Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips From Tim Burton

It takes more than just putting “esque” after your last name.
Tim Burton
yakub88 / Shutterstock.com
By  · Published on September 29th, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Tim Burton.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Tim Burton. This was the early 1990s, and he’d still done no wrong in my book. I actually applied to the CalArts animation program with hopes of going on to work at Disney and then from there make my own twisted fantasy films. But just following in his footsteps wouldn’t have made me the success that he is (I’d actually probably be working for the then-unknown Pixar instead). It wouldn’t have gotten me a reputation for a unique style referred to as “Campbellesque.”

Burton is someone that can be copied, in a parodic sense, but there’s only one man who can and should make “Burtonesque” movies, and that’s him. However, there are still lessons to be learned from the man behind Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and now Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. These filmmaking tips, concerning passion, style, perspective, and more may get you a big superhero movie on only your third job or a lot of money from a studio that fired you early in your career.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Tim Burton

1. Do It Because It’s Your Passion

Burton didn’t always want to be a filmmaker, but once he found himself lucky enough to direct movies ‐ and he does consider it luck ‐ that became his outlet as a passionate artist. From a 2012 interview in Scholastic’s Art magazine:

It’s best just to have passion. If your passion turns into something that somebody else likes and wants, great. But if it doesn’t, at least you have it. Go with your instincts. If you’re sitting in class and you want to be a filmmaker, go make a film. You can do it. The tools are there.

There’s a line in Ed Wood spoken by Vincent D’Onofrio playing Orson Welles: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams.” Many quotation sites attribute the statement to Burton himself, and it makes sense since it does seem to fit his own attitude.

Here he is directing giving the tip to the audience at a 2005 screening event at the Film Society of Lincoln Center:

2. Relate to Everything You Do

If Burton is to be aligned with the statement that you shouldn’t make other people’s dreams, then it makes sense that while he’s been a director for hire plenty of times, he always manages to still make a Tim Burton film. It’s not about adapting to the project but finding projects that can adapt to him. From a 1991 interview by David Breskin reprinted in the book “Tim Burton: Interviews” (and also reprinted on Breskin’s website here):

Whether or not it’s your thing [the story and screenplay], you have to walk into a picture feeling like it’s your thing. I walked into Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and I felt one hundred percent connected to it. I understood it and it was mine, even though here was a character that was already created. I couldn’t have done it ‐ even with the chance of doing a first film ‐ unless that feeling was one hundred percent there.

He continued on the thought in a conversation and Q&A at a 2003 Museum of the Moving Image event (transcribed here):

I mean, I think you have to relate everything to what you do, just because that’s your only reference of how to get something done and achieve something, so… Yeah, you know, you try to ‐ I actually identify with every character on some level, even if it’s a dog or a woman or any kind of character. Or a bird or an ape or… You know, whatever. It’s like, you try to just relate to it.

He explains his decisions to do Batman and Alice in Wonderland in this promotion for his Museum of Modern Art exhibit in 2009:

3. Don’t Let Anyone Tell You How Something Should Be Done

Burton has his influences, of course, but he doesn’t make movies that can be mistaken for anyone else’s. This distinct style may have come about because he’s always been about doing things his own way, not following the “rules” of art as dictated by teachers or anyone else.

He’s often told a variation of his story about having an epiphany about his own talent and style while at CalArts. Here’s a version he gave his longtime collaborator Danny Elfman in a 2010 interview for Interview magazine:

It was at the farmers’ market. We went out to draw people. I was sitting there, getting really frustrated trying to draw the way they were telling me to draw. So I just said, “Fuck it.” I truly felt like I had taken a drug and my mind had suddenly expanded. It’s never happened to me again quite that same way. From that moment on, I just drew a different way. I didn’t draw better, I just drew differently. It freed me up to not really care. It reminds me of when you’re drawing as a child. Children’s drawings all look pretty cool. But at some point, kids get better at drawing, or they say, “Oh, I can’t draw anymore.” Well, that’s because someone told you that you couldn’t ‐ it doesn’t mean that you can’t. It taught me to stick to what’s inside of me, to let that flourish in the best way it can. I’ve been waiting for that feeling to come back ever since, and it hasn’t yet. At least it happened once. [laughs] It literally happened at that moment; the drawings changed right there.

It’s worth noting that on rare occasions he acknowledges that someone at CalArts was in agreement with his epiphany. From the Art interview:

One day I was sketching at a farmers’ market. I was very frustrated about my inability to draw accurately. Then I remembered one of my teachers saying, “Don’t worry about how you should draw it. Just draw it the way you see it.” And in that moment, I thought, “Well, that’s it. I don’t care how good or bad I am. This is how I do it, and that’s it.”

In the below video, Tim Burton participates in a 2010 TIFF Master Class with animation students, watching and critiquing their work, and at the point bookmarked here he answers a question about finding your style while at school. Burton says, “It’s best not to think about it…do what you want to do, and that will create your own style.”

