The Imagination of Tim Burton

A massive retrospective bringing together hundreds of artworks and film-related objects tracing the trajectory of Tim Burton’s creative imagination.

Since the invention, or discovery, if you will, of the moving image, audiences around the world have not ceased to be confounded, delighted and entertained by television and film. It has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the late 19th century with Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s invention of the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope, to George Melies’s early foray into cinematic production with films such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), and eventually into the glamorous Hollywood version of cinema popularised in the 1920s which has continued to evolve into its present prolific state. Cinema’s beginnings truly commenced with the English-born American photographer and artist, Edward Muybridge. Muybridge famously published Animal Locomotion in 1887: comprised of 781 prints and begun in 1878, the 11-volume project was conceived of as an experiment into the ability to photograph and “stop” (or freeze) motion. Various filmmakers throughout the past century have subsequently explored the idea of “stop-motion” as a cinematic aesthetic.

Tim Burton (b. 1958), the director of such films as Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Sweeney Todd (2007), has adapted and modified this aesthetic through and within his own oeuvre. His films, specifically his animated films, have been the subject of much discussion and critical analysis for what they are about and how they are constructed as well as how they have developed as mainstream films and pieces of art in their own right. This winter, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City will stage the first ever major retrospective of Burton’s work. Co-curated by Ron Maglioozi, Jenny He, and Rajendra Roy, the exhibition will focus on not just his films but drawings, prepatory sketches, and maquettes, viewing his career as a linear narrative of cohesive yet interdisciplinary development. The exhibition, which opened 22 November and runs until 26 April, provides a glimpse into the complexities of the cinematic creative process and proves, undoubtedly, that Burton is not just a director nor an artist but an auteur.

Andrew Sarris in his Notes on the Auteur Theory (1962) states the auteur theory as being comprised of three parts: “The outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning.” Consequently, he argues that the director thus has three roles that are interchangeable and inherently dynamic. Burton, as the director auteur, is comparable to other such directors as Eisenstein and Rossellini, but his style of filmmaking is intrinsically different for its focus on animation and the idea of the fairytale. To elaborate in simple terms; he is not just the author of the film, but the illustrator. The degree of sophistication and complexity of his films show a mastery of the three circles as described by Sarris – that of technique, personal style, and interior meaning. Edward Scissorhands, in which the young Edward (played by Johnny Depp) with hands as scissors is introduced into mainstream, suburban society, is an excellent example of this interplay. Burton’s personal style of direction and creative vision is articulated through both the story and the directorial technique. Evident throughout the film is a certain sensitivity and emotive sensibility towards the characters; Edward embodies the “different” and reflects the audience’s own fears of exclusion and ostracisation by conventional society. That Burton, as a director, can visualise and express these feelings through the cinematic process is the skill of his work and an integral part of it.

He utilises conventional characters and archetypes, as well as animation and a child-like sensibility, in order to deal with sensitive issues such as bullying, war, and death. This manipulation of film and cinematic technique to probe deeper issues is a trend, which has been developing within cinema for quite some time, more recently with films such as Shrek and animated television shows such as South Park. We are, for some reason, quicker to identify and relate to an illustrated character rather than an actor on screen. There is a dual sense of removal and identification: the audience sees certain familiar characteristics and themes, but is one step removed as the character is but a representation. In a sense, the audience is freed from judgement when they view an animated character articulating their fears and thoughts on a television screen or in a theatre. This is, and always has been, the appeal of the fairytale; it provides a fictional course for exploring deeper themes of evil and morality without upsetting a child’s sensitive nature. The urban psychosis of society is that we truly believe in the villains of yesteryear – Sweeney Todd is not just a myth but also a reality, and one to be fearful of at that. Burton has a storyteller’s mastery of the fairytale: he has grasped the elusive nature of the human imagination and offered a conduit into its basic, internal structure. Burton, like many of us, still believes the bogeyman exists.

Burton’s childhood, growing up in Burbank, California, spent continuing to intensify as co-curator Ron Magliozzi succinctly describes it, “his voracious consumption of pop culture”, is the very springboard from which he has done this. Growing up so close to Hollywood (a place where the line between reality and dreams is never clear) Burton was heavily influenced by, and exposed to mainstream cultural arts and technology, especially pop surrealism, which was exploding as a movement in California during the 1960s and 1970s. The influence of his environment, an inherent interest in illustration, and his exposure to Hollywood culture, perhaps led to his enrolment at the age of 18 at CalArts, studying animation. This was followed by a four-year apprenticeship with the Disney studios: suburbia quite literally followed by the studio. The exhibition at MoMA is not quick to dismiss, nor should it be, his time spent working with the Disney studios, as the apprenticeship provided Burton with the basic skills of illustration and exposed him to the digital technologies used to develop animated films. Works from this period are exhibited along with drawings, sketches, and ephemera from his youth and studies at CalArts.

Psychologically his films are quite compelling as the characters act out the stories and fears of our youth, of the adolescent compulsion to fantasize and construct elaborate “what if?” scenarios of doom. Visually his characters tend to be fractured in appearance, distorted in size, and aesthetically disturbing. Burton reflects their inner torment through their image and exaggerates those tragic qualities. The gothic is an omnipresent quality and influence in these illustrations and the work of his predecessors, artists such as Edvard Munsch, is present in much of his work. The influence of artists like the Futurists has yet to be heavily propounded upon in terms of Burton’s work. The Futurists, artists such as Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni, and their obsession with the mechanics of movement and technology are paralleled in Burton’s work. His work, however, is much more sympathetic and comedic and lacks the seriousness, the gravitas, of Munsch, Balla, and Boccioni. Burton is artistically very self-aware and almost seems to mock himself, especially through his cartoons and illustrations: these works are comparable in style and structure to David Shrigley’s sharp, humorous drawings that ridicule the self-impressed art world. Burton is slightly more edgy and sophisticated; his characters taking on grotesque, freakish features redolent of expressionism, Japanese animé, and in some cases, with the emaciated body of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Albrecht Dürer.

For those not familiar with his work the retrospective offers an opportunity to view not only his films, as there will be a film programme offered in conjunction with the exhibition, but his art. Burton, though first and foremost known as a film director, is an artist as well.

Tim Burton ran until 26 April 2010.

Niamh Coghlan