Burton on the set
of Edward Scissorhands
Big Adventure (1985)
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
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)
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).
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
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
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
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.
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER: PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE