The world of Tim Burton’s films is a dark and twisted one, filled with creatures and characters that seem to be pulled from the pages of a fairy tale gone horribly wrong. This article explores the design and concept behind some of his most iconic creations, such as Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, and Jack Skellington.
Down the Rabbit Hole: A Closer Look at the Design and Concept of Iconic Tim Burton Characters is a blog post that compares and contrasts the 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland to its source material, Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel.
Even if you’ve never heard of Tim Burton, chances are you’ve watched one of his films. The critically acclaimed director, producer, and animator has won numerous awards, including a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1990 for his film Edward Scissorhands and a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award in 2012 for his film Frankenweenie, which tells the story of a dog who is brought back to life by its grieving owner.
Tim Burton frequently characterizes himself as an outsider in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, a little kid living in an odd limbo outside of what is regarded as normal. When asked whether he is personally impacted by the criticism he receives for his work, particularly in his early years in the business, the filmmaker stopped to say that he is accustomed to it. However, you get the impression that it wasn’t simple. Despite his own admission that he may be a little fringe, there’s something very personal about his films that makes them so appealing, giving them the ability to rake in the worth of their production expenses many times over.
It was for this reason that Disney originally declined to release the live-action version of Frankenweenie (1984). The film was just too far out there, too dark to be seen by the general population. Despite Burton’s films’ bleak visuals, his characters manage to remain sympathetic and human – even when they aren’t.
Tim Burton’s Eccentric Genius
Tim Burton could have made a lot of money making cookie-cutter movies. The young animator attended the California Institute of Arts, which has produced some of the finest animators in the business, including Brad Bird from The Incredibles and Brenda Chapman from The Prince of Egypt. It’s no surprise that Disney hired him as an animator in 1981, given his experience and skill.
Burton, on the other hand, was not interested in creating dull movies, admitting modestly that he “wasn’t adept at sketching in the Disney manner.” Take a look at Tim Burton’s characters to discover how far off from Disney they are. Like the soft-spoken Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, he has a knack for turning the ugly and frightening into something charming (1993). He was still acknowledged for his skill, and Disney executives gave him a modest budget to make Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1985). (1984).
The film Frankenweenie (1984) depicted the peaceful suburban existence of Victor Frankenstein, whose beloved dog Sparky was killed in a bizarre automobile accident. The bereaved youngster resolves to utilize science (and lightning) to resurrect his beloved pet. It’s based on Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, although the topic was chosen as a reminiscence of childhood recollections rather than a tribute.
Burton, like the socially shy Victor and his Sparky, met his pet Pepe when he was three years old, whom he described as “like your first love.”
Pepe was often afflicted with canine distemper, and the danger of his sickness loomed over the two, threatening to shorten their time together. Burton’s father, Pepe, died when he was ten years old. As a coping mechanism, the young horror fan viewed films about resurrection, particularly versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
He explained, “It wasn’t like I genuinely wanted to bring (Pepe) back to life.” Burton just understood the anguish of characters who want to resurrect their deceased loved ones. He absorbed this as a child, showing the parallels between himself and the undead in many films with dead dogs.
Aside with Sparky, there’s Vincent’s Abercrombie, Zero from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Scraps from The Corpse Bride (2005), all of which are part of Tim Burton’s history of dead dogs appearing in his films.
However, with the failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney felt it was time to part ways with Burton. Though the split wasn’t permanent, as Burton worked on Dumbo (2019) decades later, it allowed him the opportunity to concentrate on other projects, which led to the creation of these 10 Tim Burton characters that have captivated the hearts and minds of people all around the globe.
Characters from Tim Burton’s films and the Gothic Grotesque
Emily is number ten (The Corpse Bride, 2005)
The Corpse Bride is one of Burton’s most well-known pictures, having been released in 2005. Emily, a Tim Burton character that resembles Dave Cameron’s Na’vi people in a gothic bridal form, is the eponymous corpse bride who is unwilling to be put to rest due to a promise she made. You’d assume it was a wedding promise, but it’s not. After her previous fiancé, the cunning Barkis Bittern, stabbed her to die in an attempt to steal her fortune, Emily vowed she’d find her true love.
