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How Tim Burton Cemented Himself as a Revolutionary Film Auteur– A study of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).

Arguably, what makes or breaks a movie is the director’s and producers’ ability to make their vision come to life, right? If you are watching a film, you would want it to be able to heavily engage and immerse you in its world. This ability is what makes a director, producer, or owner an Auter. Tim Burton, the world-renown director, and producer, has proven time and time again that he possesses this ability. Burton’s one-of-a-kind style, displayed through German Expressionism and Gothic Influence, has established him as a true film Auteur.

A film Auteur is someone who essentially gives distinguishing production values through their movies in their own, unique style. Burton certainly fits this criterion, as you will see below!

Burton’s films usually follow the three-act structure, however, he always puts his own twist on it. Every square inch of the frame flaunts Burton’s personality. Typically, he does this by keeping consistent with a beginning setup, the conflict/climax, and finally the resolution. But to put his touch into it, he may present two opposing worlds, one being a bleak reality and the other a magical fantasy. For this reason, it is very easy to spot a Burton movie. A few additional ways in which one may recognize one of his films are Burton’s use of theatrical mise-en-scene, use of crazy and eccentric wardrobe and makeup, character stereotypes and tropes, German Expressionism, and Gothic Influence.

Through his combination of childlike fantastical whims and surrealist nightmares, Burton’s ability to conjure entire worlds on-screen has established him as a Film Auteur.

Burton’s use of German Expressionism is one of the most identifiable characteristics of his movies. German Expressionism is a style of film that became popular in the 1920s, that often features distorted depictions of what is going on to evoke emotions within an audience. Burton’s application of this shines through with distorted or slanting shapes, high-contrast light and dark, and prominent shadows in many of his movies. These dreamscapes he creates through the style are often about being inside of someone’s mind, showing the twisted realities a character faces.

Distorted and slanted shapes are a big part of Burton’s German Expressionist-inspired movies. He will often have characters, settings, or sets feature distortion to evoke an unnatural feeling of normalcy and creepiness at the same time. For example, in Burton’s 1993 picture, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, The most iconic image from the film shows protagonist Jack Skellington standing atop a mountain-esk scenery. The mountain is very distorted, with it ending in a spiral structure, curved into itself. There are no squares, rectangles, or straight figures anywhere in sight, even where there should be in a realistic world. Burton’s use of distortion here brings an odd mix of eeriness and playfulness to the audience. Even in a stop-motion animation picture, he demonstrates a magical realism element, where the audience feels this place is more than real, that it is exaggerated. This is provided to make the audience truly believe in the unexpected and otherworldly elements. Burton’s use of distortion can also be found in his 2010 movie ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ In fact, the bulk of this movie is based on distortion. Of course, Burton semi-follows the fairytale of Alice, but he very much makes it his own. Firstly, Alice is much older in Burton’s version, meaning that of course the character/actress is larger than a child would be. An interesting scene we see major distortion because of this is when Alice is falling down the rabbit hole. The circular shape of the hole and the size of the hole is contrasted with Alice. It seems as though it would be disproportional for a girl her six to fall into the small hole, and yet then as the scene continues the hole seems to grow wider and wider until it is enveloping Alice. By the time she hits the bottom of the pit, she is the tiny one in comparison. Burton’s use of distortion here is to make the audience feel slightly uncomfortable but intrigued. In addition, Burton’s Cheshire Cat is used in the same way. The cat is very distorted and a very creepy-looking cat, but in some ways, it still feels cute because of the real connection to the audience. Burton uses distortion as a large part of his German Expressionist style because he knows this will make the audience react the way he wants them to.

Moreover, to demonstrate his German Expressionist style, Burton uses high-contrast lighting and lots of shadows vs. colors in his films. The German Expressionist theme of higher contrast lighting, as well as the mixture of shadows and bright colors, evokes the feeling of mystery, suspiciousness, and uneasiness that Burton desperately wants to express in his films. One very pertinent example of this is in Tim Burtons ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005). Here, Burton uses both low key lighting and high key lighting at different times throughout the film in order to create suspense and to emphasize the different moods he wants the audience to feel. There is a lot of low-key lighting when we are focused on Willy Wonka himself. Although on the outside you would think a man who has dedicated his life to candy and subsequently children’s happiness would be cheerful, his interior is very dark. Burton uses lighting and shadows to reflect this in many of the scenes. For example, all of the flashbacks of Wonka’s childhood are very dark and sad, meant to show the resentment Wonka stored within him. He had a miserable childhood and has likely become mentally unstable. Even at the end of the movie, during the Up and Out scene where Wonka is alone with Charlie and Grandpa Joe, this scene should be happy because Charlie won, but Wonka shows his crazy, and to demonstrate that, Burton has low-key lighting, lots of shadows and dark grey colors here. In his fantastical chocolate factory though, everything has high-key lighting and bright colors, with barely any shadows. There is bright green grass, deep chocolate rivers, and helpers (Oompa-Loompas) wearing bright red suits. Even the exterior of the Wonka Factory is completely grey and ominous, yet this is the inside. Burton needs the audience to feel uneasy with the back and forth of this high-key vs. low-key lighting and the contrast of darkness and shadows with bright and colorful lighting to provoke the German Expressionism he seeks out.

