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Tim Burton has built his career around an iconic visual aesthetic. Here’s how it evolved.

Every Tim Burton movie is channeling specific visual influences — plus his own alienated childhood.

Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.
Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.
Paramount Pictures via IMDB
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Tim Burton is one of modern filmmaking’s best-known directors — largely because his films all look like Tim Burton films. It’s hard to find a recent director whose distinct visual aesthetic has become so universally, immediately recognizable. Even in his new live-action Disney film Dumbo, which is something of a departure from Burton’s previous work — it’s a remake that doubles as a careful critique of its predecessor — it can still easily be called “Burton-esque,” like all of his movies.

But what does it mean to be “Burton-esque?” Is there a way to catalog the visual ingredients of a Burton film? And how did Burton develop such a distinct visual style that continues to resonate so strongly with audiences?

The answers to these queries are more concrete than you might expect. Burton got his start in the industry working as an animator for Walt Disney Studios, where he began to develop his staple brand of quirkiness. Before that, he grew up absorbing a range of pop art styles and cinematic influences that later led to his becoming something of an alienated gothic hero — which still makes itself felt in his work today.

Burton grew up identifying with moody iconoclasts — and developing an art style to match

Born in 1958 in Burbank, California, Burton grew up with an inverse relationship to his surroundings. Where Burbank was sunny and benign, Burton was moody, interested in the dark and the macabre. When other kids played ball and rode bicycles, he hung out in cemeteries and wax museums. He developed a love for Hammer horror films and B-movie sci-fi. He seemed to channel these sensibilities into his art, displaying a penchant for exaggerated caricatures and illustrations influenced by a range of pop art from advertising to children’s illustrators to comics.

By age 15, he was winning local advertising art contests, shooting creepy 8mm films around his neighborhood, and creating an illustrated children’s book of his own — which Disney, incidentally, rejected for publication, albeit with an encouraging note. Disney told Burton that “the art is very good. The characters are charming and imaginative, and have sufficient variety to sustain interest.” It would be the start of a long and sometimes contentious relationship with the Mouse.

After high school, Burton attended the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, which opened in 1961, partly out of the last great vision of Walt Disney himself. Disney died in 1966, but his brother and nephew were both on the school’s founding board of trustees. Disney had imagined an arts school designed specifically to educate new generations of animators, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the school began admitting students into a program to teach character animation.

A year later, in 1976, Burton joined the new animator program, becoming one of a now-legendary era of CalArts animators who would collectively go on to profoundly impact the next four decades of animation. These included famed Disney animator Glen Keane, The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick, Brave director Brenda Chapman, and Lion King director Rob Minkoff. He described them to Vanity Fair in 2014 as “a collection of outcasts,” a group of artists who were united by general nerdiness and a shared excitement about taking artistic risks and experimenting. (Incidentally, another figure who’d play a significant role in Burton’s career, Paul Reubens a.k.a Pee-wee Herman, was also on the campus studying theater at the same time.)

The Vanity Fair CalArts profile reports a steady blur of wild parties, dark senses of humor, and perpetual impromptu performance art — all of which Burton essentially blended into his personal brand. “One year [for Halloween] I did a bunch of makeup, and when I woke up, my face was stuck to the floor,” he recalled. “So it was sickening, really, but it’s one of my few fond memories.” This seems to be a representative picture of the era at CalArts’ character animation department, and of Burton himself.

Burton’s early career at Disney was difficult — but it set the tone for everything after

At CalArts, Burton animated several short films and developed his signature style as an illustrator of characters with amusingly exaggerated features. One of his student works, a partly silent animated short called Stalk of the Celery Monster, once again earned him attention from Walt Disney Studios, which brought him on as an animation apprentice after his graduation from CalArts in 1980, drawing mainly concept art and models for features.

At CalArts, Burton’s general air of weirdness was essentially encouraged by the prevailing spirit of the era. But at Disney, where he worked for four years, Burton’s iconoclastic style frequently made him an outlier, and he was largely relegated to producing concept art for films like 1981’s The Fox and the Hound and 1983’s The Black Cauldron. The work went unused. “I couldn’t even fake the Disney [art] style,” he wrote later in the book Burton on Burton.

Speaking about that era of Disney to Vanity Fair, Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles) described it as a generational clash. “As Disney’s top-tier guys retired, the people running things became the businesspeople and the middle-level animation artists who had been there awhile,” Bird said. “They just wanted to sit back and coast on the Disney reputation while we younger guys were on fire, full of the ideas that the old-master Disney guys inspired in us. Now we were the ones thinking outside the box.” In the same article, Glen Keane recalled Burton hiding in a coat closet for hours.

But Burton didn’t just mope around. While at Disney, he solidified his own unique art style, with its weirdly elongated shapes and people, and a touch of the maudlin, the gothic, and the slightly off-kilter. He developed the concepts for a number of films that Disney initially rejected — including The Nightmare Before Christmas. He did, however, manage to produce a few works for Disney that showcased what would later become hallmarks of his instantly recognizable art style. The most notable is probably a short film called Vincent — based on Burton’s own childhood, including his idealization of the actor Vincent Price, known for his appearances in horror films.