Despite the fact that The Corpse Bride (2005) was released in 2005, the idea for the film has been around since 1996 in the form of a concept sculpture. Burton called in Graham G. Maiden, a Puppet Fabrication Supervisor at Three Mills, since the picture was supposed to feature stop-motion animation.
Tim Burton’s character drawings were difficult to bring to life because of their dramatic angles and wiry proportions, which didn’t transfer well to puppets that had to be able to support themselves, according to Maiden. Emily was the most difficult to animate since her wedding gown’s full skirts, yes, many, had to be individually connected and weighted. When the finished result was shown, it was obvious that each painstakingly crafted skirt had been well worth the effort.
“At the same time, it’s beautiful and terrifying.” “That is a strange thing because you’d expect a decaying lady to be disgusting, but it isn’t,” Maiden remarked in an interview with Animation Art Conservation.
The Penguin and Edgar (Frankenweenie, 2012) (Batman Returns, 1992)
In the 2012 animated version of Frankenweenie, Edgar E. Gore plays the adversary. His design is reminiscent of the monster hunchbacks seen in early horror films. Unlike Emily, who is ugly but lovely, this new member to Tim Burton’s cast is designed to be nasty. Edgar has greasy yarn hair that shines in the sun, and his gapped teeth, which are deliberately discolored to seem as though they had plaque, don’t help him look good. A pair of spindly fingers and a stumpy figure complete his malformed back, giving him the appearance of a demonic egg.
He has a similar appearance and feel to another of Tim Burton’s most terrifying villains, the Penguin from Batman Returns (1992). The Penguin was created several years before the animated Frankenweenie (2012), making it a forerunner of the Satanic Humpty Dumpty idea.
Diane Doniol-Valcroze, a writer and screenwriter, sent this tweet with early concept design drawings for both the Penguin and Catwoman. Burton opted for a harsher tone in his adaptation of the Batman tale, working hard to make the settings darker and the characters more edgy. With a sharply pointed snout, penguin-shaped torso, and webbed hands, Tim Burton’s Penguin was a genuine circus freak. While Danny DeVito’s performance was praised, Tim Burton’s portrayal of the Penguin was not.
Regardless matter how the Tim Burton version of the character was perceived, the Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot of Batman Returns influenced subsequent versions of the Penguin to adhere to the long-nosed, slimy-feeling form. In Gotham, Robin Lord Taylor portrays a heartbreaking and charming, but still ugly, version of the Penguin from Batman: The Animated Series.
Catwoman (number 8) (Batman Returns, 1992)
Tim Burton’s characters are always iconic, and the director’s rendition of Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman, is no exception. Selina begins her career as a scrawny secretary for Max Shreck, a crooked businessman bent on denying Gotham residents access to power. Selina, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, pledges not to inform the public about the plan, but Shreck knocks her out of her apartment window, sending her to her death.
Selina’s generosity to the neighborhood’s stray cats was repaid when the cats gathered around her corpse, perhaps giving her one of their nine lives to bring her back to life. Tim Burton highlights this Frankenstein-like element of the Catwoman in his concept drawings for her.
Other non-Burton Catwoman designs tend to highlight her sex appeal and feminine attractiveness, but Burton decided to include staple-like stitches in the Catwoman’s glossy latex costume, a nod to the stitches we see on Frankenstein’s monster. Because of this visual connection with death, Burton’s Catwoman costume seems to be more of a tightly fitting body sack than a BDSM suit, despite its sexiness.
Victor Van Dort, no. 7 (The Corpse Bride, 2005)
We can’t speak about Emily without mentioning Victor Van Dort, the not-so-skeletal groom who unintentionally involves himself with the undead Emily. How did Victor wind up marrying Emily in the first place? He decided to rehearse his wedding vows in a dark wood, close to a skeleton hand into which he placed a ring.
Victor Van Dort’s design is precisely what you’d imagine a late-nineteenth-century gentleman to look like. He’s dressed in a black suit with a highly starched collar and a necktie wrapped around it.
In comparison to the more exotic Tim Burton characters we see in the director’s previous works, his clothing seems deceptively basic. His outfit, however, had to be molded in a three-step molding procedure. Before adding a mold, the team developed a ‘core’ that would represent the basic form of an un-posed person. This cast was then coated in cloth to give Tim Burton’s designs their “graphic quality,” according to Graham Maiden.
