Analyzing Tim Burton

In the past few decades, no person has had quite an effect on pop culture through film as Tim Burton. From Ed Wood to The Nightmare before Christmas to Big Fish, Burton has put his signature style to use in multiple types of films. But as often as his style is mentioned, what types of techniques does he use in his films, and why does he use them? Taking a look at three films in particular, it can clearly be seen that Tim Burton uses sound, color, and other visual techniques to tell his stories in subtle ways, giving him an edge that some other filmmakers don’t have.

Soundtracks are one of the easiest ways to show emotion, and Tim Burton uses this to his advantage. The composer who is present through most of Burton's filmography is Danny Elfman, who made the scores for Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the opening scenes of the last two films, Elfman uses a similar haunting yet whimsical score with a children’s chorus. This continues throughout both films, showing their themes of warped yet charming children’s stories – one is Burton’s adaption of a beloved children’s book, while the other is a new story that teaches a normally taught moral in a new way. Big Fish, on the other hand, is more adult oriented – no children in the film are main characters – and it shows in the music used in its opening sequence, which is much more sentimental and constrained, very typical of a drama. In that sense, Burton is communicating to the viewer that the film they are about to see has a certain mood or theme, and is a good example of his style.

You can also express similar information visually. Tim Burton, for example makes use of color to express certain emotions or themes, such as in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where all of the Wonka related props and characters and scenes, except for the outside of the factory, are much more saturated with color and are brighter than the rest of the movie. This could represent how Wonka and what he represents, childhood innocence, for example, makes the relatively dull world of the film enjoyable. Edward Scissorhands uses color in a different way, contrasting the harsh-looking but relatively harmless world of the Inventor’s castle, which is monochrome, with the judgmental and dangerous world of the neighborhood, which makes extensive use of pastel colors. Finally, his film Big Fish uses colors to differentiate its flashbacks from the rest of the film by having them be hazy and oversaturated, possibly symbolizing the brightness and innocence of youth yet again.

Other visual techniques Burton uses are less obvious. Subtle visual elements in some of his films can also contain symbolism. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are multiple examples. During the flashbacks, Wonka’s face is blocked or otherwise warped. This may help express the mysterious quality Wonka had, as throughout the movie, it is shown that Wonka did several things in secret. When his factory closes due to his secret recipes being leaked (possibly a metaphor for innocence being lost), the town loses its main source of employment and from then on is only seen as snowy or cold. Beetlejuice, another Burton film, uses a similar effect to show a similar theme when the new family redecorates the house of the main characters. The attic, where the new family has not redecorated, is a safe space for the couple, unlike the other modernized parts of the house.

Gothic-style technology is also seen affecting some main characters in their flashbacks. In Big Fish and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the dental helmet and growth device can be seen as representing constraint; as in both films, the characters only become themselves once they let go of these devices. In Edward Scissorhands, the Inventor’s other creations are focused on in the intro and extensively in the flashbacks, and while Edward never really lets go of them, they might also represent Edward’s special abilities, which are seen as constraining early on. These examples can help support the fact that Burton uses certain types of props to tell his stories as well.

While the films mentioned here only scratch the surface of Burton’s filmography, the links that can already be made between them show how universally Burton applies his style. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on how much you like him as a filmmaker, but simply having this much detail put into the process of making so many successful films shows why Tim Burton is still a hot name in Hollywood even after three decades.

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