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Burton on the set of Edward Scissorhands

Selected filmography:

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Beetlejuice (1985)
Batman (1989)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Batman Returns (1992)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) - producer and story only
Cabin Boy (1994) - producer only
Ed Wood (1994)
James and the Giant Peach (1996) - producer only
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Big Fish (2003)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Corpse Bride (2005)
Sweeney Todd (2007)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Dark Shadows (2012)
Frankenweenie (2012)

Tim Burton is an anomaly in Hollywood. He's a deeply personal filmmaker who somehow makes incredibly successful movies. Like many great filmmakers, he relies on key collaborators to help him with his vision, most notably Danny Elfman, who has scored nearly all his feature films, and Johnny Depp, who has appeared in six of Burton's films (and counting).

Despite being part of the Hollywood system, he often feels like an outsider in that world, stating in the book Burton on Burton that, "for a community made up of so many freakish outsiders, [Hollywood]'s oddly conservative". For that reason, it’s amusing to think that some critics once thought him of as the “new Spielberg”. The only thing the two have in common, aside from being considered wunderkinds early in their careers, is that they both often have to work as directors for hire, since they hardly ever write the stories for their films.

The main reason for Burton's success, his youthful enthusiasm for junk culture, is also probably the reason he has, with a few exceptions, never really been taken as seriously by critics, compared to filmmakers like David Lynch, for example. As Caroline Thompson said when comparing the two in an interview with Frank Rose: "David's obsessions are the obsessions of a nineteen-year-old, and Tim's are the obsessions of a twelve-year-old. And this is much more of a twelve-year-old's culture." Despite the obvious appeal of his films to young people, Burton has said in interviews that he dislikes anything that is intentionally "childlike".

Speaking of interviews, Burton is often mocked for being ineloquent in public. However, that's rather unfair because, if you read his interviews, it's possible to get many interesting snippets on Burton's viewpoint on life and film. In recent years, especially, he's become much more open and extroverted in public. He is often compared to the characters in his movies - he even shares his hair with many of them. Burton is also a director actors seem to love, many of whom sign on to his films purely for the opportunity to work with him.

A self-described "happy-go-lucky manic-depressive" making movies was a form of therapy for him, especially early in his career when he was still working out adolescent angst through his characters. He also has a basic passion for filmmaking, stating in an interview with David Breskin in 1991 (in response to the question of why he makes movies): "It's like some sort of drug or virus, that takes over your body". However, while many fans consider Burton an auteur (and one can see similar characters and themes that crop up throughout all his movies) the director himself seems to have a more down to earth view of his career, in keeping with his humble beginnings.

Young Timmy - aww!

He was born Timothy William Burton on August 25, 1958 in Burbank, California. Despite being the home of numerous movie and TV studios, Burbank was the quintessential 1950s American suburbia. Young Tim was not particularly good in school and felt somewhat out of place in his community. He found his enjoyment in painting, drawing and, of course, watching movies.

His favourites included monster movies, Hammer Horror productions and the work of stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen. Indeed, for a while the young Burton wanted to be the actor who played Godzilla. Like many youngsters, the magic in movies for him was wondering how it was all done. That is one reason why, years later, Burton said he always tries to resist going behind the scenes or talking too much about his films, because it takes away the mystery.

Burton was influenced by television as much as he was the cinema. He touched upon the subject in a March 1997 issue of Empire magazine, stating: "Growing up as part of the television generation, I probably veer towards bad taste". Very early in his career, Burton would learn to take what other people consider junk and turn it into art.

His childhood was slightly surreal, at least in Burton's eyes, and he would question everything around him. These included curiosities like his mother running a shop selling cat knickknacks, why there was a particular clock on their wall and the rather alarming claim by Burton that his parents once blocked up his bedroom window (apparently to insulate the room, though California weather hardly requires it). The young Burton would perform various macabre pranks to amuse himself, including pretending to stab his brother to death.

