Tim Burton, born in Burbank California in 1958, started his career in Hollywood as an apprentice animator at Disney Studios, initially working as a concept artist on several features for the studio, which ended up never being used. After making two short films- the first a stop motion piece entitled ‘Vincent‘ based on a poem he wrote about the celebrated actor Vincent Price (and for which Price actually provided a voice over), and then a live action short Frankenweenie (later to be remade as a big budget movie), Burton was fired from Disney for being too niche, his initial efforts deemed not commercial enough to appeal to the children’s market they were aiming for.
Burton has gone on to make some of the highest grossing movies in Hollywood history; his total takings a touch under $4 billion, with his top five earners worldwide (adjusted for inflation) made up of Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman, Planet of the Apes and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children all from major studios, and all based on well known existing properties.
It is in Burton’s earlier and in most cases less financially profitable pieces, that he at his most interesting though- from his first feature Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, where he was personally chosen by Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee), having seen his Disney shorts, to direct the spin off of the popular US Children’s TV entertainer. Burton’s second feature film, Beetlejuice, built on the initial ‘weirdness’ of Pee Wee and allowed him to start showcasing the unique visual style he has come to be known for, with big splashes of gothic, 19th European art style juxtaposed against American camp or 50’s style white picket fence scenarios. The film, with a force of nature performance by Michael Keaton as the titular sleazy ghost summoned up by Winona Ryder’s character, was shot on a small budget, proving to be hugely popular and opened the doors for more Hollywood blockbuster opportunities for Burton.
A year later Burton was given the biggest gig in Hollywood- a big budget version of Batman– light years away from the kitsch 1960’s tv series, the film was (for the time), a more gritty version of the caped crusader, and while compared to Christopher Nolan’s later versions, it may seem less gritty, it did feature some of the most amazing sets ever created in the work of Anton Furst: as can be seen in concept art and finished set, the film going on to win an Academy Award for Best Art Direction:
Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s next film, in some ways epitomizes Burton’s style and working preferences: a first pairing with Johnny Depp, music by Danny Elfman, a cameo by Vincent Price, the movie shows off his dual obsessions between the Gothic and the suburban, and his often repeated theme of the loner/ outcast and society.
If Burton has, as some suggest, gone on to become something of a cliche of his own style, and taking ‘obvious’ gigs, his career continues to be peppered with interesting and colloquial choices- from Ed Wood, to Big Fish, through to the remake of his own work in Frankenweenie, and Big Eyes, his drama based on the life of artist Margaret Keane.
And regardless, the Burton style and art work is instantly recognizable, as shown in Nightmare Before Christmas, which Burton provided story, ideas, and art concepts for, directed by Henry Selick.
For those of us who like his artwork at least as much as we like his films (and sometimes a whole lot more, there’s a whole lot of Tim Burton to explore out there…