Tim Burton Analysis

I got most of this information from the Bell Lightbox Tim Burton Secondary School Guide.  It is a quick history of the works of Tim Burton, with a look at some major influences in his life.

Here is one of Burton’s first films, Vincent.

Vincent is a perfect introduction to the works of Tim Burton in that it incorporates elements of all his major artistic influences, from Dr. Seuss and Edgar Allan Poe through to the B movies he watched as a child growing up in suburban Burbank: (Guide)

Vincent Price, Edgar Allan Poe, those monster movies, those spoke to me. You see somebody going through that anguish and that torture – things you identify with – and it acts as a kind of therapy, a release. . . . That’s what the Vincent thing really was for me. The film just goes in and out of Vincent’s own reality. He identifies and believes that he’s Vincent Price, and you see the world through his eyes. It clicks in and out of reality so to speak, and it ends with a quote from The Raven. (Burton on Burton, pp. 16–17)

Who is Vincent Price?  He was a famous actor, well known for his unique voice and his many parts in horror films.  If you have heard the song Thriller, by Michael Jackson, you will recognize his voice as he narrates for part of it and has this maniacal laughter in it.
Here is Price in The Raven.

The character of Vincent is a precursor to so many of Burton’s later protagonists for whom creativity serves as a saving grace. The theme of the misunderstood and tormented artist is one that resonates in almost all of his films, particularly Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. While Vincent lives in a home with his mother, sister, dog and cat (curiously, there is no mention of a father, another theme running through Burton’s work), he imagines his suburban bedroom to be a “tower of doom” and his mother’s flower bed to be his wife’s grave. In the imaginary world of Tim Burton, the suburbs are more foreboding and dangerous than any haunted house in a horror film, and people prove to be far more freakish than anything a mad scientist could dream up. It is thus not surprising that, from Vincent’s point of view (both literally and figuratively), adults appear not as whole human beings but as torsos without heads. The relationship between Vincent and his mother also represents the struggle between the world of reason and the world of imagination, another recurring motif in Burton’s work. (Guide)

A) Discussion Questions (Vincent)
1. Why might Tim Burton have been attracted to Corman’s films as a kid growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s?
2. Do you think these films would have the same sort of appeal to today’s teenagers? Why or why not?
3. Why do you think the suburbs could be considered to be a scary place for artistic people?
4. What other Burton films can you name that feature misunderstood creative characters?

Much of Burton’s visual style is influenced by the horror films he watched growing up. Many of those films were, in turn, influenced by the expressionist style of early German cinema in the 1920s. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Golem, with their thematic emphasis on tortured mental states and people alienated from reality, used visual distortions to convey the way the characters were feeling internally. To that end, the sets, acting and costumes were treated in an abstract manner rather than a realistic one. This mood was effected through various techniques, such as the use of mirrors, glass and other reflective surfaces to distort images, as well as the employment of chiaroscuro lighting, which uses extreme contrasts of light and dark to create dramatic shadows. Human figures were not treated realistically but rather as part of the overall set design. Animals and other non-human objects, on the other hand, were often portrayed anthropomorphically and given human form or other human characteristics or
behaviours. (Guide)

This was made in 1984, when Burton was working for Walt Disney pictures.  He co-wrote it and was the director.