Although Victor’s clothing is true to the era depicted in The Corpse Bride (2005), horror aficionados who are acquainted with both Tim Burton and Edgar Allan Poe may find some parallels between the renowned writer and Emily’s reluctant husband. Victor and Poe, both fictitious characters, have sunken, melancholy eyes and a washed-out appearance. Furthermore, the gothic horror poet was renowned for works about deceased lovers, the most well-known of which being Lenore from The Raven.
Is all of this speculation? Possibly. Tim Burton, on the other hand, has made no secret of his admiration for the author and his work. The eerie mood of Edgar Allan Poe’s works inspired his early film Vincent (1982).
Willy Wonka, No. 6 (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005)
Is it possible to win a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Gene Wilder, who played Willy Wonka in the 1971 film, had this to say about Tim Burton’s rendition of the film when it was released:
In a 2013 interview, Wilder acknowledged, “I believe it’s an insult – Warner Brothers’ insult.” “Johnny Depp, I think, is a fine actor, but I don’t like for that director [Burton].” He’s a gifted individual, but I don’t approve of his behavior.”
The things he did have to do with Burton’s darker interpretation on Roald Dahl’s book. For one thing, Burton brought up how the Oompa Loompas have been effectively enslaved and how Willy Wonka has been endangering children at his factory. But it’s the Tim Burton figure Willy Wonka that Wilder despises the most.
Burton’s Willy Wonka, portrayed by Johnny Depp, is an uncanny reimagining of Gene Wilder’s cheerful, though sometimes sardonic, Willy Wonka. He has a darker skin, a strange speech pattern, and a deep-seated phobia of his father, a dentist who despises sweets.
Tim Burton’s portrayal of Willy Wonka was much more frightening, but it gave the character a strangely sympathetic touch. The audience split between pro-Wilder and pro-Depp Charlie and the Chocolate Factory supporters is due to the fact that daddy problems are relatable.
In hindsight, Gene Wilder’s hatred for Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is funny, given that his casting and depiction as Willy Wonka was one of the main reasons why author Roald Dahl despised the 1971 adaptation of his novel. In Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, his friend and biographer Donald Sturrock stated that Dahl thought Wilder was too light and cheerful to play Willy Wonka. Knowing this, he would have preferred Tim Burton’s creepier Willy Wonka.
5. Beetlejuice is a film based on a true story (Beetlejuice, 1988)
Tim Burton’s characters are in a league of their own, but the eponymous Beetlejuice of Beetlejuice is one of the most aesthetically stunning (1988).
Beetlejuice, whose real name is Betelgeuse, was created with his distinctive frizzy hair and striped clothing right away. The striped clothing appears like old-timey jail or asylum outfits, which is a trademark of Tim Burton’s work. It’s a really whimsical appearance, which is a characteristic of Tim Burton’s work, while remaining gloomy.
Tim Burton’s second full-length feature picture, Beetlejuice (1988), was a match made in heaven between the filmmaker and the screenwriter. Michael McDowell came up with the concept of a reverse haunting after being inspired by campy ghost movies from the mid-80s and his obnoxious neighbors. Humans would disturb the ghosts of McDowell’s tale rather than spirits bothering people. Barbara and Adam Maitland seek the aid of the spookier Beetlejuice when they are unable to frighten away the evil living.
He was really frightening. The moment in which the couple asks Tim Burton’s character whether he can be frightening is well-known.
Jack Skellington is number four (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)
Another one of Tim Burton’s famous characters that is guaranteed to bring back fond memories. Jack Skellington, who is wonderfully scary, is the Halloween equivalent of Santa Claus. Jack Skellington is unexpectedly soft-spoken, fun-loving, and, if you’ve watched his moments with Sally, a romantic, despite the fact that he might easily be a Coraline villain.
Despite his frightening look, he has a Burton-esque passion for harmless good fun and owns a dead ghost dog.
The character concept for Jack Skellington by Tim Burton often depicts the spirit of Halloween disintegrating. Even when Jack’s head explodes off his shoulders like the Headless Horseman, Burton plays it all for comic effect.
