The auteur theory was first developed by New Wave directors, including Jean-Luc Goddard, as a way of distinguishing those who merely follow scripts and stick to the limitations placed on them by studios from those who impose their own vision onto their projects.
This theory has its fair share of critics. There are those who see film-making as a collective effort, and therefore it is unfair to see the final product as the sole work of the director. There are also actors, lighting and sound engineers, set designers, makeup artists, cinematographers, composers, screenwriters and film editors involved in the process who contribute a great deal to the project. While most of these artists contribute to the overall mise-en-scene (set design, character’s behaviour,…), auteur critics do acknowledge that it is the mise-en-shot (camera positioning, duration of each shot, framing) that make the difference between films and can distinguish certain directors from everyone else.
Films made by Tim Burton are easily identifiable. They incorporate his beliefs and values. They feature actors and crew members that are frequently a part of his team. Furthermore, the stories are told from his perceptive, both in terms of themes and the style (mise-en-shot).
Keeping genre, themes, mise-en-scene, and mise-en-shot in mind, these notes will analyse a number of Tim Burton films to prove that he is, in fact, an auteur in every sense of the word.
Burton’s Point of View
Tim Burton spent the majority of his childhood as an outsider. He grew up in suburbia (Burbank, California) and because he wasn’t like everyone else, he was often misunderstood. His childhood experiences living in the suburbs left him with the belief that society tries to stifle anything that makes people individual. His anti-society views started early on.
Burton spent a lot of his time as a child watching horror films (especially monster movies) and drawing. He enjoyed watching films with monsters who were misunderstood by those around them. The films that moved him were mainly stop-motion animations and films that reflected German Expressionism. Before he started directing his own films, he enjoyed the conceptual work he was able to do for Disney studios.
He was very introspective, looking at things in a symbolic and very poetic way. While he was not an avid reader, he did identify with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl for its imagery and symbolism.
Due to his love for the unconventional, his films fit quite comfortably in the fantasy genre. They incorporate characters that one would not usually find, in situations that would never occur in the real world. For example, you would not find a ghost who wants to marry a human in real life. Nor would you come across a resurrected dog or someone who is able to chop hedges with his Scissorhands.
His films are characteristically quirky; they explore concepts that could never exist in the real world. Since his films are so typically ‘fantasy’, audiences come to expect quirky, unusual stories when a film is associated with him. However, even though they feature things that do not really exist, the films are centred around themes that are very human and relatable.
Since he is inspired by his childhood, his films his work has an element of whimsy, wonder and naivety. His heroines are usually kind-hearted and naive in a childlike manner, just like Victor in Frankenweenie or Edward in Edward Scissorhands. Along with the childlike innocence, he also explores dark themes, like Death in Beetlejuice or resurrection in Frankenweenie. He appreciates the fact that everyone has two sides to his or her personality and so, all of his films explore this delicate, contrasting balance of innocence/darkness and good/bad.
In accordance with the genre and his personal experiences, his heroines are usually different from other people in some way. They are misunderstood by those around them and as a result, they are alienated from others. This is exactly the case in Edward Scissorhands. When forced out of his house and into the centre of town, he is met with hostility because he is different from everyone else. People assume he is mean, violent and dangerous because of his hands when he actually the complete opposite.
His films also explore social issues such as peer pressure and conformity. Once again Edward Scissorhands is a good example of this. Society tries to force Edward to conform to their rules, by making him look like them, getting him to go to school and get a job and forcing him to behave the way they do. When he is unable to conform to their rules, he is rejected by nearly everyone in the town and forced back to the outskirts of town (and society).
Even when he is remaking a classic film, the original story is weaved around these themes in such a way that even though he didn’t originally create the story, his version is very true to who he is and recognisable as his own. For example, both of his Batman films are darker than the rest and they explore social breakdown.
However, it is important to understand that a ‘Tim Burton’ film isn’t merely a fantasy film or a film that includes the themes mentioned. His films add an extra element. It is his treatment of these things that makes his work distinct and establishes him as an auteur.
