviegoers. “We’re trying to tell a story that connects the audience emotionally with the character. That’s why Anna and Ryan were a very clever choice for Marvel; they come from indie filmmaking, and story and character are their forte. And if you look at all those Marvel films, they live and die on whether that emotional connection is there.”

(Pictured above: Ben Davis on the set of “Dumbo”)

More Artisans

  • Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..Tony Stark/Iron Man

    How 'Avengers: Endgame' Publicity Team Made Headlines By Saying Nothing At All

    Secrecy and strategy were fundamental when it comes to marketing the MCU films. After 14 years and 22 films, those two factors were crucial when it came to planning the rollout for the final installment,  “Avengers: Endgame.” Earlier this week, the publicity team behind the film’s campaign was nominated for the ICG Publicist Awards. Union [...]

  • The Farewell Movie BTS

    Academy Falls Short on Diversity, but Foreign Films Crash ACE Eddies Party

    The American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards, which will be handed out Jan. 17, will for the first time give voters a choice of selecting a foreign-language film in each of the three categories. The trio in contention are: “The Farewell” (comedy), “Parasite” (dramatic) and “I Lost My Body” (animated). “This is the first time in our [...]

  • Best Documentary Scenes from 2019

    Directors Describe Their Key Scenes in the Past Year’s Top Documentary Films

    The directors of this awards season’s documentary hopefuls explain the ticking hearts at the center of their shortlisted films. Apollo 11, Director: Todd Douglas Miller  Setting the Scene: The pre-launch sequence for the first mission in which humans landed on the moon, featuring NASA workers and regular citizens alike. “It encapsulates everything and highlights a lost [...]

  • Paris Recreated for Movie Productions on

    TSF Recreates Paris on Former Air Base for Movie and TV Shoots

    As French outfits move to expand their studio offerings, industry eyes have turned to a 20-hectare stretch of land 20 miles south of Paris. There, in the commune Plessis-Pâté, sits the TSF Backlot 217, a converted air base that has become one the Gallic industry’s banner initiatives. One of France’s leading production suppliers, TSF scoped [...]

  • DSC07163.ARW

    Streamers Urge French Production Sector to Go Green

    For the French industry, the drive to open up additional studio spaces has gone hand-in-hand with the push for green production, because for the most part, they share the same root cause: The international streamers that are causing a surge in audiovisual production tend to have strict criteria when it comes to sustainable development. “Companies [...]

  • CNC Chief Outlines Plan to Update

    CNC Chief Outlines Plan to Update French Production Infrastructure

    Speaking at an industry round-table at the Paris-based Production Forum on Thursday, Dominique Boutonnat, president of France’s National Film Board (CNC), announced a new plan to update local production studios in order to make them more internationally competitive. The modest plan, which involves new funding, training sessions and additional research, follows a March 2019 report, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content