In many ways, Frankenweenie is a reworking of the 1931 film version of Frankenstein directed by Frank Whale and its 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. The Victor Frankenstein of Frankenweenie seeks to bring his beloved dog, Sparky, back to life after he is killed in an accident. Applying the lessons he learns in science class to his own personal laboratory, Victor pieces Sparky back together and uses electrical currents to reanimate him. The resulting product is a dog that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Boris Karloff version of the Frankenstein monster. The reconstituted Sparky is just as loyal and affectionate as the original pet, but his grotesque appearance sparks fear among the neighbours who band together to demand his destruction. The film culminates in a scene similar to the climax of Whale’s version of Frankenstein, in which the monster is driven into a windmill that is set alight. However, in the Burton version, the windmill is part of a mini-golf course in the middle of suburbia. Like so many of Burton’s later films, the suburbs and the people who inhabit them ultimately prove to be far more threatening and dangerous than the so-called monsters they seek to destroy. In contrast to the mindless mob that acts out of fear and ignorance, Sparky proves to be a selfless hero who sacrifices his own life to save Victor from the burning windmill. In a significant departure from the original story (and from his own later films), Burton concludes Frankenweenie on a redemptive note, with the townspeople recognizing the error of their ways after they see the lengths Sparky goes to in saving his master. Moreover, Sparky is rewarded by finding true love in the form of a poodle whose fur uncannily resembles that of Elsa Lanchester’s hairdo in Bride of Frankenstein. While the visual similarities between Frankenstein and Frankenweenie are unmistakable, it is important to note that Burton did not set out to link the two films directly. Rather, he says the look of Frankenweenie is informed by his memories of seeing the film as a child and the impressions he was left with afterwards: (Guide)

It’s very, very important to me, even though there are feelings from Frankenstein, that I do not make a direct linkage to it. In anything I have ever done, people have always said, “That’s like this sequence in that movie,” and it may be true. But something that‟s always been very important to me is not to make a direct linkage. . . . In fact, if I ever
use a direct link to something, I try to make sure in my own mind that it’s not a case of  “Let’s copy that.” Instead, it’s, “Why do I like that, what’s the emotional context in this new format?” . . . It’s more like it’s being filtered through some kind of remembrance. (Burton on Burton,pp. 33–34)

According to IMDB, Frankenweenie is being remade and will be released in the middle of 2012.  It will be 3-D and will be in black and white, like the original.  Of course, Burton is the director.

(B) Discussion Questions (Frankenweenie)
1) How is the neighbourhood where Victor lives depicted? Contrast the setting with the people who inhabit this neighbourhood. What comment is Burton making about suburbia?
2) List some of the typical horror film conventions (e.g., digging up dead bodies) that Burton uses in the film.  How does he manipulate these conventions to humorous effect?
3) Frankenweenie was given a PG rating, making it impossible for Disney to release it as a short film accompanying the re-release of the animated classic Pinocchio.  The problem, according to Disney, was the “tone” of Frankenweenie rather than its content.  What do you think they meant by this?  Do you agree that the film is not suitable for younger children?  Why or why not?

The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories

Published in 1997, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories is a collection of 23 illustrated stories, most of which are written in verse. The collection is available in its entirety here. The stories are populated with child and adolescent outsiders who are instantly recognizable as Burton creations. Combining humour with a strong element of the macabre, Burton manages to capture the anguish of feeling awkward and alienated (especially in matters of love) in a way that will resonate with a high school audience. (Guide)

(C) Discussion Questions: Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories
Read the following 2 short stories from his short stories and answer the questions below:
i) Toxic Boy

ii) Mummy  Boy

1) What theme do these stories explore?  Are they linked at all?
2) How do the illustrations convey the mood and theme of each story?
3) What does Burton seem to be suggesting about society in general through these characters?
4)  How does Burton create sympathy toward these misfits and outcasts?

