Timothy Walter, known to the celluloid world and his fans as Tim Burton, has enthralled us for over two decades with his brooding, haunting and enchanting locations and backdrops, real or otherwise.
His style of storytelling has always been a little twisted and a little dark, and his locations have played a huge role in producing this effect. Where Burton pulls away from other wannabes is, his aberrant stories have a universal appeal and are loved by people of all ages. Burton’s films carry his strong visual signature and can be immediately recognized by the desaturated colors, Victorian-era aesthetics and gloomy atmosphere.
Let’s dissect his art in the visual sense, by analyzing the production design of a few of his most popular films:
The film, based on the timeless legend of The Headless Horseman, is situated in a snowy region, which is a perfect setting for this medieval tale of intrigue, deception and the supernatural.
The film immerses us in the pre-Industrial Revolution era of 1800’s and creates a convincing picture of that age with gloomy ghost towns and shadowy characters. It haunts you with memorable locations like The Tree of The Dead and the foreboding bridge scene where Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) encounters the Headless Horseman for the first time.
The copious amounts of snow bring about a predominant white tone throughout; to give a psychological foreboding of ghosts, spirits and the Eternal Void. Although the film is more a thriller than a horror film, there is always a sense of creepiness, thanks to the sets which interact with the characters (like a creaky bridge or harsh winter winds howling), and thick fogs.
Alice In Wonderland
One can almost say that Alice in Wonderland is Tim Burton’s most colorful film and it silenced his detractors (or made them uneasy) who said his films look “corpse-like” orr “too grayscale”. Burton’s genius is such that he imagined a world Lewis Carroll would be proud of.
The psychedelic, surreal world of Underland has been created as if Burton took a puff of the caterpillar’s hookah himself:
This film does show Burton’s trademark gothic environments, but there is a sense of balance, of light and dark, of good and evil – which is the central theme of the film. Some parts are garishly colored and feature vividly painted characters, like the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee/Tweedledum. Everything becomes bleak when the Red Queen or Jabberwock enters. Similarly, the Mad Hatter adds a dash of color wherever he goes with the Heroine, Alice. Achieving a stark contrast between different locations of your film can demarcate and establish premises firmly.
This is one of Tim Burton’s slightly less appreciated (but most fun) films, due to its deliberate B-movie tone, reminiscent of Ed Wood’s style (we had to get it in there).
Though the film was somewhat panned, it still is a great case study. The mostly tongue-in-cheek setting of the film is of a bygone era of the 50s monster/alien drive-in movies. It sets an example of having your sets mimic those of an earlier era, though they may seem anachronistic for the moment, especially if it is a parody like this one:
Check out this video by GoldDerby, of Rick Heinrichs, production designer of Big Eyes, one of Burton’s lesser known films:
So, while the unique locations are indicative of Burton’s style, there is one more thing that truly makes a tim Burton film – Johnny Depp:
The image makes it pretty self-evident. Johnny Depp has played a large part in fleshing out Burton’s characters. Depp, an eccentric himself, plays many memorable characters from Sweeney Todd to Edward Scissorhands to Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow. The protagonists emerge from Burton’s deep, dark persona, making Depp Burton’s onscreen alter-ego.
One must also point out Burton’s beautifully composed shots – high-angle tracking shots making the viewer feel like they are in a fantasy land (be it a happy, vibrant one like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory or dystopian and dreary like Sweeney Todd or Sleepy Hollow). Also, being a master of the cinematic craft, there is hardly a dull moment in his films, camera-wise, with dolly, crane or steadicam shots making an appearance every now and then.
So, these are a few stylistic decisions you can make by consulting with your art director, or by yourself! And all the more so if you aspire to make films with Burton’s expressionist gothic style.
Here’s a cool retrospective of Tim’s body of work, put together by Sean Pultz.