An interview with Tim Burton from Wired, in which the filmmaker discusses the new generation of 3D cinema, original ideas vs. remakes, his creative process in creating characters, and anthropomorphic objects, among other topics:
Wired: How did you find a life’s worth of work to give to the MoMA?
Tim Burton: I’m not a very organized person. Luckily I had a bunch of stuff that had just been moved to England from a warehouse in America. I don’t really go through things very much, so it was interesting for me to go back through it all.
It was an interesting process. It helps ground you and gets you to remember what interested you to begin with. It’s you, but a different you. You can look at yourself objectively.
Wired: Not many directors have retrospectives of their artwork and illustrations. How did having a fine arts background influence your directorial visions?
Burton: The films I grew up loving were very visual. They were the kinds of things that get etched in your memory. To me, film is a very visual thing, so I’m very grateful for my animation background. It’s kind of everything. It’s art, it’s design, it’s film. At that time all I wanted to be was an animator, but through the backdoor you learn how to do everything else. When you make an animated film you have to act it out, design the layouts, shoot it, and edit it. It was a great overall experience.
Wired: What’s your creative process? Do you find yourself doodling and suddenly you’ve got a character for a movie?
Burton: The whole sketching and drawing process to me is the equivalent to how some people write notes. I’ve never really felt like a writer. It was always a visual thing for me. With Jack Skellington, for example, that was just a doodle I kept drawing over and over and over for no apparent reason.
Things can grow from an image that keeps coming up, like the Scissorhands image. They just come as ideas or thoughts, and sometimes they go on to something.
Edward Scissorhands came from a feeling that became a sketch of different forms over the years. It was an idea from when I was a teenager, so it had been in my mind for a long time.
Wired: A lot of your films are original ideas, but you have dabbled with remakes, such as Planet of the Apes and now Alice. Is it easier to get support from Hollywood to remake a film than to start something from scratch?
Burton: There’s a trend right now, where every TV show is remade, and there’s a certain idea of safety in certain properties. At the same time, they can be equally as dangerous. Something like Alice in Wonderland, with the opportunity to do it in 3-D and to experiment, it actually feels like a completely new property.
Wired: Is it more intimidating to take a story people are familiar with and make it your own?
Burton: The reason Alice in Wonderland isn’t as daunting as past productions is that every version I ever saw of Alice in Wonderland was of a girl walking around passively with a bunch of weird characters. It never really had any feeling or grounding to it. It felt like a new challenge to me. There isn’t a great version that I have to live up to.
Wired: Did you feel like Alice was the perfect story for you to debut a live-action movie in 3-D?
Burton: The element that intrigued me was Alice in Wonderland in 3-D. Nightmare Before Christmas was converted to 3-D, and it was really good. I was really amazed. It showed me that this was exactly the way Nightmare was meant to be seen. Now, 3-D just seems to really lend itself to the Alice story. The thing about Alice for me was not so much the literalness of the story, but the trippy nature of it and still trying to make that compelling.
Wired: How hard is it to continue working in more traditional special effects, like stop motion animation, when the rest of Hollywood is drinking the CG Kool-Aid?
Burton: I think stop motion has proven itself as a valuable art form, as has animation. A few years ago it was a dead medium, and while there’s still a lot of uncertainty, there’s enough diversity now. If people like the movie, it doesn’t matter what medium it’s in. It’s actually better now than it was a few years ago, when CG was really kicking in.
Wired: You love stop motion. What’s your fear of CG?
Burton: Take Nightmare Before Christmas, for example. I was offered to do it in drawing animation and I held out for stop motion, because that was the right medium for that project. It’s up to each project and what you’re technically trying to achieve that decides what medium should be used, whether it’s stop motion, animation, or CG.
Wired: From Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to Beetlejuice, furniture, inanimate objects tend to come to life in your films. Do you anthropomorphize objects on a daily basis?
Burton: Well, I’m lying in bed here with my coffee pot… That’s where you need free time to space out. People don’t do that enough in life. Those are the moments where a tree turns into a little character.
Wired: Are you excited about the retrospective?
Burton: It’s such a strange and surreal event to me. I haven’t quite grasped it. I might as well put my dirty laundry basket in there as well.