ByGrant Hermanns, writer at
I know way too much about movies, my mind is like a walking IMDB, only not perfect. Don't forget to hit up my Twitter: @grantheftautho
Grant Hermanns

He's got dark, scraggly hair and can almost always be found wearing one of his infamous black suits, looking nearly identical to the Vertigo Comics character the Sandman.

His name is Tim Burton.

Like Sandman, Burton's profession very much involves dreams. In his case, bringing them to life on the big screen to share with the rest of the world. Burton has been in the dream industry for nearly 40 years now, and while he has directed some of the most phenomenal and emotionally stirring tales in the gothic film genre, what may not be known is how extensive his behind-the-scenes talents are — especially in regard to animation.

The Origin Story Of Burton The Animator

While everybody knows Burton's rise as a director beginning with Pee-wee's Big Adventure and continued spike thanks to the supernatural comedy Beetlejuice and his first big-budget production, Batman, not many know that Burton actually got his start in animation with Disney.

Burton began making short movies when he was a kid in his backyard, ranging from live-action shorts with his friends to stop-motion animated movies without sound on his Super 8mm camera, many of which were inspired by some of his childhood heroes including Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl and Edgar Allan Poe. In addition, he spent a lot of his time painting, drawing and watching movies.

After graduating from Burbank High School, Burton got accepted into the very prestigious California Institute of the Arts Character Animation Program around 1976, alongside some other very successful artists and animators over the years, such as John Lasseter (chief creative officer of Pixar and director of Toy Story) and Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and co-director of Ratatouille). While in the program, Burton worked on a number of shorts, including Stalk of the Celery Monster and King and Octopus.

Stalk of the Celery Monster, which was written, directed and animated by Burton, is a short that is hard to come by nowadays, but made enough of an impact on both Burton's class and the rest of the program that it attracted the attention of Disney, who quickly offered him an animator's internship.

It didn't take long for the aspiring animator to start working on films for the studio, such as various storyboards and concept art for The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron and Tron, as well as working as an artist on the first adaptation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings for United Artists.

Though Disney did not end up using his concept art in the final products, Burton did make some connections down in the concept art department that would help him make his first — and one of his most celebrated — personal short films to date, Vincent.

Vincent told the story of a seven year old boy named Vincent Malloy whose idol is legendary horror actor, Vincent Price. The young Malloy lives every day as though he is in a classic horror film or an Edgar Allan Poe tale. Burton met Disney executive Julie Hickson and Head of Creative Development Tom Wilhite while working in his internship program and after seeing that his work wasn't quite typical Disney material, but a unique style that deserved the appropriate recognition, they gave the young animator $60,000 to adapt his poem of the same name.

This short film actually proved to be a great precursor for Burton's work to follow, Burton filming the short in a stark black and white contrast, using stop motion animation and telling a story of someone wanting to revive the gothic glory days for the modern world. In addition to the familiar themes and style, Burton also got his idol — and not coincidentally, Vincent Malloy's — Vincent Price to narrate the animated short, in turn becoming friends with the legendary actor and would work together once more on Burton's hit Edward Scissorhands in 1990. Price is quoted by Animation World Magazine as saying:

"[Vincent] was the most gratifying thing that ever happened. It was immortality — better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard."

Following Vincent, Burton directed a live-action short film adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, changing the theme to a Japanese style and ending the film with a kung fu fight between the title characters and the witch hunting them. Though the film only aired once and has since gone forgotten by most fans, Burton followed it up with another wildly successful live-action short film: Frankenweenie.

Combining Burton's love for gothic horror and macabre twists, the short would unfortunately end his relationship with Disney for a short while after the studio fired him for his production of Frankenweenie, claiming he spent company resources on a film too scary for children for the company to release. But thanks to his work on Frankenweenie and Vincent, Burton would move on to his next job title: Feature film director.

The Transition From Animator To Director

It would not take long for Burton to move on from Disney and up in the movie business as he would be hired to direct the first film adaptation of the hit Paul Reubens comedy character in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, in which Reubens personally chose Burton to direct after seeing his work on Vincent and Frankenweenie. Though the film was live-action, there were a few moments of animation that Burton clearly had his hand in making, especially a scene in which Large Marge's face changes from normal to a bizarre clay-looking monster done in stop-motion, as well as a sequence in which Pee-wee dreams of a stop-motion T-Rex devouring his bike, a technique Burton has used since his early days of making short movies as a kid.

"Tell 'em... Large Marge sent ya!"
"Tell 'em... Large Marge sent ya!"

Thanks to the rave reviews from critics and box office success, Burton and studio Warner Bros. started their working relationship off on the best of terms, which helped him get approval to start working on a script for a live-action film adaptation of the DC Comics hero Batman. Though Warner Bros. wasn't willing to green light the film just then, they did find another script that would be to Burton's liking after a little bit of re-working, and would become a cult hit and one of Burton's most celebrated works to date: Beetlejuice.

The supernatural comedy followed a recently deceased couple trying to scare away the new inhabitants of their home and accidentally summoning a devious ghost named Betelgeuse in the process. Burton had some input on the story ideas, but it was the visual effects and artwork where he really continued to show a style that he would become notorious for, including twisted prosthetic makeup, stop-motion animation and blue-screen effects.

Burton stated in the biographical book, Burton on Burton, that his intention for many of his movies (especially Beetlejuice) was to have the look and feel of the "cheap and purposely fake-looking" B-movies he grew up with. This can certainly be seen throughout the film as the lead characters encounter the various dead beings in the afterlife waiting room, as well as the enormous sandworms outside of the lead couple's home.

