Becoming The Master Of The Macabre: A Look At Tim Burton’s Early Career And Work

From the very beginning, it was obvious that there was something darkly different about Tim Burton. The boy from Burbank, Calif. — who turns 57 this week — grew up inhaling morbid curiosities from the likes of Vincent Price, Ray Harryhausen, and Edgar Allen Poe. His sphere of influence would later go on to spur Burton to create fantastically ghoulish creations in films like Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas, but, even as a young man, it was clear that he had a unique vision inherent to his own.

“You’re put into categories from day one,” he said in a 1992 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “I never thought of myself as different, but, if you hear it enough times and you start thinking of yourself that way, you start moving to the side to let the ‘normal’ people through.”

Burton was only 13 years old when he created his first animated project, The Island of Doctor Agor, but, even before he was a teenager, he was creating 8mm horror films in his own backyard. His talent scored him a scholarship at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, and, while at the school, he created two defining shorts that would help him win an apprenticeship at Disney Animation: Stalk of the Celery Monster, and King and Octopus.

During his final year at Cal Arts, Burton also created this live-action short, Doctor of Doom, which plays with the tropes of horror cinema.

Stalk of the Celery Monster, which contains a mad scientist (i.e. dentist) theme that would pervade his later work, in particular, gained the attention of Disney Animation, and he was brought on board to help their feature-length work. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on the way you look upon it, Burton found the work of being a Disney animator incredibly dull. Being commissioned to work on Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron proved difficult for the man with the darker sensibilities.

”At first I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ but once I got into it,” Burton said, “I realized I wasn’t cut out for it. I didn’t have the patience, and I didn’t like what they were doing.”

Sensing that Burton’s talent was being misused on their future-length work, Disney allowed the animator to stretch his limbs a bit, and gave him room to create his own projects. Burton’s first work was the brilliant Vincent, which followed a young boy obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Price. The character was very close to Burton’s own persona.

After Vincent, The Disney Channel aired Hansel and Gretel, Burton’s first foray into live-action. The short film aired on Halloween night in 1983, and Burton’s signature style was beginning to develop into a distinctive vision.

His final film during his time at Disney was Frankenweenie, which he would later go on to build into a feature-length project in 2012.

Frankenweenie spelled the end of Burton’s run with Disney; the animation company deemed the film too “dark” for children, and released him from his contract without ever putting out the short work. But, when one door closes, another opens. Paul Reubens, who was busy writing the script for what would become the first Pee-wee Herman film, attained a copy of Frankenweenie and was astounded by Burton’s talent. Ruben spoke to Interview about the moment he knew Burton would be perfect to direct the first Pee-wee film.

I went to a party, and somebody at the party had just seen Frankenweenie [1984], Tim Burton’s short film that he made for Disney. Shelley Duvall was in Frankenweenie, and I knew Shelley, and so I called Shelley and she said, “Oh my god, Paul, you and he are so perfect together.” When I screened the short film the next day, I knew in the first six shots that I wanted him to do it. It was absolutely incredible.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was the start of the Burton era, and the director-animator would go on to create iconic staples of cinema like his dark vision of Batman and Edward Scissorhands. Burton’s visionary creations are rivaled by few in Hollywood, and with Beetlejuice 2 on the way, one can only hope that he continues to gift us with his brand of morbidity for years to come. No matter how unique, grotesque, and bizarre his work is, though, you can trace the impetus of this maestro of the macabre back to a backyard in Burbank, where a young boy obsessed with the darker side of cinema sharpened his brush on the backs of vampires, villains, and ghouls.