Vincent (1982) combines Burton’s burgeoning visual aesthetic with his lifelong love of the macabre and interest in stop-motion animation. Narrated by Price himself, the film displays much of Burton’s trademark weirdnesslike misunderstood goth kids in suburbia, and an obsession with dark subjects that manifests in unconventional ways. It’s also atypically dark for an animated Disney film of the era and was never individually released. (It later showed up as a package with some versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas.)

Following Vincent, Burton’s independent artistic forays met with less success. Disney produced his next short film, Frankenweenie, about a boy who tries to bring his small dog back from the dead, in 1984 — but then immediately fired him.

“When he made the film in 1984, I don’t think Disney knew what to do with him,” said producer Don Hahn, who’d worked with Burton back in his Disney days, in a 2012 interview with Yahoo UK. “It’s like, ah, here’s this really interesting guy who’s making these really rangy black-and-white movies. Let’s let him go.” Burton revived Frankenweenie as a feature-length film in 2012, which Hanh produced.

Of course, in all fairness to Disney, it could also be because this was Burton’s idea of a fun day at the office:

After leaving, Burton quickly caught an amazing break: His old classmate Paul Reubens, now better known as his alter ego Pee-Wee Herman, had seen Vincent and asked Burton to direct a big-screen adaptation of his character. Burton, who had directed one live-action piece while at Disney, 1983’s Hansel and Gretel, was game for any project that would let him continue to express his particular style, and agreed. 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure grossed $40 million on a budget of less than $7 million, and launched Burton’s prolific career as a film director.

He would go on to bring the world a litany of iconic films for the next several decades, most notably Beetlejuice (1988); Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992); Edward Scissorhands (1990); The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) — which he produced and created but left to his fellow CalArts alum Henry Selick to direct; Mars Attacks! (1996); Sleepy Hollow (1999); Big Fish (2003); Corpse Bride (2005); Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007); and Alice in Wonderland (2010). And though most of these films are live action, they all continue to develop and expand the artistic style he expressed early on.

By the time Disney released Burton’s full-length feature version of Frankenweenie in 2012, Burton’s name had become an undeniable brand of its own. And that brand was still closely associated with Disney, which had by then happily embraced him as a producer and director on several of its films. Describing his on-again, off-again relationship with Disney to the Independent upon Frankenweenie’s 2012 release, Burton simply said, “I’ve been hired and fired by Disney three different times. I’m used to it.”

But far from being defined by his rocky relationship with Disney, Burton is regarded as a singular visionary, defined entirely by his unique style. To properly define the Burton style, we can point to a couple of specific important visual and artistic influences that made his art and his overall production style what it is today.

Burton’s art and cinema are hugely influenced by Expressionism

Burton’s own aesthetic reflects German Expressionism more than any other style. Expressionism began as a modern art movement and quickly expanded to influence art across Europe in the 1920s. Drawing upon what was then the still-new field of psychotherapy, Expressionist film became a cinematic medium in which the overall scenic and production design produced a feeling of dreamlike unreality and psychological tension for the viewer.

The traits of Expressionism have become incorporated so successfully into certain modes of storytelling within art, cinema, and animation that the casual viewer might not realize these features all have a distinct origin point. Among the most distinctive features are sharply exaggerated backdrops and landscapes with high color contrasts — typically relying heavily on the use of shadows and silhouettes to heighten a feeling of tension or dread. Sets with jagged edges and alternately rounded, tilted, or visually disjointed and discombobulated spaces, are another key element.

A still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the quintessential German Expressionist film.
Vincent clearly shows Burton’s Expressionist influences.
Burton frequently illustrates landscapes using cartoonish, geometrical backgrounds and shapes to indicate landmarks and settings.
Tim Burton, Hansel and Gretel, 1983 / YouTube

A general sense of visual distortion, the use of dialed-up color contrasts, looming architectural shapes, and an overall sense of heightened reality, are all further key parts of the aesthetic that form basic components of a “Burtonesque” look. Expressionism has influenced so many subsequent art and film styles — everything from film noir to Surrealist art, from art deco architecture to midcentury horror — that its impact on Burton’s own style hardly makes him unique. However, from here on out, his influences may seem even more surreal.

A scene from Tim Burton’s 1986 episode of Faerie Tale Theatre finds Aladdin entering an Expressionist cave of wonders.
And here Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) is in his own garden of wonders a few years later.
20th Century Fox via IMDB

The Day of the Dead made a huge impression on Burton

In Latin America, the annual celebration of the Day of the Dead is traditionally accompanied by a host of colorful depictions of skulls and skeletons. Among these are reanimated skulls and skeletons known as calaveras, and calacas, skulls and skull masks worn during ceremonies. Burton’s work is full of references to calacas and calaveras.

The Calavera Oaxaqueña by José Guadalupe Posada. ca. 1910.
Library of Congress
The Day of the Dead in Burton’s Corpse Bride.

You’re probably thinking of Jack Skellington in Nightmare Before Christmas as the most obvious example of this influence, but Emily, the titular bride of Corpse Bride, is also a walking calavera. Both films wear their love for Dios de Los Muertes on their bony sleeves.