Introducing Mise en Scène
Literally translated, “mise en scène” means “put into the scene.” The term was first applied to the direction of stage plays, but in the context of the moving image, it refers to both the content of what is filmed and the way in which it has been filmed. Listed below are the primary elements of mise en scène that you need to consider in relation to their significance and function within the narrative. By breaking down individual shots and analyzing specific design features, you can begin to think about film in a more abstract and complex manner. (Guide)
Lighting and Cinematography
The director of photography (DP) is responsible in large measure for the overall “look” of a film. Lighting is a key component of a film’s visual landscape, and the decision to highlight something with bright lights brings it to the audience’s attention. Alternatively, the decision to film something with low-key lighting creates a sense of foreboding and danger. Burton is renowned for his stark contrasts between night and day scenes, as well as light and dark shots within each of these scenes. Part of his brilliance is the way in which he subverts the traditional meanings associated with each. For example, the suburbs in all of Burton’s films are bathed in sunlight. However, rather than signifying the wholesomeness we’ve come to expect from this familiar sitcom image, this brightly lit universe always proves to be at best stifling and at worst downright toxic. In contrast, the gloomily lit settings, such as the mansion overlooking the town in Edward Scissorhands, are often places of sanctuary rather than horror. Cinematography also encompasses features such as camera framing (shot type, camera
positioning and camera angles) and camera movement (e.g., panning, tracking, tilting, etc.). (Guide)
Setting and Props
Far from being simply a background feature, the location of a film is integral to creating a particular atmosphere and building the narrative. For example, Burton says the studiobuilt Gotham City in Batman was designed to complement and reinforce the nature of Batman’s character: (Guide)
Every time I do anything I start with the character. Batman’s character likes the dark and wants to remain in the shadows, so it’s a city at night without many day scenes. Everything is meant to support these characters, so every decision we make is based on that, running it by the character almost, and making sure it’s okay with what that character’s about. (Burton on Burton, p. 76)

“Props” refer to the objects used in the world of a film, and like the setting, they play an integral role in the narrative. They may also hold symbolic meaning. For example, the scissors that Edward has for hands in Edward Scissorhands are symbolic of his inability to connect with people without hurting them. The scissors can also be seen in a larger context as the embodiment of the positive and negative aspects of creative characters. Edward’s scissors are responsible for the topiary creations that all the neighbours want, but they are also responsible for injuring the face of the person he most wants to touch. (Guide)

Colour Palette/Tonal Range
Like lighting, the colour palette contributes to the overall mood of the film and functions metaphorically to convey themes. Just as Burton’s films play with light and shadow, so too do they rely on sharp contrasts between vibrant colours and muted tones. For example, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contrasts the muted colours of Charlie‟s world with the vivid colours of the chocolate factory. Similarly, the suburban neighbourhood in Edward Scissorhands is rendered in pastel hues, whereas Edward’s castle is depicted in dark, earthy tones. Students should consider how these colour schemes help to convey the themes of each film. (Guide)

Costumes and Makeup
Not only do the costumes and makeup the characters wear give the viewer an immediate clue about their personalities, but they also place the viewer in a particular historical and cultural context. In Burton’s universe, appearances are not always as they seem and clothes don’t always “make the man.” In Edward Scissorhands, for example, Edward’s goth clothes and wild hair belie the polite, gentle soul beneath the forbidding exterior. Moreover, Edward’s goth look is decidedly out of keeping with the other characters whose clothes and makeup seem better suited to the 1950s. (Guide)

Movement, Positioning and Performance
Where a character appears in the frame privileges his or her position within the film. A viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to the characters who appear in the foreground. Characters who appear off to the side or dwarfed by the setting around them send the message that they are not of particular consequence to the narrative. Where one character stands in relation to another can also give the viewer an indication of the nature of their relationship. For example, creating a physical distance between two characters can be an indication of the emotional distance between them. Performance elements include non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. By focusing on almost imperceptible changes in expression, such as the hint of a smile or the arch of an eyebrow, close-up shots allow the actor to convey a subtler range of emotions. Likewise, the way a character stands and moves reveals something
about their personality. A character who slouches is immediately perceived by the viewer as someone who lacks confidence. In contrast, a character with good posture gives the impression of confidence. (Guide)

(D) Discussion Questions Introducing Mise en Scène Edward Scissorhands
Watch the first 10 minutes of Edward Scissorhands

1) What kinds of differences do you notice between the first 5 minutes of the clip and the 5 minutes after that?  Specifically, discuss the lighting and colour differences of the 2 scenes.
2) What was a camera point of view that was of interest to you in one of the scenes?  Why?  What did the point of view bring to the character or background?
3) What themes are introduced in these scenes?  How are the themes explored?
4) How do the settings and props serve the overall function of the narrative? How does thesetting relate to the themes explored in the film?



Salisbury, Mark, ed.

Burton on Burton, rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.

Starkman, Susan.  Secondary School Study Guide Tim Burton, 2010.


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