Tim Burton is such an indelible visual presence that he almost seems inseparable from the characters in his films. From his black wardrobe to his shock of black hair and black sunglasses, he could be a poster child for Hollywood pretension. But in conversation, he’s so self-effacing, and those sunglasses so often slide down the nose to reveal big, bemused dark eyes, that you quickly feel like you’re talking with a kindred spirit. From his first experiences in stop-motion to his weirdly ironic current status as a blockbuster filmmaker, Burton seems like a guy you’d like to watch old monster movies with.
GEEK: What’s your first memory of watching stop-motion animation?
Burton: The one I recall was probably Jason and the Argonauts — it was a weird theater on Catalina Island; it was like being in this weird seashell. Ray Harryhausen was where I started seeing things and learned the guy’s name before I learned actors’ names, and there were things on TV like Gumby and this Czech animator named [Ladislaw] Starewicz. I’d see things like these weird Eastern European things or Ray Harryhausen.
In Frankenweenie, there’s a whole Holland motif with the town being called New Holland and a windmill. I thought that might be a reference to George Pal, who did Puppetoons and was from Holland. But I’m wrong, aren’t I?
That had more to do with Burbank and this place called Solvang; it’s kind of this weird manufactured community that has no identity, but sort of gives itself an identity. I remember Puppetoons but there was no video back then, so I grew up in an era with no outlet for them.
You must have experimented doing stop-motion as a young filmmaker. What do you remember about the mind-set of actually doing it? You’re playing with time in a way.
It’s interesting because I’ve done drawn animation and other forms of animation, but it’s very particular, stop-motion. I think it’s probably the hardest to do — you’re dealing with things that are there physically and that’s the energy of it. You’re looking at a figure, and then you’re moving it and you see it come to life before your very eyes. There’s something very Frankenstein-like about it, because an inanimate object comes to life. That’s the joy of it, and that’s the energy buzz you get from it, too. There’s a cool energy to that. Ultimately, I couldn’t be an animator and the reason I was going crazy and the reason I admire animators is — the best way I can describe it — you had to use both sides of your brain to an equal, maximum degree. You had to be this wild, creative character, but then you have to be this incredibly anal technician all at the same time. That’s where I had trouble — you can tap into some of those sides but to be the master craftsman technician or the crazy artist, I just couldn’t do both. It takes a real special personality to do it.
You talked about your kids watching old Frankenstein films. My 4-year-old does the same thing and it’s amazing that they really hold a child’s interest.
I’m curious about that with kids. You wonder, are they so caught up in the fast-paced world because you watch these old movies and they’re very slow? That’s one thing I said to the animators on Frankenweenie: ‘I don’t want it to be this overly fast-paced cartoon, I want to treat it like a real movie.’ And you wonder in this day and age if kids can still get into that because I’ve shown my kids these old Harryhausen movies and they still get into it. I know it works for me — to me it’s like a dream and the images can really settle into you as opposed to, ‘What was that?’ Some of these things are cut so quickly you don’t even register what the image was.
Your perspective as a director and storyteller is so deeply tied to the idea of being an outsider when you were growing up. What do you think about the fact that your work is hugely popular and that you’re in the opposite position now?
I don’t think about it. I don’t go on Facebook or Twitter because it’s just more — you’re better off not analyzing that stuff. And those feelings never leave you. The funny thing is you can be the most successful, popular person, have a family, you can have all of that stuff, but you still remember the way you felt. It’s like post-traumatic stress syndrome: It never quite leaves you even though it does. You move on, it’s great, you grow as a person, hopefully, but those feelings, I can always easily tap into that because it’s like it was only yesterday.