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.”
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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”)