Why We Love Tim Burton Films

Tim Burton
Tim Burton

In the films directed and produced by Tim Burton the most apparent characteristic is the visual style. The strange worlds and their stylized look have a design that is unique and recognizable. This style is most influenced by the German Expressionist films from the 1920’s. The highly contrasting dark and light, distorted perspectives and dark and stylize lighting reflect not only German Expressionist film but also the horror films of Universal in the 1930’s as well as science fiction B-movies of the 1950’s. This stylized look is used to some extent in all of his films, due to him being a fan of these types of films growing up. Tim Burton’s love for all things macabre, dark and bizarre has highly influenced the visual style of his films.

Vincent (1982)
Vincent (1982)

The clearest and most obvious example of his style is seen in Burton’s very first film Vincent. This stop-motion film was shot in black and white and tells the tale of a child obsessed with horror film actor Vincent Price and his imagined world he escapes to. Its jagged angles, sheared perspectives and sharp contrast are directly influenced by the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His other films are a mix of this gothic expressionist look and, on the other end of the spectrum, cartoonish and unnaturally bright colors. His first feature length film Pee-Wee’ Big Adventure is a perfect example of the combination of the two visual looks where the world Pee-Wee lives in is full of lively, bright and exaggerated colors, but in the scene with his nightmares about monsters attacking his bicycle are much darker and horrific, as well as the scene with the ghostly truck driver Large Marge, where she turns into a freakish stop-motion monster.

The ominously normal suburb
The ominously normal suburb
Edward's dark yet friendly home
Edward's dark yet friendly home

These two contrasting styles are usually implemented to illustrate the contrast between two worlds in a film. One of the best examples of this is in the film Edward Scissorhands, where the suburban world is full of exaggerated pastel colors and as set against the dark eerie castle where Edward lives. While the ‘perfect’ suburb is always bright in full sunlight, the castle is always overshadowed with clouds and gloom. This contrast demonstrates the character differences between the naïve and innocent Edward and his gentile creator and his conniving and corrupt neighbors. Another film to use light and dark contrasting worlds is The Nightmare Before Christmas, with Halloweentown consisting of dark, gloomy and twisted imagery while Christmastown is a world made up of the most colorful and dazzling Christmas clichés.

Burton's Gotham City Zoo (Batman Returns)
Burton's Gotham City Zoo (Batman Returns)

However the most interesting thing about these worlds created in Tim Burton’s films is that it’s not the bright cheerful land that is considered normal but the darker world that is normally associated with menace and horror that is used as the vessel with which to shift the viewers perspective on the sunny and bright world as just a superficial façade. In what is probably Burton’s darkest film Batman Returns there is almost no sunlight in the film and the brightest scene in the film is a scene with The Penguin, the films creepiest villain. The film itself takes the traditional action hero film ingredients and mixes them with Burton’s dark and gothic visual style. In the film Edward Scissorhands the darker monochromatic world of Edward’s castle ends up being the safer, more benign atmosphere as opposed to the suburb which turn out to be nothing more than home to corrupting teens and an angry mob that ends up running him out of town. In one of his more recent movies, the film adaptation of Rahl Dahl’s children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Tim Burton again associates the darker colorless world of Charlie’s home and life with warmth and family while the outrageously bright and colorful factory interior turns out to be a deceptively dangerous place where children are trapped and “punished.”

Beetlejuice stripes!
Beetlejuice stripes!
Sweeney Todd Stripes!
Sweeney Todd Stripes!
Jack stripes!
Jack stripes!

Batman Returns and Edward Scissorhands were the defining films of Burton’s trademark gothicism. These films established his recognizable visual style which was later used in his filmThe Nightmare Before Christmas. Most noticeable was the close similarity between this film and his first film Vincent. Burton uses many trademark visuals that are specific to his films. One of these are the use of contrasting vertical stripes. This is seen in costumes such as the character Beetlegeuse in the film Beetlejuice, Jack Skellington’s outfit in The Nightmare Before Christmas and on Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett’s beach attire in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as well as in many of the sets in his various films. A lot of the wallpaper in his films have this same pattern, the wallpaper in Sweeney Todd’s tonsorial parlor for example. The tall vertical stripes are also implied with many objects in his films as well. The forest in The Corpse Bride is a perfect example of this where all the trees trunks are straight up and down with most trees having no curvature. Many structures in his films are unnaturally tall and blank such as the house in Beetlejuice and the bank in Edward Scissorhands and many of the interiors of the living world in The Corpse Bride. The tall vertical shapes are usually only used in the “normal” worlds of Tim Burton’s films to create a looming and ominous atmosphere.

Planet of the Apes Helmet swirls!
Planet of the Apes Helmet swirls!
Nightmare B4 Xmas hill swirl!
Nightmare B4 Xmas hill swirl!
Mars Attacks alien swirls!
Mars Attacks alien swirls!

Another one of his visual signatures is the use of unnaturally shaped swirls which are probably most usually associated with Tim Burton. The most notable example of this has to be the curly hill in the graveyard in The Nightmare Before Christmas which unravels as Jack Skellington walks down it. These peculiar curls are seen a lot throughout the film in tree branches, fences and many other places. It is a recurring shape in many of his films especially in patterns on clothing and surfaces, like on the wrapping paper on presents wrapped by the Halloweentonwsfolk in Nightmare, on the Martian’s costumes in Mars Attacks, and on the helmets worn by the warriors in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. This shape is used mainly to give a more whimsical and eccentric feel to the scene and give it a bit more fantasy-like impression. The swirls are commonly used in movie posters and advertising for Tim Burton films being that it is so often associated with him that when people see that pattern they normally identify it as Tim Burton-esque. With the posters for the films Big FishCorpse Bride,Planet of the Apes, etc. the swirls are used because the advertising companies know that when fans see this they will automatically assume it’s a Burton film.

Dark crazed Sweeney Todd
Dark crazed Sweeney Todd
Bright crazed Willy Wonka
Bright crazed Willy Wonka

The makeup in his films is also unique to his style. The pale skin and the dark eyes and lips are seen in most of his films, most notably in his more recent film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This makeup style is reminiscent of the old silent films and Universal’s horror films of the 30’s that Burton is such a fan of. It is used to add to the gloomy atmosphere and sometimes added to characterize different aspects of characters’ personalities. The makeup on Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd is used to give him a troubled and haunted look while Depp’s makeup as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while similar (pale skin and dark eyes), was altered to give him a more eccentric and somewhat crazed appearance.

These many unique visual styles that Burton implements in his films has made him one of the most visionary directors of our time with a style that is recognizable and both beautiful and dark. Although many directors have tried to duplicate this style there is something that only Tim Burton himself can deliver that brings the magic of a childlike fantasy mixed with a gothic atmosphere to any otherwise ordinary everyday plot or subject.

{this was originally a report for my film analysis class}

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Comments 2 comments

thelurkingmerchan profile image

thelurkingmerchan 6 years ago from San Diego

Hooray for film studies class!


lewis goodman profile image

lewis goodman 21 months ago

you didn't mention Ed wood. why?

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