4. Have a Childlike Perspective and Sense of Wonder

Burton’s films tend to be so fantastical that even when they’re dark they seem to be from a mind in tune with his inner child. So, it makes sense that he believes artists should take that sort of point of view. He touches on the idea when talking about being a father to Elfman in the Interview magazine interview:

Obviously, you get more grounded, but at the same time it gets more surreal. And it’s nice to reconnect to those abstract feelings. It’s good as an artist to always remember to see things in a new, weird way. It’s like weird, twisted poetry, the way kids perceive things. And quite beautiful sometimes. They kind of blow your mind and ground you at the same time.

He says the same thing in a 2009 appearance on Charlie Rose but elaborates:

as an artist you always want to try to see things in, you know, a new way. And you never want to lose that. And that’s what I remember seeing a Matisse retrospective at MOMA many years ago, and it just blew me away. I just saw that journey of somebody finding ‐ going back ‐ you know, spending their life going back to try to find that simplicity, purity.

Charlie Rose: You know what I was thinking as you were saying this is to whether if you are going to be a great artist, somehow you have to revert to the same childlike wonder about how things are.

Tim Burton: Yes, and you know —

Charlie Rose: And you take yourself back to a blank canvas.

Tim Burton: And I think people ‐ it has a negative connotation. Some people say “He just wants to remain a child” which is kind of infantile, which is not the case. It’s the thing of maintaining that spirit of seeing things ‐ you know, being surprised by life in an amazing way. It’s, like, people that lose that, they’re really losing part of their life, really.

Watch the whole interview here:

Tim Burton at the MoMA – Charlie Rose

5. Work With People You Like, But Prioritize the Best Person for the Job

Burton works with many of the same people, on and off screen. He’s been criticized for casting his friend Johnny Depp and his ex-partner Helena Bonham Carter. His movies don’t feel completely Burtonesque unless they have a score by Danny Elfman. But he’s regularly asked about his apparent repertory, and he insists he doesn’t have an obligation or biased preference to working with the same people. Here’s his response in a 2012 interview for the New York Times on the subject:

[Sighs.] I don’t want to respond to criticism I hear. People that go, “Oh, he’s using her again,” or “He’s using him again.” I’ve enjoyed pretty much everybody I’ve worked with. But it’s good to mix it up. If somebody’s right for the part ‐ I’ve worked with them? Fine. Haven’t? Fine.

He told BlackFilm.com in 2005, while promoting the Depp-led Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

Well, I mean I love working with [Depp], but I don’t think either he or I would just make a movie just to make a movie together. I think we’re friends enough that if the part was right and he was into it, of course we’d always [do it].

And here is in a 2005 interview for About.com when asked specifically if he’d ever dare not cast Bonham Carter:

I wouldn’t just cast her to cast her the same way I wouldn’t cast Johnny or anybody that I love working with just to have them in the movie. You always want it to be the right thing, the right role, and I think she understands that. Most of the people I work with understand that.

Not that he denies having a preference for working with his friends. Burton was asked by an audience member at the Museum of the Moving Image event if he likes working with people he’s worked with before better, or working with new actors. He replied:

Well, both. You know, what’s fun about working with somebody like Johnny [Depp], whom I’ve worked with three times, is that you get to see them do different things each time. And that’s a real energy that’s unique to that specific kind of thing. When you work with people that like playing characters, it’s a lot of fun to see them change…it’s just a lot of fun.”

At the same event, during the interview segment, he expanded the topic to address people he works with off camera:

there are a few people that you have to like, because they’re around you all the time, and it’s part of your whole thing. So, it’s nice to like the DP and the art director, and all. But no, you go with somebody that ‐ you look a little bit at other people’s work, but not too much. It’s a little bit about how you relate to them, and… It’s like making up a relationship quickly. It’s like that. [It’s] got to be kind of that deep.

Watch Burton and Depp discuss working together in 2010 on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross:

6. Don’t Have Any Expectations

In the New York Times interview, he discusses his immediate success in Hollywood with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice but points out they each were on some critics’ lists of the worst movies of their year. He says, “I learned quite early on: don’t get too excited, don’t get too complacent, don’t get too egotistical.”

Later in the same interview, he responds to the idea that he might be hoping for an Oscar with a comment on how he doesn’t expect anything in his career:

I didn’t say early on, “I’m going to become a filmmaker,” “I’m going to show my work at MoMA.” When you start to think those things, you’re in trouble. Surprises are good. They become rarer and rarer as you go on. But anything like that is special. I’m not Woody Allen yet.

But he immediately sort of contradicts that statement:

I think it’s wise to plan ahead. Start early ‐ plan your funeral now. It’s not a morbid thought. If you want something to happen in a certain way, especially the last thing, you might as well.

Here’s Burton in 1992 talking about making Batman Returns and trying not to have expectations about it or try to mimic the success of his first Batman:

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Not surprisingly from such a singular, visionary filmmaker like Burton, his advice concerns doing what you want to do, making other people’s stories your own, and not worrying about success or failure. The biggest surprise is perhaps that he claims to only use Johnny Depp when the project needs Johnny Depp. But there’s much that’s not highlighted here, and if you especially want some tips on becoming an animator, do watch all the above videos in full. If his movies still aren’t doing it for you, these interviews at least should inspire you and make you believe in him again.

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.