With a Burton classic, you will also always get hints of Gothic Influence. Gothic Influence often goes along with German Expressionism, which is why both are always portrayed in Burton’s films. This could come out in a few ways in his films, but often follows one of these structures: 1. A fixation with death – Many of Burton’s movies feature ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, or cemeteries. 2. The tortured heroes trope – Whether we are talking about Willy Wonka, Jack Skellington, Eve Green, or the Mad Hatter, Burton loves to use the tortured hero trope to connect to a gothic influence. 3. A protagonist who is a misunderstood outcast – Someone who might be labeled weird, loner, and isolated from the rest of the world. This can be the same character or different characters than the troubled hero, but it is still a strong theme he loves to explore. 4. Death is not always morbid – Burton often celebrates death or at least does not portray it in a bad light.

To unpack a bit, let’s start with the first rule and the last rule. Within Burton’s movies, he often explores the theme of death, but not negatively. Many of his most famous works feature death as a prominent design element. Each character in Halloweentown (the setting of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas) is dead, to begin with. Fans of the franchise have even been known to theorize how each character died, based on clues in the film, and Burton does not say there is no merit to the ideas. However, Halloweentown is not an afterlife, but rather a world that Burton created for these characters. On top of this, Burton incorporates general ‘death-related’ elements throughout the film. Most obviously, he makes the main character a skeleton and he is the ‘good guy’. Many people associate skeletons with negative emotions such as fear, sadness, or anxiety, and Burton wants to put a happier spin on that association. Sally, Jack Skellington’s love interest in the stop-motion film, is a literal Rag Doll Monster. She looks sewn together and ripped apart like a voodoo doll, which again many people would find off-putting, but Burton’s fixation with death is about him ultimately trying to prove that death does not always have to be scary or morbid. Burton also demonstrates this fixation with death in his adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Burton’s vision is clearly seen on the screen with gothic influence. Burton hints at the prominence of death in the film through the death of the protagonist’s grandfather, the introduction of the time loop, and one character having the ability to temporarily give life to the dead (corpses or even inanimate objects). Protagonist Jacob Portman is shown to have a strained relationship with his parents but a strong relationship with his grandfather Abe. Abe was always telling stories about the place where he lived when he was young, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Eventually, the audience learns that Abe has died and was actually murdered, sending Jacob on a quest to do right by his Grandfather. Burton shows gothic influence by pushing the impact of Abe’s death to motivate Jacob, which is his way of showing that death is sad, but not always bad. It made Jacob determined to find his destiny and Burton tries to let the audience know that that is a good thing. In addition, Burton’s use of the time loop is demonstrative of his fixation with death because the time loop ensures safety for the Peculiars, but if they fall out of it, danger and death are near. Burton uses the time loop as a tool to show morality since they are basically in groundhog day. The characters never age because they must stay in this time loop and repeat the day over and over again so that they don’t die. And lastly, and most self-explanatory, Burton’s use of the character Enoch shows his fixation with death because this character is literally able to revive corpses and objects by using the heart of an animal to raise them (briefly) from the dead. This also hints that he doesn’t think death is all that bad because just maybe, death is not just darkness.

