Burton went to college to study animation. His work there caught the eye of Disney and he was hired on as an animator. He worked on several projects before it became apparent that his style did not fit with what Disney wanted to do. He worked on several short film projects before catching the eye of Paul Reubens who offered Burton the opportunity to direct his first full length motion picture, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). That film was a success and led to Burton’s working relationship with Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman. Burton’s next opportunity was 1988’s Beetlejuice, which was also a hit and well received by critics. Burton showed that he could make profitable movies with low budgets, and because of this he was offered the chance to direct his first big budget film, Batman (1989). That film became one of the highest grossing of all time. In 1990 he made an original film Edward Scissorhands, which became a cult hit. Batman Returns was released in 1992, and was a less-successful hit as compared to its predecessor. Burton was supposed to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas around the same time, but due to conflicts he could not and ended up as just a writer and a producer, although, the film is still full of his influence.
His next film was the low budget Ed Wood (1994), which was well received by critics, but was Burton’s first commercial failure. Burton was supposed to direct Batman Forever, but the studios did not like the direction of the previous installment, so they gave it to Joel Schumacher. Like he did with Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton’s next project was as writer and producer, but not director, for James and the Giant Peach. Next, he directed a film that was homage to 50’s sci-fi B-movies, which influenced Burton greatly. Mars Attacks! (1997) was a flop and received mixed reviews. Next, Burton was invited to direct Superman Lives, but due to creative differences he left that project to work on Sleepy Hollow (1999) which was only a minor success. Burton began the next decade with Planet of the Apes (2001), which marked a dramatic change in tone for him, but left audiences and critics disappointed. He released Big Fish in 2003 and regained respect of critics and audiences. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) was another big-budget film for Burton, and it was a moderate success. That year he also directed Corpse Bride, which was his first outing of a feature length animated film as director.
His next project was another first for Burton, a musical. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street received good reviews although the film’s advertising left audiences scratching their heads. Alice in Wonderland (2010) was another big budget adaptation, and it was a box office hit although it did receive mixed reviews. Burton directed Dark Shadows in 2011, which ended up being a flop. He then went on in 2012 to successfully direct a feature-length version of one of his short films, Frankenweenie. His latest film as director is Big Eyes, which will release this week.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Tim Burton film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Burton’’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Tim Burton is one of those directors who has an easily identifiable visual style. Almost all of his films revel in gothic imagery. From the characters themselves, to the props, to the houses and cities where the films take place are sculpted in an an exaggerated, almost cartoonish way to emphasize “goth” features. One the most obvious and famous examples of this type of style is the costume and makeup for Edward Scissorhands, who looks like he belongs in some sort of creepy goth punk rock band. Not only is the character himself gothic, but he lives in an old gothic mansion. This is similar to the visuals in Beetlejuice. Not only is the main character’s presentation very punk rock, but the entire film takes place in a creepy old haunted Victorian home. Another great example is Burton’s Batman where the gloomy, almost industrial streets of Gotham City are strewn with ornate details. Not to mention Burton’s Batmobile, which mimicked the sweeping lines and elaborated details of classic 30’s custom coach designs. In his later films, Burton uses CGI to expand the impact of his visuals even more. Alice and Wonderland features multiple characters generated by CGI so that their proportions are exaggerated to emphasize their gothic stylings.
Eccentric, Misunderstood Outcasts
Nearly all of Burton’s films focus on a main character who is some sort of outcast from society. Furthermore, this character is typically very strange and eccentric. Usually they are an outcast because nobody understands them. Edward Scissorhands is a great example. He is mysterious and alone due to his “unfinished” condition. In Batman, Bruce Wayne is pretty much an mysterious rich guy that distances himself by hiding his secret identity. Ed Wood is the story of a filmmaker who made strange films and acted eccentrically. Big Fish focuses on the stories of Edward Bloom, which seem exaggerated to the point that his family doesn’t believe what he says. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the familiar story of a group of children who get a chance to meet an eccentric, reclusive, and very mysterious candy maker. Finally, in Alice in Wonderland it is Alice who, against society’s pressures, doesn’t want to be told how to live her life. In her despair she tumbles into the rabbit hole once again.
Common Themes / Visuals
In addition to common main characters and visual styles, Burton loves repeating themes and ideas in many of his films. The most obvious is perhaps his use of dark and light as contrast. The darkness fits in well with his gothic imagery, but he uses light to emphasize certain aspects. In Beetlejuice, when the house is shown in the daylight it is bright white and seems inviting. Inside though, it is dark and dingy. In Edward Scissorhands the interior of Edward’s mansion is also devoid of light, unlike the outside world where the town is bright, colorful, and full of cheer. Another method that Burton uses frequently is the way he portrays his characters. Many of his films feature common archetypes so that the audience can easily recognize their motives. For instance, Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and Big Fish all feature a witch-like character as an antagonist. Similarly, Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Corpse Bride, and The Nightmare Before Christmas all feature an ambitious female character as a protagonist.
Burton likes to use flashbacks in order to tell a story within a larger story. He uses them to help add additional depth to his characters and, in the case of his main characters, help the audience understand why they are so strange. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this technique is used to explain the reason why Willy Wonka wanted to become a candy maker. In Big Fish, the bulk of the film is a retelling of Edward Bloom’s fantastic stories, and as such they serve as a flashback from his perspective. In Sweeney Todd the flashbacks show Sweeney’s family before they were taken away, which influenced him deeply. In Batman, the memory of Bruce Wayne’s parent’s death is what ultimately influenced him to become Batman.
Familiar Faces, Familiar Sounds
Like many long-tenured directors, there are people that Tim Burton enjoys working with. He rewards his favorites by featuring them in his films more frequently. The most frequent collaborator of Tim Burton is musician Danny Elfman. Danny Elfman has created the soundtracks for all of Burton’s films except Ed Wood. Not only does this mean that his films have similar soundscapes, but Elfman’s familiarity with Burton’s work means that he creates soundtracks that fit in very well with Burton’s unique style. In the acting department, Burton has worked with many actors and actresses over and over again. Most prominently, it’s Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter who have appeared the most (8 and 7 films respectively). Other frequent collaborators include Christopher Lee (6 films), Michael Gough (5 films), Deep Roy (4 films), Winona Ryder (3 films), Danny Devito (3 films), Michael Keaton (3 films), Martin Landau (3 films), Jack Nicholson (2 films), Martin Short (2 films), Timothy Spall (2 films), Michelle Pfeiffer (2 films), and Christopher Walken (2 films), among others.
Want more? Check out the last installment: Director’s Trademarks: Christopher Nolan