A Word With: The Influences of Tim Burton - Fantasy Week


The entrance to the Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA in 2009. Photo by Michael Locasiano.

When you think of Tim Burton, famed filmmaker/magician responsible for classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, you have to wonder what inspired such a wide array of fantasy worlds from a single person. The answer may surprise you, especially if you are only familiar with his work on the silver screen. The same man who brought the children’s book James and The Giant Peach and the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd to life at the movie theater also worked in sculptures and illustrations.

Yet his signature aesthetic, long appreciated in the film world for its meticulous crafting and dark overtones, filled every corner of the “Tim Burton” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009. The exhibition featured over 700 pieces of rarely or never before seen artwork from Burton, including drawings, paintings, puppets, costumes, and more, receiving an overwhelming number of visitors during its five-month span. Assistant curator Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He, curatorial assistant to the exhibition, shared with BTR what it was like to prepare for the show and the forces that influenced what we know as the classic “Tim Burton” style.

Break Thru Radio: As curators of the Tim Burton exhibition, you got the first look at many pieces that hadn’t been seen by people other than Burton himself. What was that like, and what kind of insight do you think that gave you as to what inspired him?

Ron Magliozzi: It was like finding buried treasure, allowing us to shift the focus of the exhibition away from a familiar kind of film director profile show featuring largely props, costumes, and ephemera from his well known films and more toward the profile of an artist in the traditional, museum sense. In Tim’s case, with all the new material we’d discovered, we knew that here was a very, very popular filmmaker whose films are best understood in the context of all the other kinds of art he’s been producing through his life.

BTR: Speaking in terms of who and what influenced Tim Burton, how influential do you see the illustrator Edward Gorey having been in Burton’s body of work? Do any specific examples come to mind?

RM: Despite the fact that Tim downplays his skills as an illustrator, typically conceiving his characters on paper in signature variations of circles and triangles, his early concept art for a unrealized project like Trick or Treat (1985) reveal remarkable skill at mimicking the style of Gorey, Sendak, and Charles Addams. His drawings have been compared to Ralph Steadman as well.

Jenny He: As evidenced in the early works included in the exhibition, Burton experimented with various styles influenced by the illustrators whom he admired before he found his signature style very early on in his career. In addition to the examples that Ron notes, Burton’s early influences include Don Martin, which can be seen in Burton’s design for the Crush Litter (1975) trash truck sign.

BTR: Your exhibition also focused in on Burton’s hometown, Burbank, CA. Can you expand a bit on how the town played a role in the exhibition as well as his work?

RM: The exhibition was structured around the notion of Burbank as Burton’s muse, a place that inspired him to look for something beyond what he experienced as boring small town life. Visitors follow his career from Surviving Burbank in his youth, Beautifying Burbank as a struggling, maturing artist at Disney and in the years before his first feature, and Beyond Burbank during the period of his international stardom as a director.

JH: Los Angeles has often been referred to as a town without seasons. Growing up in Burbank, the monotony of Burton’s environs was broken up only by the seasonal decorations that popped up in his neighborhood around holidays such as Easter, Halloween and Christmas. The prominent recurrent motif of holidays in Burton’s work can be traced back to this struggle with his boring Burbank environment.

BTR: Given the large number of visitors to the MoMA for Burton’s exhibit, what do you think is the draw for so many people to Burton’s work?

RM: Tim’s audience is huge, of course, and composed of both family and cult followers. The very fact that MoMA’s exhibition contains so much unseen Burton material has attracted record-breaking numbers around the world.

BTR: For people who may have not seen the exhibition or may only know him for movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, are there any little known facts about Burton that might surprise them to know?

RM: [Burton is] more tuned into and opinionated about the state of the world than fans might expect.

JH: Visitors may be surprised to find that the works can be deeply personal and self-referential. For example, Burton’s painting The Green Man (1996–98) has been described as a memento mori, a reaction to the death of a close grandmother, the stitching on the character’s face as a symbol of self-repair. Other examples from his Creature Series include a marionette puppet acting as its own puppeteer and an octopus creature inflating its own head as its tentacles mimic paparazzi.

BTR: If you had to pick one fantasy land created by Burton you could visit for the day or even live in, which would it be?

RM: The eccentric black and white world of Ed Wood – a one of a kind of self-portrait.