Tim Burton

‘Burtonesque’: Breaking Down the Gothic Cinematic Style of Tim Burton

How do you describe the work of Tim Burton? Easy—you describe them as “Burtonesque”.

If you watch films like BeetlejuiceEdward Scissorhands, or Corpse Bride, it’s quite clear that they were all directed by the same comically macabre individual, Tim Burton. Experiencing his brand of cinema is a lot like walking into an abandoned amusement park, or a haunted carnival, or a nightmarish circus—it’s entertaining—and even endearing at times, but it’s also extremely dark and deeply disturbing. His style is so unique that he has joined the ranks of filmmakers whose names have made the transition from moniker to adjective, like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Alfred Hitchcock. In this video essay, Fandor’s Philip Brubaker defines exactly what “Burtonesque” is, from the concept of the “heroic loner” to his surrealistic humor.

Burton’s body of work has gone through several changes throughout his career, but the “esque” of his style really comes from his earlier work from the late 80s to the mid-late 90s. Films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and his two contributions to the Batman franchise contain a number of his narrative tropes, as well as his iconic Gothic/idyllic imagery.

In terms of the narrative, Burton’s films, at least from this time, tend to feature a protagonist that Brubaker calls the “heroic loner”, which is quite a departure from the traditional underdog hero that was (and still is) popular in films in that Burton’s heroes aren’t lowly nerds that desire companionship or acceptance from others in their community. His heroes are lowly nerds/goths/super crime fighters that are 100% happy with their lonely existence secluded from others. In Brubaker’s own words:

Burton’s heroic characters are troubled loners, isolated from the rest of the world. But some of them like it that way. Batman is a recluse, as is Edward Scissorhands. Pee-wee Herman is a happy loner.

In terms of cinematic style, Burton’s films are—interesting. They’re dark, demented, and nightmarish, but they also have a strange innocence and element of childlike wonder, too. He creates a dichotomy between the Gothic and idyllic—the dark and the light—but since it’s Burton, the darks and lights are warped by the funhouse mirror of his creativity. In Beetlejuice, the dichotomy is between down home (and recently deceased) couple Adam and Barbara and the pretentious big city Deetz family. In Edward Scissorhands, it’s between artificial leather-clad man with scissors for hands Edward and a (seemingly) artificial bubblegum pop suburban town.

As time went on, though, Burton’s style changed—it became less edgy, less dark, less Gothic. Even when he did make a return to form, like with Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland, it almost felt like Tim Burton was trying to make a “Tim Burton film”, but wasn’t quite getting it right. However, films like Big Eyes, Big Fish, and the newly released Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which are much more commercial and deviate greatly from his early work, do contain bits and pieces of that “Burtonesque” style that made his films so iconic.

Burton grew up identifying with moody iconoclasts — and developing an art style to match

Born in 1958 in Burbank, California, Burton grew up with an inverse relationship to his surroundings. Where Burbank was sunny and benign, Burton was moody, interested in the dark and the macabre. When other kids played ball and rode bicycles, he hung out in cemeteries and wax museums. He developed a love for Hammer horror films and B-movie sci-fi. He seemed to channel these sensibilities into his art, displaying a penchant for exaggerated caricatures and illustrations influenced by a range of pop art from advertising to children’s illustrators to comics.

By age 15, he was winning local advertising art contests, shooting creepy 8mm films around his neighborhood, and creating an illustrated children’s book of his own — which Disney, incidentally, rejected for publication, albeit with an encouraging note. Disney told Burton that “the art is very good. The characters are charming and imaginative, and have sufficient variety to sustain interest.” It would be the start of a long and sometimes contentious relationship with the Mouse.

After high school, Burton attended the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, which opened in 1961, partly out of the last great vision of Walt Disney himself. Disney died in 1966, but his brother and nephew were both on the school’s founding board of trustees. Disney had imagined an arts school designed specifically to educate new generations of animators, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the school began admitting students into a program to teach character animation.

