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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The World of Tim Burton

The World of Tim Burton- The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Turin- The National Museum of Cinema (Museo Nazionale del Cinema)

11.10.2023 – 7.04.2024

Inside the fascinating Mole Antonelliana, the National Museum of Cinema hosts a major retrospective of one of the most iconic directors of our time.

A journey into the visionary universe and creativity of Tim Burton: the main core of the exhibition focuses on the director’s personal archive, showing an incredible variety of his creative production.

The exhibition shows not only precious documents but also drawings and sketches with recurring visual themes and motifs from which the characters, that characterise the director’s distinctive cinematic worlds, came to life.

Tim Burton is one of the few modern filmmaking’s directors whose distinct visual aesthetic has become so universally, immediately recognisable such to be defined with a specific adjective “Burtonesque”.

Burton’s distinctive style is the result of a subjective, intimate and thoughtful approach.

His subconscious characterises his creations full of emotions and personal ties.

Tim Burton is a multimedia artist who ranges from directing, illustration, painting, writing and photography, not limited to individual media or formats.

It is difficult to define rigid categories of his filmography and his works because they are marked by dichotomies and recontractions; for the interaction of apparently distant genres such as humour and horror; the conflict between childhood and adulthood, the juxtaposition of imagination and cynicism and finally the most important and recurring theme of Tim Burton the imaginary of the "misunderstood outcast" isolated in his thoughts frequently a mix of man, a creature and a machine.

Tim Burton, untitled (Boy series),ca1980-1990,The National Museum of Cinema, Turin
Tim Burton, untitled (True Love),ca1982-83, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Tim Burton, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

The exhibition opens literally entering through a mouth of one of his weird monsters as Alice enters down the rabbit hole so we enter in the artist’s singular visual imagination, a kind of autobiography told through his creative process.

The first section of the exhibition shows us the starting of his creative process with drawings made in sketchbooks and on hotel notepad or restaurant napkins that are impulses of his restless imagination, while he was going around the world to choose the shooting locations, or to participate to film festival or publicity tours of his movies.

In these sketches, he fixed the perceptions of people and places encountered, resulting in a dream-like imagery of hyper reality.

Tim Burton,sketches, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Then follows in the exhibition his childhood and teenage works, but to understand better his process we need to know his beginning.

Born 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.

From a young age, he developed a love for Hammer horror films and B-movie sci-fi, for the Japanese kaiju (monster) movies, Expressionist movies, stop-motion animator masters George Méliès and Ray Harryhausen, and for his idol the suspense maestro Vincent Price.

Tim Burton 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 neighbourhood, and creating an illustrated children’s book of his own, The Giant Zlig, which he sent to Disney’s producers.

Tim Burton, The Giant Zlig, 1976, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin
Letter from Ms Kroger Editor Disney Productions, 1976The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Disney rejected for publication, albeit with an encouraging note that praised his still immature work: “Considering that you suffer from a lack of the proper tools and materials, 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 Disney.

After high school, Burton attended the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which was imagined by Disney as an arts school designed specifically to educate new generations of animators.

At CalArts, Burton animated several short films and developed his signature style as an illustrator of characters with amusingly exaggerated features: gangly limbs, long frizzled hair and baggy eyes.

Tim Burton depicts the physical reality not as it appears, but how it is personally felt through a distortion of perspective and human figure. His caricatures are subjective expressions of his wildly imaginative inner dialogue.

Burton got the job as an animation apprentice in Disney but for his iconoclastic and outlier style he was largely relegated to producing concept art.

This experience last four years but helped him to solidify 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 who will take him to one of early work, the short Vincent, an homage to his childhood idol the horror movies actor Vincent Price, realised with the innovative technique of the stop-motion, individually photographed frames.

Tim Burton, untitled (Vincent), 1982, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

From this moment and for the next several decades, Burton would go on to bring the world a litany of iconic films, most notably Beetlejuice (1988); Batman (1989); Batman Returns (1992); Edward Scissorhands (1990); The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) — which he produced and created but left to his fellow CalArts alum Henry Selick to direct; Mars Attacks! (1996); Sleepy Hollow (1999); Planet of The Apes (2001); Big Fish (2003); Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (2005); Corpse Bride (2005); Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007); Alice in Wonderland (2010); Big Eyes (2014); Dumbo (2019) and the series Wednesday (2022). And though most of these films are live action, they all continue to develop and expand the artistic style he expressed early on.

In the art and cinematography of Tim Burton had a profound influence the Expressionism, especially the German one of the 1920s, drawing upon what was then the still-new field of psychotherapy, that creates a dream reality, transporting the viewer into someone else’s mind and giving a psychological tension.

Examples of Expressionis features in the works of Tim Burton, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

The most distinctive features of the Expressionism are sharply exaggerated backgrounds and landscapes with high colour and light contrasts, typically relying heavily on the use of shadows and silhouettes to heighten a feeling of tension or dread. Sets with jagged edges and alternately rounded, tilted, or visually disjointed and discombobulated spaces, are another key element.

A general sense of visual distortion, the use of dialed-up colour contrasts, looming architectural shapes, and an overall sense of heightened reality, are all further key parts of the aesthetic that form basic components of a “Burtonesque” look.

Another major influence on the director is the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead accompanied by skeletons and masks of the dead, the Calaveras, and the Calacas.

Thinking back to the skeleton protagonist of Nightmare Before Christmas Jack Skellington and especially Emily, the romantic corpse bride both are depicted as a walking calaveras.

Emily, the Corpse Bride, puppet,2005,The National Museum of Cinema, Turin
Jack Skellington puppet, 1993, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Burton’s main style is Gothic inspired by art, architect, but also by Vincent Price, Edgar Allan Poe, by skeletons and cemeteries.

As a mature artist, Tim Burton’s work married his love of the surreal in his stories that stripped away the banality of everyday life.

Tim Burton, Beetle Juice,1988,The National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Vincent is normal boy feeding his love for the grotesque within quiet normal households. Sweeney Todd sees a serial killer opening up a respectable barber shop; though based on an existing musical, in Edward Scissorhands, Edward’s nightmare house is next to a normal and quiet American borough while Wednesday’s school, a dark academy, is in a normal and remote American village.

This juxtaposition is probably best exemplified in Burton’s Beetlejuice, which is an entire movie about the sinister surprise that may be lurking in your otherwise idyllic suburban neighbourhood.

This use of contradictory themes is also found in the dichotomy comedy and horror.

His imagery of twisting tongues, eyeballs coming out of their sockets, masks, jesters, clowns often accompanied by deadpan wordplay humour alludes to this dichotomous theme and evokes the concept of "carnivalesque".

Going on in the exhibition, the unique presentation of the director’s work, his unique vision that transcends media and formats, make clear as ideas, themes and even some specific images of his art ended up in the most iconic films that today we associate with the sumptuous film industry.

Tim Burton, Frankenweenie, storyboard 1982, The National Museum of Cinema, Turin



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