But perhaps no style is more overt in the work of and more closely associated with Tim Burton than that of the gothic.

Tim Burton films are obviously gothic — but with a twist

The concept of the “gothic” originated first as a pejorative, derived from the Goths and Visigoths who sacked Ancient Rome, to refer to a distinct style of medieval architecture as barbarous and uncivilized. It was meant as an insult, yet it grew to be associated with unsettling, disconcerting feelings of awe and dread that could be evoked by such elaborately beautiful architecture and art. And so when Horace Walpole published his scandalous novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, he called it “a gothic story” because it was set in a massive, haunted castle whose dark hallways and unknown mysteries were meant to horrify.

Walpole essentially expanded the tone of gothic architecture and gothic art into what we now know as gothic literature — a genre full of distinctive, familiar horror tropes: huge dark buildings looming up out of the mist; tortured heroes and antiheroes meeting their doom over a tragic lost love or an unearthed secret from their past; and a sense of delight in the sinister, the grotesque, the weird, the bloody, and the terrifying.

Gothic sculpture, late 15th century, Amiens Cathedral.
Eric Pouhier
Gotham is true to its name with layers of Gothic architecture in Burton’s Batman (1989).
Warner Bros. via IMDB

Between his love for Vincent Price, Edgar Allan Poe, skeletons, and cemeteries, Burton soaked up plenty of gothic inspiration as a child. But remember — he also grew up in peaceful, quintessentially suburban Burbank, where he was constantly fascinated with thoughts of ominous and dark things lurking beneath the surface.

As a mature artist, Tim Burton’s work married his love of the surreal to stories that stripped away the banality of everyday, politely civilized life. Vincent and Frankenweenie are about normal boys feeding their love for the grotesque within quiet normal households. The Nightmare Before Christmas is about the unholy juxtaposition of Halloween and Christmas. Sweeney Todd sees a serial killer opening up a respectable barber shop; though based on an existing musical, its themes fit perfectly into the Burton portfolio. And in Edward Scissorhands, Edward’s nightmare house is next to, well, this:

A scene from Edward Scissorhands.
Paramount Pictures via IMDB
The too-bright visuals and overly stylized tone of this scene in Sweeney Todd let you know it’s an Expressionist dream sequence. The contrast between the dark and brooding couple and their bucolic surroundings let you know it’s Burton-esque.
Paramount Pictures via IMDB

This juxtaposition is probably best exemplified in Burton’s Beetlejuice, which is an entire movie about the sinister surprise that may be lurking in your otherwise idyllic suburban neighborhood.

Burton’s distorted, slightly dystopian suburbia often takes on a gleefully manic, almost circus-like form that’s descended from gothic’s bloodier cousin, Grand Guignol. We see its influence in films like Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd. Whether or not things get bloody, they’re always tinged with an awareness that things could get bloody. And that’s the heart of the gothic in a Burton work.

Burton also cites a number of mid-century sci-fi and horror films as influences over his work

1999’s Sleepy Hollow, which featured cinematography by Emanuel Lubezki, drips with homages to Hammer films and Maria Bava.
Paramount Pictures via IMDB

In 2009, the Museum of Modern Art produced a wildly successful exhibition of Tim Burton’s art and sculpture, showcasing material from throughout his life and career as an artist and filmmaker. In conjunction with the exhibit, Burton curated a list of films that had had key influences over his life’s work. The film series, called “Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters,” included a wide-ranging list, from the works of B-movie scion Roger Corman to horror films by James Whale, Tobe Hooper, and many others.

From this list, you get a clear sense of the zany, colorful, slightly surreal and over-the-top influences that resonated with Burton as a kid. It’s not easy to locate the full list of films online, so we’re presenting it here for your further Burton study and edification.

  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
  • The Omega Man (1971)
  • Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
  • Mad Monster Party (1967)
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  • Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
  • Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
  • Dracula (1931)
  • The Raven (1935)
  • Bride of the Monster (1955)
  • Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
  • The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
  • The Creature From the Back Lagoon (1954)
  • The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
  • When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)
  • Revenge of the Creature (1955)
  • The Towering Inferno (1974)
  • Nosferatu (1922)
  • The Swarm (1978)
  • Earthquake (1974)
  • The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
  • Scream Blacula Scream (1973)
  • The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)
  • Tex Avery Cartoons: Swing Shift Cinderella (1945); Red Hot Riding Hood (1943); Little Rural Riding Hood (1949); The Cat that Hated People (1948)

The Burton-esque style is derived from a wealth of art, cinematic, and literary genres. But if Burton’s work was just copied from his influences, it wouldn’t resonate with viewers. What Burton brings to all these ideas is his own joyous idiosyncrasy — his ability to meld the ominous and the frightful with a sense of whimsy, and then turn that unholy duet into part of the act and the art of being a tortured outsider.

These traits make his films feel personal and relatable to so many of us, whether we come from the same superficially sunny suburbia or not. Burton may have spent his childhood in a world that didn’t suit him, but he’s channeled that into a visual style that unites him with us all.