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Tim Burton Guides to the Screen Another Tale from the Dark Side

NEW YORK -- Tim Burton looks like one of his characters, like Edward Scissorhands perhaps, with his tangled thicket of hair and his hands that wave helplessly in all directions at once. He is the most unassuming of directors, amused by his own peculiarities, and although he is 30-ish, you get the impression he is still healing the wounds he received in junior high school.

In the hierarchy of Hollywood, where success counts above all, he is a powerful man. You have to remind yourself of this. He directed the two "Batman" movies, which between them grossed something like $500 million, and his other credits include "Beetlejuice" (1987) and "Edward Scissorhands" (1990). He seems more bemused than impressed. Ask him why he isn't going to direct the third Batman film, which is now under way, and he shrugs and grins and says, "I dunno. That last one was really hard - I thought I was going to have some fun - these things are too - it's best if I don't - I shouldn't be experimenting around on those big - I'd rather do it on smaller things."

That's how he talks, with dashes, his ideas running ahead of his speech. Notice there seems to be no ego in his decision, no feeling that he made two giant blockbusters and is now moving on to projects even more vast. He sounds more like a kid turning down the presidency of the school movie club.

Or ask him about "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," the new animated musical that opens on Friday. Despite the misleading title, this is a Halloween movie, from the Walt Disney studios. You point out it is the first animated title in the studio's history to begin with a name other than "Walt Disney," and Tim Burton grins: "I guess they didn't want to tarnish their good name."

The movie is filmed in the technique of stop-action animation (imagine "Jason and the Argonauts" crossed with the California Raisins). It creates an entirely new mythology for Halloween, the only major holiday that doesn't have pop cartoon characters connected to it, unless you count Casper the Friendly Ghost.

In the story, originally devised by Burton more than 10 years ago, there is a cluster of towns, each one dedicated to a holiday. Halloweentown is presided over by Jack Skellington, a skeleton in top hat and tails, who one day wanders down the wrong way and ends up in Christmastown, which he likes ever so much more than where he lives. Watching Santa and his elves preparing presents for the big holiday, Skellington realizes that this is the life for him. So he arranges to have Santa kidnapped so that he, Jack, can play Santa Claus. The results of his plan are predictably macabre.

Although younger viewers will probably get involved in the story of Jack's adventures, older ones may be more impressed by the visual look of the film, which seems to owe something to "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and other early examples of German Expressionism, and which is the most original-looking animated film since the Peter Max-inspired "Yellow Submarine."

For Tim Burton, however, the project is remembered more as a case of goofing off at school - or, in this case, at the Disney Studios, where he was employed as a lowly animator a decade ago, before the current Eisner/Katzenberg regime shook things up.

"Growing up, you know, I always loved 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,' and 'Rudolph (the Red-Nosed Reindeer),' and I loved Halloween, and I wanted to do a story that would put the two of them together. So I thought about Halloweentown, and took images, and sort of twisted them together and made up my own township and hierarchy." Working for Disney

This was a Disney project?

Burton looks as if he'd been caught at the cookie jar.

"It was a weird time at Disney. The company was at a strange period in its history - directionless - trying to do things - an odd time - but with that, I got a chance to sit in a room and draw for a year. I was working on 'The Black Cauldron,' and they let me make a short film, 'Vincent,' and I was thinking about a holiday special - I was always a Dr. Seuss fan, too - all of those things together, you know - and just stretching ideas, and drawing."

And then the "Nightmare" project remained in the back of his mind during all of his other films, until he went back to Disney and talked them into making it, with himself as executive producer. Starting with his story and visual ideas, the film was directed by Henry Selick and written by Caroline Thompson.

The stop-action process, sometimes called tabletop animation, is one of the oldest and yet most unfamiliar techniques in filmmaking. Essentially, it works like this: Objects are arranged in front of the camera, and one frame is exposed. Then they are moved very slightly, and another frame is exposed. And so on, with infinite care, until when the film is projected at normal speed, the objects seem to have a life of their own. Will Vinton's Claymation films and California Raisin commercials use the process with clay. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" uses articulated, costumed skeletons shot against weirdly imaginative background graphics.

It's a completely different technique, with a different look, from the "cel animation" of most Disney features, in which artists and computers draw the pictures, one frame at a time. Burton tried that style early, and didn't like it.

"I was employed on 'The Fox and the Hound' for about a year, but I just couldn't do it. I'd gone to Cal Arts, which had sort of a program, training people for Disney, but I couldn't get the style. It was too soft for me. I tried very hard, but - I did some design work for 'The Black Cauldron,' but - "

Disney's animated features have gotten a lot better since then.

"Oh, yeah, they're very smart; they understand now that quality does count for something in terms of animation; they're doing some very good things. At first, they were wary of stop-action for 'Nightmare,' but once we did the testing. . ."

His hands were moving, as if arranging things one frame at a time. A 'funky' art form

"Part of the reason I love stop-action so much is that it's really handmade. You pick up such an energy. People are actually moving the figures, and you feel them putting life into them. It's a beautiful process. Unlike cel animation, where you can go back and change something, in stop-action, one thing follows another, and you can't turn back to fix a shot without redoing everything. There's a funkiness and roughness to the art form."