The second two points of Burton’s use of gothic influence come out in the form of character tropes. Burton loves all types of classic character stereotypes, which we will discuss more later, but specifically for Gothic Influence, he loves a tortured hero and a misunderstood outcast. All of the films listed have one or more characters in them that fit these tropes. From Willy Wonka to the Mad Hatter, we have our tortured heroes lined up. Of course, they have a sort of tragic backstory. The theme of the past is haunting is one Burton loves to use to demonstrate these character tropes. His use of flashbacks in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) is to show how Willy Wonka had a troubled past and how haunted he was, so to speak. Interestingly enough, Willy Wonka did not have flashbacks in Roald Dahl’s book, this was Burton showing off his style and cementing that theatrical mise-en-sense and gothic influence. Burton’s adaptation seems to hint that Willy Wonka came from a verbally abusive home, he was a runaway child, and he has serious familial issues. On top of the flashbacks, Wonka also can barely tolerate saying the word “parents” at the beginning of the film and does not understand why in the end, Charlie would not simply pack up and leave his family to take over the chocolate factory. The Mad Hatter is also set up with this tortured hero storyline in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). The Mad Hatter originally is an antagonist in the Alice in Wonderland franchise, however, Burton loved this gothic-influenced trope so much that he felt the need to include it here. The Mad Hatter in Burton’s world has a tragic past. He was poisoned by mercury, he and his clam were captured and imprisoned by the evil Red Queen, and he was thought to be the only survivor. He not only wants to seek revenge for himself but his friends and family. Burton shows yet again this character trope of the tortured hero and how the semi-good person has their reasons for only being semi-good. Burton also almost always uses the misunderstood outcast as the protagonist. As discussed earlier, in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016), the protagonist Jacob has a strained relationship with his parents. His parents expected him to be who he wasn’t essentially. He also does not really fit in with kids at school or have many friends, and is even an outcast at his work because it is his family’s store that he doesn’t want to work at, so he attempts to get fired. This is a very Burton-Esq main character. Another prime example is Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Sally is the Rag-Doll Monster, who was literally made in a lab by a mad scientist. She is kind but often very shy and lonely, and her only true companion is Jack Skellington. These two very specific character tropes point to the ongoing gothic influence in Burton’s movies that have led him to the title of film auteur.

Finally, Burton has secured his spot as a film auteur through eccentric/crazy makeup and costumes, and a high-profile cast with some repeating actors. Firstly, Burton never skimps on wardrobe or makeup. This is the key to bringing his vision to the screen. Many times, his characters will be over the top pale and white. This is done purposefully, to go along with the gothic theme. He also uses makeup to ensure that his characters have accentuated cheekbones, big eyes, eye bags, and dark underage circles. This over-the-top look of the characters gives the audience a sense of understanding of who that character is. The Mad Hatter, for example, has bright orange hair and eyebrows, a painted white face, pink lips, bronzer for contrast, blue, pink, and brown eyeshadow, and under-eye bags. This protrudes his craziness onto the screen through visual elements. The Red Queen in the same movie is also very eccentric with her makeup. She has the same painted white face makeup, but thin, drawn-on eyebrows, red hair, bright red heart-shaped lips, blue eyeshadow, and dark under-eye bags. All of this is to convey to the audience the power and authority this character holds. As for costumes, Burton is never too shy in this department either. Black and white strips or top hats are a wardrobe essential. Wonka and the Mad Hatter both have top hats that they take absolutely everywhere as if it’s an obsessive trait. Black and white pinstripe is also a wardrobe staple for Burton. Black and white pinstripe often is seen as a character who has a grandiose sense of self. The top of Wonkas cane is black and white striped, Jack Skellington has a pinstripe white and black suit, and tweedle-dee and tweedle-dumb wear black and white striped shirts. All of this shows how Burton’s overt and obnoxious use of wardrobe and makeup has made him into a film auteur, recognizable to anyone.

I hope this has made you reflect on how Tim Burton clearly has an unparalleled cinematic style. He marks his films through German Expressionism, Gothic Influence, character tropes, unconventional wardrobe and makeup, and overall use of building antithetical worlds. Though Burton does a good job of following the classic three-act structure, it is clear he does have his very own flair and always puts his personal touch into each picture he creates. By examining the films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) it is evident that Burton’s ability to conjure entire worlds on screen has made sure he goes down in history as a Film Auteur. I hope you guys can watch out for some of this the next time you sit down and watch a Burton movie! Write me and let me know if you notice any of this in his movies I did not get a chance to mention.

Hi all! My name is Kirsten Corrigan (she/her), and I am so excited to be a part of Her Campus! I'm a freshman at The University of Texas at Austin. My hometown is Manhattan, NY. I'm a government/political science major and I plan on going to law school after undergrad. A few things about me; I'm an Aquarius, a huge movie buff, I play guitar, I enjoy painting (although I'm not great at it), and I have an addiction to coffee. I have a passion for writing and politics. I hope you enjoy reading my work!
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