Beetlejuice was a success, helping to solidify Burton's skills as a director as well as further Michael Keaton's popularity as a character actor. The film even spawned a cartoon series loosely based on the movie that ran for four seasons, featured the theme song from composer Danny Elfman and earned a Daytime Emmy Award in 1990 for Outstanding Animated Program.

Following a second low budget hit for the studio, Warner Bros. was willing to give Burton his first big budget production for a script he and screenwriter Sam Hamm had been working on for a while: Batman. The comic book adaptation was strictly a live-action film, but it helped Burton to truly hone his dark and gothic style, which he would again transfer into its sequel and into the fan-favorite Edward Scissorhands.

Burton's next project would not only be a passion project, but would see him step off of the directing chair and reunite with Disney following his firing. That film was The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it would re-shape the animation world forever.

Animation Doesn't Have To Be Bright And Cheery

The Nightmare Before Christmas actually originated from a three page poem Burton wrote in 1982 while still under Disney's employment, and originally had the idea of turning it into a television special narrated by Vincent Price or a children's novel. After creating some concept art, storyboards and character models with production designer Rick Hendricks, as well as showing them to fellow Disney animator Henry Selick, Burton pushed for Disney to consider making it into a feature-length film, but could never properly convince them to make it before being terminated a couple years later. But after seeing Burton's success with his genre of movies as well as their own Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Disney — who still owned the rights — gave Burton and Selick a second chance to make Nightmare.

Though Burton was the driving force behind the project, he could not direct due to his commitments with Warner Bros. for Batman Returns, as well as not wanting to be involved with the painstaking process of a feature-length stop-motion film. While Burton did not have much of a hands-on producer's role in the film, Selick stated in an interview with Sight & Sound that he certainly wanted to make it "look like a Tim Burton" film.

Nightmare went on to be a major critical and commercial success upon release and in the years since, with many critics directing their praise at the film's stop-motion animation and its original twists on the Halloween, Christmas and animated genres. This success would help prove to both Disney and other studios that not only was stop-motion could be a financial success, but that animated films did not have to feature a bright and upbeat story, but rather darker twists on already popular genres.

Films such as Anastasia and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest would continue the successful streak of darker animated films in the '90s, and Burton would return to the genre with Selick for another critically successful dark fantasy stop-motion picture, James and the Giant Peach, an adaptation of the children's novel of the same name written by one of Burton's childhood heroes, Roald Dahl.

Burton would continue to keep the gothic genre alive and well over the next ten years, long enough for the director to once again return to animation in 2005 for Corpse Bride, but with one big difference: He was in the director's chair.

Corpse became yet another smash hit for both Burton and the dark fantasy genre, making nearly $120 million worldwide at the box office and earning an approval rating of 83% from critics on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes.

Before Burton returned to the film world again, he would actually take his first stab at the music video world in 2006 with the video for The Killers' song "Bones" from their second studio album, Sam's Town. Burton was able to work many of his staples into the video, including stop-motion skeletons, a completely black-and-white setting and references to many classic B-movies. Burton would return to the band in 2012 for his second music video, "Here With Me," which again featured a mostly black-and-white setting, as well as frequent collaborator Winona Ryder.

In one of the most interesting twists of all, not only did Disney and Burton come back together in the '90s to make Nightmare and James, but the major animation studio and the now seasoned director would re-team in 2012 for a feature-length, stop-motion animation adaptation of Burton's short film Frankenweenie — the short film that ended his tenure with Disney the first time around.

Frankenweenie would prove to be a huge success for Disney and Burton, earning nearly $82 million worldwide at the box office and an 87% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, not to mention being nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Picture. But more importantly, it added fuel to the growing fire that is the darker stop-motion animated films, which has grown and expanded to help companies such as Laika find and immediately connect to their target fanbases.

Laika got their start as strictly a production company for making character models for stop-motion films in the '90s and early '00s, including Nightmare and Corpse, but eventually started making their own movies in 2009 beginning with Coraline, which was directed by Selick and featured Burton as a design consultant for the film. They have since blossomed through ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings, which just recently has earned a 96% certified fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

In an interview with ParaNorman director Chris Butler for i09, he discussed that in working with Burton on Corpse Bride and Coraline, he saw Burton's love for the horror films of the 1950s with the "Universal monsters and theremin music," but that because Butler grew up in a different generation, he wanted to portray his generation's horror movies on screen.

[Burton has a distinctive style] and we see no point in aping that, because he's already doing a very good job at doing it himself.

Butler also paid some tribute to Burton as he was one of the driving forces behind Coraline, which in turned helped get Laika off the ground and get ParaNorman into production.

What we wanted to do was to take a step away from anything that had been done before and find our own voice. I think that's important to Laika. It was certainly important on 'Coraline,' to do something that we hadn't quite seem before. And the difference between 'Coraline' and this was important to us as well. That's the brand of Laika, is to do something you haven't seen before.

Even as Burton delivered his famed gothic style time-and-time again, he still delivered original and intriguing stories not thought of before, and Laika truly follows this same formula, the primary difference being the expansion in sub-genres while still using stunning stop-motion animation.

From his humble beginnings as a filmmaker from Burbank, CA with a Super 8 camera and a love for the gothic macabre to his numerous major successes working with Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton has not only made numerous hits, but has truly revitalized the stop-motion and dark fantasy genres over the years.


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