Burton displayed his early artistic ability by designing an anti-litter poster that was displayed around Burbank. He also directed a number of short movies, though they have been mostly unseen by the public. For that reason it’s hard to get a complete picture of his early career, aside from the second-hand reports available in various biographies of the director.

His earliest known film is The Island of Doctor Agor, which was made in 1971, when Burton was just thirteen years old. It was an animated film shot on Super 8 with a group of his friends. Around the same time, the budding filmmaker also made a short called Houdini, with himself playing the famous escape artist. Burton made the film for a class project, to get out of reading a book.

After high school, Burton was awarded a scholarship to the famous California Institute of the Arts. Walt Disney had funded CalArts partly as a breeding ground for new talent, and its distinguished alumni has included Brad Bird, future Burton collaborator Henry Selick and the one and only David Hasselhoff. Burton entered the Disney animation program, thinking it would be a good way to continue to experiment with his love of animation.

However, after he lost his scholarship, the desperate filmmaker decided to make his first “proper” film, a pencil drawn cartoon called Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979). The film caused such a stir among his class (which included John Lasseter) that it attracted the attention of the higher echelon at Disney, who offered the young Burton a job in the animation department.

Stalk of the Celery Monster

Doctor of Doom

He spent his spare time indulging his real passion by directing cheapo films such as Doctor of Doom (1980) and coming up with ideas for his own personal projects, including a poem and artwork that would later become the basis for the stop-motion animated feature film The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Another concept that Burton did some designs for during this period was the cartoon Family Dog, which was later turned into an episode of the Steven Spielberg TV series Amazing Stories, as well as an unsuccessful and short-lived series. The biggest amateur production Burton directed during his time at Disney was the infamously bizarre film, Luau (1982).

The plot for this virtually impossible to find film is described in depth in the book "Tim Burton" by Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews. Suffice it to say, it involves surfing, disembodied alien heads and other wackiness. Clips from the film are available on the A&E biography of Burton, Trick or Treat, but they only offer tantalising hints for those of us who have not seen the film.

Burton did not enjoy being an animator in the Disney mold. In the late seventies and early eighties the company was stuck in a rut, long past its golden age and some years before the studio would be reinvigorated by the success of films like The Little Mermaid (1989).

Burton in Luau

Burton had been brought in to work on The Fox And The Hound (1981) and drawing the cute cartoon animals was far from fulfilling. Burton later admitted his attempts at drawing Disney animals looked like road kill. He also did some uncredited work on the first film to feature extensive computer animation, Tron (1982).

The studio eventually recognized that Burton's talent was not being exploited. With the help of head of creative development Julie Hickson, who took a shine to Burton, he was made a conceptual artist and did some work for The Black Cauldron (1985). While on the surface Burton’s style of artwork might have seemed perfect for this dark (at least by Disney standards) fantasy epic, none of his designs were ultimately used. It seemed his ideas were too just weird and dark for the conservative environment of Disney at the time. However, they did let him work on some of his own projects.

Vincent (1982) was the first of Burton’s films that actually saw a release, albeit a limited one. Based on a poem Burton had written himself, the stop-motion animated movie was shot in beautiful black and white.

The short film tells the tale of Vincent Malloy, a suburbanite boy who wants to be just like his idol, Vincent Price. It was a deeply personal film for the young Burton, and it marked his first teaming with two people who would have a great impact on his career. The producer and designer, Rick Heinrichs, would go on to work on many of Burton’s later films in various capacities. More famously, the legendary Vincent Price provided the narration. Price had been Burton’s idol since childhood, and having him contribute his memorable voice to the film was an undoubted thrill for the young director.

The classic horror star’s role also reinforced the theme of the film, which is how fantasies about monsters and mad scientists can become more important to kids than their own mundane lives, and help them though life. The two would remain friends until Price’s death in 1993.

The film itself has many of the hallmarks of Burton's style, from the German Expressionist look to the use of a loveable mutt (Vincent's dog, Abercrombie) as a companion for the hero.

