Tim Burton directed a number of short movies
early in his career. However, aside from his two most famous
works for Disney and the
TV episodes he directed, they have been mostly unseen, both
by the general public and his fans. For that reason it’s hard
to get a complete picture of Burton’s early career, aside
from the second-hand reports available in various biographies
of the director.
His earliest known film is The Island of Doctor Agor which was
made in 1971, when Burton was just thirteen years old. It was an
animated film shot on Super 8 with a group of his friends. Around
the same time, the budding filmmaker also made a short film called
Houdini, with himself playing the famous escape artist.
Years later, after being awarded a scholarship
to the famous Cal Arts institute, Burton continued to experiment
with his love of
animation, without producing anything of note. However, after
he lost his scholarship, the desperate filmmaker decided to
first “proper” film, a pencil drawn cartoon called Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979). The film caused such a stir
among his class, which included future Pixar director John Lasseter,
that it attracted the attention of Disney, who offered the young
Burton a job.
Despite this stroke of luck, Burton never really fit in at Disney,
especially as it existed in the eighties. While working fruitlessly
as an animator on The Fox and the Hound and The
Burton spent his spare time indulging his real passion by directing
cheapo films such as Doctor of Doom (1980) and coming up with ideas
for his own personal projects, including what would later become
The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The biggest amateur production Burton directed
during this time was the infamously bizarre film, Luau. The
plot for this virtually
impossible to find film is described in depth in the book
Tim Burton by Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews. Suffice it to
surfing, disembodied alien heads and other wackiness. Clips
from the film are available on the A&E biography of Burton,
Trick or Treat, but they only offer tantalising hints for those
who have not seen the film.
Vincent (1982) was Burton’s first film that actually saw
a release, albeit a limited one. A stop-motion animated movie shot
in beautiful black and white, it was based on a poem Burton had
written himself. The short film tells the sad tale of Vincent Malloy,
a suburbanite boy who wants to be just like his idol, Vincent Price.
It was a deeply personal film for the young Burton, and it marked
his first teaming with two collaborators who would have a great
impact on his oeuvre. Rick Heinrichs, who would go on to design
several of Burton’s later films, was the producer and provided
additional designs. More importantly, the narration was provided
by Vincent Price.
Price had been Burton’s idol since childhood,
and having him contribute his memorable voice to the film was an
undoubted thrill for the young director. The classic horror star’s
role also reinforced the theme of the film, which is that fantasies
about monsters and mad scientists can become more important to
kids than their own mundane lives. As Burton later said, “It
was probably one of the most shaping experiences of my life.”
Vincent was released on a small number screens by Disney,
who were unsure how to market the morbid little film. Though
saw it at the time, it played well at festivals and ultimately
acted as Burton’s calling card in Hollywood.
Burton’s next project for Disney was a Japanese-themed
version of Hansel and Gretel (1982). Filmed with a cast of
was most notable for the inclusion of kung fu fights and a
multitude of Japanese toys, both subjects Burton was obsessed
with at the
time. It premiered once on the Disney channel and to this date
has never been seen again.
1984 saw Burton’s next film for Disney,
Frankenweenie. It was his first major live action directorial
effort, an affectionate
black and white homage to Frankenstein and other monster movies.
Burton came up with the story, which tells the tale of a young
Victor Frankenstein living in a typical suburb. When his beloved
dog Sparky is run over by a car, Victor brings him back to
life with science. However, in time-honoured monster movie
he is misperceived as a threat to the community. But it all
ends happily when the suburbanites realise Sparky is a good
and help return him to life a second time.
Frankenweenie expanded on many of the classic Burton
themes that first surfaced in Vincent. It could almost be seen
run for Edward
even though that later film
about a misunderstood “monster” had a far more
bittersweet ending. It was also the first time Burton had worked
with a professional
cast, and the fine performances were an early indication that
Burton could be an actor’s director as well as a visionary.
Unfortunately, the film never saw a release at the time. Disney
had planned to screen it before a re-release of Pinocchio,
but that plan was cancelled when Frankenweenie was given a
making it “unsuitable” for younger kids. Aside
from the occasional screening, Frankenweenie was shelved for
ten years. Despite this, praise for the film from people in
the industry who had seen it, including Stephen King, would
lead to Burton being offered his first feature film work.
That same year, Shelly Duvall (who had starred
) asked Burton to direct an episode
of her Faerie
Burton was chosen to helm Aladdin
and his Wonderful Lamp
The episode, which is now available on DVD, had some big names
in the cast, including Leonard Nimoy
Earl Jones. Despite the low-budget nature of the series (it was
shot on video and the production values left something to be
desired) Burton did a respectable job in what was essentially
his first “director
for hire” role. However, it was not a completely satisfying
experience for the director, and he vowed in future to only direct
projects he had a personal connection to. His next project was,
of course, Pee-Wee's
Burton’s final directing job for TV was
an episode of the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents series.
The Jar (which aired in 1986) was a memorably creepy
story with Griffin Dunne carrying around a sinister head in
It also featured the second collaboration between Burton and
composer of choice, Danny Elfman. While it has occasionally
been rerun on TV, the episode is currently unavailable on VHS
or DVD. After this, Burton’s
feature film career took off and, aside from the odd commercial
cartoon, he left behind the world of short filmmaking.
Burton’s early films vary wildly, both in production quality
and storyline. However, they all have some degree of his fantastical
vision stamped on them and are an intriguing portrait of a young
director’s developing style. We can only hope that eventually
they will all see a release in some form or another.
Arran McDermott 2005
on Burton by Mark Salisbury (Faber and Faber)
Burton by Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews (Virgin Books)
Images courtesy of Le
Monde de Tim Burton