A year later, in 1976, Burton joined the new animator program, becoming one of a now-legendary era of CalArts animators who would collectively go on to profoundly impact the next four decades of animation. These included famed Disney animator Glen Keane, The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick, Brave director Brenda Chapman, and Lion King director Rob Minkoff. He described them to Vanity Fair in 2014 as “a collection of outcasts,” a group of artists who were united by general nerdiness and a shared excitement about taking artistic risks and experimenting. (Incidentally, another figure who’d play a significant role in Burton’s career, Paul Reubens a.k.a Pee-wee Herman, was also on the campus studying theater at the same time.)

The Vanity Fair CalArts profile reports a steady blur of wild parties, dark senses of humor, and perpetual impromptu performance art — all of which Burton essentially blended into his personal brand. “One year [for Halloween] I did a bunch of makeup, and when I woke up, my face was stuck to the floor,” he recalled. “So it was sickening, really, but it’s one of my few fond memories.” This seems to be a representative picture of the era at CalArts’ character animation department, and of Burton himself.

Burton’s early career at Disney was difficult — but it set the tone for everything after

At CalArts, Burton animated several short films and developed his signature style as an illustrator of characters with amusingly exaggerated features. One of his student works, a partly silent animated short called Stalk of the Celery Monster, once again earned him attention from Walt Disney Studios, which brought him on as an animation apprentice after his graduation from CalArts in 1980, drawing mainly concept art and models for features.

At CalArts, Burton’s general air of weirdness was essentially encouraged by the prevailing spirit of the era. But at Disney, where he worked for four years, Burton’s iconoclastic style frequently made him an outlier, and he was largely relegated to producing concept art for films like 1981’s The Fox and the Hound and 1983’s The Black Cauldron. The work went unused. “I couldn’t even fake the Disney [art] style,” he wrote later in the book Burton on Burton.

Speaking about that era of Disney to Vanity Fair, Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles) described it as a generational clash. “As Disney’s top-tier guys retired, the people running things became the businesspeople and the middle-level animation artists who had been there awhile,” Bird said. “They just wanted to sit back and coast on the Disney reputation while we younger guys were on fire, full of the ideas that the old-master Disney guys inspired in us. Now we were the ones thinking outside the box.” In the same article, Glen Keane recalled Burton hiding in a coat closet for hours.

But Burton didn’t just mope around. While at Disney, he solidified his own unique art style, with its weirdly elongated shapes and people, and a touch of the maudlin, the gothic, and the slightly off-kilter. He developed the concepts for a number of films that Disney initially rejected — including The Nightmare Before Christmas. He did, however, manage to produce a few works for Disney that showcased what would later become hallmarks of his instantly recognizable art style. The most notable is probably a short film called Vincent — based on Burton’s own childhood, including his idealization of the actor Vincent Price, known for his appearances in horror films.

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One of Tim Burton’s Halloween costumes made by his mother

Vincent (1982) combines Burton’s burgeoning visual aesthetic with his lifelong love of the macabre and interest in stop-motion animation. Narrated by Price himself, the film displays much of Burton’s trademark weirdnesslike misunderstood goth kids in suburbia, and an obsession with dark subjects that manifests in unconventional ways. It’s also atypically dark for an animated Disney film of the era and was never individually released. (It later showed up as a package with some versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas.)

Following Vincent, Burton’s independent artistic forays met with less success. Disney produced his next short film, Frankenweenie, about a boy who tries to bring his small dog back from the dead, in 1984 — but then immediately fired him. “When he made the film in 1984, I don’t think Disney knew what to do with him,” said producer Don Hahn, who’d worked with Burton back in his Disney days, in a 2012 interview with Yahoo UK. “It’s like, ah, here’s this really interesting guy who’s making these really rangy black-and-white movies. Let’s let him go.” Burton revived Frankenweenie as a feature-length film in 2012, which Hanh produced.

After leaving, Burton quickly caught an amazing break: His old classmate Paul Reubens, now better known as his alter ego Pee-Wee Herman, had seen Vincent and asked Burton to direct a big-screen adaptation of his character. Burton, who had directed one live-action piece while at Disney, 1983’s Hansel and Gretel, was game for any project that would let him continue to express his particular style, and agreed. 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure grossed $40 million on a budget of less than $7 million, and launched Burton’s prolific career as a film director.