The great commercial master of stop-action was the special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who in features like "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Clash of the Titans" used stop-action to insert mythological creatures into realistically photographed stories.

"He was trying to create something more like reality," Burton said. "Like, in one of first movies I almost ever saw, 'Jason and the Argonauts,' he had that sword fight with the skeletons that was incredible. What we're doing is more character-y, more cartoon-oriented, it's like a folk-art form."

Your characters seem to move with more fluidity and grace, however, than Harryhausen's.

"It's down to the talent of the animators, really. Moving the armatures of those characters a fraction of an inch at a time. Also, we could use computer-controlled camera moves, allowing us to figure out how to move the camera as well as the figures. They weren't able to do that a few years ago. Harryhausen usually used a static camera. The technology has gotten better, but for the most part, it's still an old-fashioned, handmade kind of technique. Three-dimensional aspect

"Compared to cel animation, however, there's something about it that has impact. It has a three-dimensional aspect, you can light the set, give it more weight, more of a place, make it a bit more graphic."

The character of Jack Skellington has more than a little in common with some of Burton's other fictional heroes, like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, the demon Beetlejuice and even Pee-wee Herman, star of Burton's first feature, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." Your characters all have good hearts, I said, and want to do the right thing, but are ostracized from society, and tend to cause more trouble than they intend.

"I never consciously thought about it," Burton said, "but I can see that link. I grew up with such a feeling of society categorizing people. In school, people were deemed good or bad in sports, smart or stupid - often wrongly. There was a group of people called the 'retarded class,' and the fact is they were really smart, but by the school conventions - the way things were laid out - they were put in a category. There was this wall. I always hated that wall, and I still hate it."

I got the unmistakable impression that Burton was placed in categories in school, perhaps because he came across as a goofy dreamer.

"People who have the convictions of their own good or bad nature - and passion - I admire people like that. They may think they made the best movie ever made, and they didn't, or they may fall in love, and it may not be the best relationship, but there is something beautiful in people who believe in whatever they're doing."

To some degree, I asked, are your characters . . . you?

"Well, it's not like I was or am a proficient filmmaker with a lot to fall back on in terms of ideas. I identify with them, I find something in them. I find them funny, too."

I was moved, I said, by Jack Skellington's heartfelt desire to be Santa Claus, instead of a figure of fright. But when he goes out on Christmas Eve, his hope of bringing joy to the world is frustrated.

"There are those kind of feelings in real life for me. I had this feeling growing up - it's like when you talk to somebody, and it all comes out wrong."

"Maybe that's why the fairy tale form is great for me, it's an opportunity to put things in, without offering one specific message. Batman, Jack, they're blinded by their passions, by their desire to do well. Maybe they had a puritanical background, a lot of feelings that aren't shown."

They live in hidden places, I said, and then venture out trying to do good.

Burton smiled. "Every time I looked around at school," he said, "it looked like everyone had their own private world. You didn't see too many people who seemed to be paying attention. They were in their own special worlds."

Where did you grow up?

"Burbank!" He laughed. "There was no weather. In California, the seasons only change at Thrifty Drug Stores. They'd take down the Halloween decorations, put up the Christmas stuff. That's how you knew that autumn was over and winter was beginning. You take anything you can get." 

In those days, you could ride your bike to school. Now you could ride your bike to Disney or Warner Bros., right there in Burbank.

"It was so weird, I had an office at Disney, and I could look out the window, and see the hospital where I was born, St. Joseph's, and the cemetery where my grandfather is buried, Forest Lawn. It was like the Bermuda Triangle."

In all your movies, I said, the characters are skeletons, or penguins, or they wear rubber, or they have scissors for hands. It's cringe time, playing against the fetishistic reactions in the audience, cutting directly to the subconscious.

"When you grow up in a fairly austere environment," he said, "you always sense there's something weird going on beneath the surface. I've always been fascinated by people wearing masks and things. I love makeup; it does something to people, it changes them, like in the old monster movies."

There's a theory that kids identify with movie monsters because, like kids, they feel clumsy, and knock things over, and cannot communicate with adults, and mean to do well, but screw up.

"That makes perfect sense to me. From Day 1, I never was afraid of a monster movie at all. It was weird how monsters were always perceived as bad, and in most monster movies, they are rarely bad. And kids love to dress up as monsters; that's why they love Halloween. I think it's a great release for little kids, costumes and masks; there's something about putting on a disguise that unleashes something else. You're out at night, running around, and it's a beautiful release."

And for your next project . . .

"I'm still shooting that Ed Wood movie."

Of course, it's Tim Burton's dream project, the biopic based on the life of the man known as the worst movie director of all time, whose "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is considered the worst movie ever made, and whose "Glen or Glenda?" was based on Wood's own penchant for transvestism.

"Ed Wood is a little like Jack Skellington, actually, who wanted to dress up like Santa Claus. He's another passionate character who dresses up in other clothes and feels great about it."

The movie's coming along well?

"After the burden of these special-effects movies, it's a real pleasure to do a movie where the effects are supposed to be bad."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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