There was little interference with Vincent by the executives, though they did suggest he try tacking on a happier ending (instead of Vincent collapsing and quoting "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe), which Burton refused to do.

It was given a two-week release in one Los Angeles cinema by Disney, who were unsure how to market the morbid little film. Though few people saw it at the time, it played well at festivals and ultimately acted as Burton’s calling card in Hollywood.

Burton’s next project for Disney was a Japanese-themed version of Hansel and Gretel (1982). Filmed with a cast of amateurs, it was most notable for the inclusion of kung fu fights and a multitude of Japanese toys, both subjects Burton was obsessed with at the time. It premiered once on the Disney Channel and to this date has never been shown again. Burton has said in interviews that it's one of his films he's least proud of, which may be why it hasn't turned up on home video like his other Disney shorts.

This is where I would have put a screencap from Hansel and Gretel, but I couldn't find one. So here's another nice shot from Vincent

Seemingly undeterred by the treatment of his first two films by Disney, Burton next directed Frankenweenie (1984). It was his first major live action directorial effort, an affectionate black and white homage to Frankenstein and other monster movies.

Burton came up with the story, which tells the tale of a young Victor Frankenstein living in a typical suburb. His beloved dog Sparky is run over by a car, leading us into the clever opening credit sequence set to the background of a pet cemetery.

Of course, Victor soon brings the pooch back to life with science. However, in time-honoured monster movie tradition, he is misperceived as a threat to the community after a series of public scares.

But it all ends happily on a miniature golf course where the suburbanites realise Sparky is a good dead dog. They help return him to life a second time with car batteries. Sparky even finds a mate in a bitch with a Bride of Frankensetin-style hairdo.

Frankenweenie expanded on many of the classic Burton themes that first surfaced in Vincent. Like Burton, Victor is a budding filmmaker at an early age.

The film could almost be seen as a test run for Edward Scissorhands, even though that later film about a misunderstood “monster” had a far more bittersweet ending. It was also the first time Burton had worked with a professional cast, and the fine performances were an early indication that Burton could be an actor’s director as well as a visionary.

Burton's trademark humour shows through in nice touches such as water leaking out of the dog's stitches when he drinks. The visuals are impressive, including a burning windmill for the finale.

Frankenweenie doesn’t have a lot of depth, but it’s not a bad little movie considering the limitations of the budget. Burton himself thought it could have been expanded to feature length with more time, but it's almost certain the film would have worn out its welcome if it were any longer. It's more a homage than a fully-formed film, but it entertains none the less.

An interesting tidbit: the film features in a small role the young Sofia Coppola, credited as Domino.

Disney had planned to screen Frankenweenie before a re-release of the 1940 film Pinocchio (coincidently one of Burton's favourite Disney films), but unfortunately that plan was cancelled when Frankenweenie was given a PG rating, making it “unsuitable” for younger kids despite being less scary than some Disney classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942).

It was released in the U.K. with the film Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) but aside from the occasional screening, Frankenweenie was shelved in the Disney vaults for almost ten years (Burton couldn't even get a copy for himself). Despite this, praise for the film from people in the industry who had seen it, including author Stephen King, would eventually lead to Burton being offered his first feature film work.

Not long after, Shelly Duvall (who had starred in Frankenweenie) asked Burton to direct an episode of her Faerie Tale Theatre series, which featured episodes directed by famous (and not so famous) filmmakers.

Burton was chosen to helm Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. The episode, which didn't air until 1986, had some big names in the cast, including Robert Carradine as the hero, Leonard Nimoy as the villain and James Earl Jones as the genie of the lamp.

Despite the low-budget nature of the series (it was shot on video and the production values left something to be desired) Burton did a respectable job in what was essentially his first “director for hire” role. He even managed to get some of his early Burtonesque style into a few scenes.

However, it was not a completely satisfying experience, and he vowed in future to only direct projects he had a personal connection to.

Freed from Disney, and with enough directing experience under his belt, the twenty-six-year old Burton was ready to take the plunge and direct his first feature film.






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