3. Alice in Wonderland (Alice in Wonderland, 2010)
There isn’t much fictional material out there that suits Tim Burton’s love of whimsy as well as Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland does when it comes to whimsy. Burton seems to have had as much pleasure creating Wonderland as he did with Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Thanks to Burton’s use of dark settings and vivid colors, Wonderland still appears like a dream realm but feels like a hallucinogenic nightmare.
In contrast to the usually simple drawings for the other concepts we’ve seen so far, Tim Burton’s character design for the Mad Hatter is colorful. The Mad Hatter is played by Johnny Depp, one of Burton’s favorite performers to work with. He was given orange frizzy hair, a huge bow tie, and his trademark top hat by the director. The combination of brilliant oranges with deeper blues and purples evokes the Mad Hatter’s erratic, but never dangerous, moods.
When it comes to favorite performers to work with, one of the many Tim Burton characters in the picture is Helena Bonham Carter, who portrayed the aesthetically stunning Red Queen.
2. The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland, 2010)
The Red Queen cuts an imposing figure throughout the picture, dressed in vivid reds, deep blacks, and dazzling golds. It’s most likely related to her big head as well.
The Red Queen is the ‘evil’ sister of the White Queen, whom Burton humanizes as a misunderstood outsider, much like himself. She is portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, who previously played Mrs. Lovett in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
Her concept art is mostly reds and whites, yet it has the same Tudor-style gown as the finished result. It resembles an exaggerated rendition of Queen Elizabeth I, who wore her hair in a heart shape, wore a heavy frilled collar, and used lead paint foundation.
Edward Scissorhands is the first book in the Edward Scissorhands series (Edward Scissorhands, 1990)
Most of Tim Burton’s well-known characters are animated, but Edward Scissorhands is one of his finest non-animated figures.
Edward Scissorhands is the primary character in the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, played by Johnny Depp because Burton has preferences. It’s a touching picture that takes you back to Burton’s boyhood in Burbank, California. Burton’s upbringing was described as lonely and isolated by the filmmaker, particularly since the introverted Burton was nothing like his father, a former minor league baseball star.
The film’s suburban setting’s cookie-cutter, pastel-colored homes emphasize Edward’s unfitness for the environment. He’s not accepted among the town’s residents, and he doesn’t feel like he belongs either, fumbling in the subtleties of social contact like an alien.
The Tim Burton persona speaks very little in the movie, just 169 words in total, since Depp and Burton both let his actions speak for themselves. Edward’s hands have the potential to harm and kill, yet he utilizes them for creative purposes, such as cutting topiaries into interesting forms and grooming beautiful dogs.
It’s certainly something Burton can identify to, since he recalls being terrified and weird as a kid because of his love of horror movies.
Collen Atwood, an award-winning costume designer, brought Burton’s character idea for Edward Scissorhands to life. Given Edward’s sharply angled and wiry shape, which might give the Slenderman a run for his money, the outfit proved challenging to adapt from Tim Burton’s designs. When you consider the difficulty of constructing the impractically lengthy scissor hands, it’s easy to understand why the final piece spent two years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A Visual Signature of Burton-esque
Tim Burton’s characters and set design have created a distinct visual aesthetic that many viewers have come to identify with the renowned filmmaker. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many people think Burton was involved in the making of Coraline (2009). Following the misunderstanding that Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), filmmaker Henry Selick broke out from under Burton’s shadow with the release of Coraline in 2009.
Given the positive reviews, there’s no question that the picture was well-made, yet the terrifying wonderland beyond a small door and the spider-like Other Mother gave viewers the sense of a Burton-esque aesthetic.
Igor, a 2008 picture about a hunchback who aspires to be an evil scientist in his own right, was also praised for its uncanny resemblance to Tim Burton characters. Fans believed that someone on the Igor team must to have worked for Burton, despite the fact that the titular Igor succeeds and even becomes president. Despite being very entertaining, the film did not get the same critical praise as Coraline (2009), and was instead seen as a poor imitation of Tim Burton’s famous aesthetic of characters and settings.
Do you want to learn more about horror films’ creative side? Take a look at the Top 10 Classic Horror Movie Posters on our list.
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