This auteur has complete control over how his films look and feel. He has a say in everything present in each scene, from the actors to the symbols ever present in his films that help tell the narrative and reach audiences on a sub-conscious level.
As shown in original sketches he does during the process of making every one of his films, he envisioned the way the characters were supposed to look and feel and translated this vision to those working with him, who were then able to capture this vision on screen. What we see on screen is, in fact, a representation of the thoughts and ideas spilling out of his head.
He uses the set and the characters movements as instruments to send a message that he personally believes in. In a scene from Edward Scissorhands, Burton shows suburbia as being a mass of houses (in varying colours yet all exactly the same) with green hedges and cars parked neatly in the driveway. Everything is so stripped of individuality, yet the people are convinced that they are ‘unique’. This setting is significant and created for a reason to further the audience’s understanding of the narrative. Burton uses it to make a point about how conforming society is and how very little originality exists within it. These are his own beliefs coming through, and they are important in order to appreciate the character of Edward and to understand why his very unique abilities are looked down upon.
It is also important to mention the recurrent symbols present in his films. They are images that mean something to him and show up in all of his work in one way or another. The most common symbols include bats, dogs, skeletons, spiders, topiaries, black and white stripes, a model town and a graveyard setting. Most of these references stem back from his love of horror films and his upbringing. Big Fish features spiders and topiaries. Beetlejuice features a model town, a graveyard, a dog, and black and white stripes. The Nightmare before Christmas features bats, skeletons, and skulls. These symbols help make up Tim Burton’s signature.
While it does take a team of professionals to create a film and therefore it could be argued that it could never be entirely according to the director’s vision, Burton’s use of particular actors and crew members who understand his vision allows him to create art that is quite true to him.
Johnny Depp has been in a number of his film, along with Helena Bonham Carter, Winona Rider, Conchata Ferrell, Martin Landou, Catherine O’ Hara and Micheal Keaton just to name a few. These actors are able to take Burton’s direction on who their characters are and how they behave and portray his characters exactly the way he would like them to be.
Tim Burton has also worked with composer Danny Elfman quite frequently. He creates the music for nearly all of Burton’s films, taking the director’s notes and translating it into music that matches his vision of how the film must be. When he is working on an animated film, he frequently works with Tim Allen. He knows that collaborating with people who understand what he wants out of his films produces work that audiences can easily identify.
As explained in his book, he doesn’t include people in his films because he believes they will make the film commercially successful. He chooses them because they connect with his material. Just like he understands and relates to it, he makes the active choice to cast people who can relate to his films on a deeper level. At times, his choices have been criticised by the media and the Hollywood studios he was working with, but he always remains true himself and what feels right to him.
His influence is also apparent in the way the films are put together. Coming from an animation background, his style is very visual. He likes to incorporate a number of special effects, including stop-motion animation. Inspired by Super 8 films from the past, he has used this effect in Beetlejuice, The Nightmare before Christmas and Frankenweenie.
… an auteur is able to maintain a consistency of style and theme by working against the constraints of the Hollywood mode of production.”
– Warren Buckland
The Batman films proved to be very difficult for Tim Burton. He was under severe pressure from the studio and media on all of the choices he made. Despite all of the opposition, he made the films the way he thought they should be. His versions treated the material in a way that remained true to his aesthetic. While the films were not well received by the public, he still looks back on the film proudly because he made the film he wanted to make.
Tim Burton has done many things in his career, but there is an underlying link between all of his work that makes it very clearly a Burton creation. His films are deeply personal; they come from his own feelings and beliefs which he translates onto the screen. A ‘Tim Burton’ film is about more than the storyline, or even the characters, but about the overall feeling, it sends to its audience that is relatable and identifiable.
He makes films that are true to who he is. When pressured to conform to studio rules or to what is ‘marketable’, he puts his own vision above all else and ironically, it has made him quite successful. He is a true auteur because, in every possible sense, he makes films his way.
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