Out of the Shadows: The Tim Burton Exhibition

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“‘Tim has evolved rather than changed,’ says Colleen Atwood. ‘The thing is his spirit and his vision always ring true and it is a thread through all his work.'”

It’s perhaps the quintessential Tim Burton tableau: the aloof man-child, forlorn yet somehow beatific, all flittering, expressive rag-doll angles as he slices through glistening ice with razor-sharp blades. In that singular moment at the climax of Edward Scissorhands—often cited by the director as his most personal movie—we have the essence of both the Burton theme and aesthetic; the outsider looking in upon a world they cannot touch, transforming the unfamiliar landscape of the everyday through art to create a new kind of beauty.

If such early Burton images defined him as a filmmaker, they also caricatured him as an artist; as the Hollywood auteur trapped in a prism of Gothic pop, defined by his affection for old monster movies and content to recycle his trademark riffs across multiple properties as he revisited the well of shared childhood tales.

“I’ve always been misrepresented,” Burton told Britain’s Independent back in 2005. “You know, I could dress in a clown costume and laugh with the happy people but they’d still say I’m a dark personality.”

Indeed, as the new exhibition opening this month at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image illustrates, there’s much more to film’s resident big-budget oddball than licorice stripes and skeletal heroes in the throes of identity crises—the work on display draws upon a rich palette of influences and demonstrates Burton’s versatility across a variety of media.

Drawing from a dazzling array of pieces, from Burton’s childhood through his most recent films, the exhibition takes the oft-told tale of the shy kid who grew up weird in banal suburban California and fleshes it out with a vibrant collection that traces his development as an artist and affirms the consistency of his obsessions.

“His willingness to dive wholeheartedly into the sensual and ridiculous mean that critics occasionally dismiss Burton’s films as mere visual confections,” says Jenny He, who worked curating the show for its debut at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year. “But he has a ready rebuttal. As Charlie Bucket sagely remarks in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ‘Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy’.”

Working alongside MoMA film curator Ron Magliozzi, He was charged with the enviable task of sifting through Tim Burton’s personal archives, a quest that proved revealing in uncovering the depth and breadth of his back catalogue. Magliozzi and He were privy to scores of vintage sketches and artworks the director had made from his formative years on, and were amazed at the recurrent themes—Burton had scribbled version of Jack Skellington, his character from The Nightmare Before Christmas, over and over for years—even as his work became more sophisticated.

The result is not only a treat for Burton’s many fans, but anyone curious as to how such an apparent outsider arrested the collective subconscious and became one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of his era. On display are everything from early character sketches to elaborate costumes and props from films including Beetlejuice and Batman, with dioramas created specifically by the artist for the exhibition. Intriguingly, the show also gives us glimpses at Burton’s very first Super-8 films, made when he was still a teenager.

Instrumental in many of exhibit’s pieces is costume designer Colleen Atwood, the Oscar-winning costumier whose work with Burton, begun when they collaborated on Edward Scissorhands, is as synonymous with the man as his partnership with Johnny Depp or composer Danny Elfman.

Atwood has been busy refurbishing one of the original Scissorhands costumes for the exhibition, an outfit donated by Depp from his personal collection. “It’s pretty unforgettable for me,” she reflects of the piece, “because it was my first collaboration with Tim; the first time I met Tim and Johnny. It is sort of an emotional costume for me.”

The iconic costume, fashioned in a leather look and adorned with the late special effects guru Stan Winston’s signature blades, remains a thing of wonder—and a technical accomplishment, given the sweltering conditions of the Tampa, Florida shoot, which were so hot that Depp actually passed out one day in character.

“Yeah it was major,” Atwood chuckles. “I was kind of trying to make it so it moved and kept as little weight as possible, We wanted it to be leather but I figured out a way to mount it on a stretch fabric so there was some oxygen and it wasn’t like a total rubber suit. It was a real challenge back then. It was daunting, but we did it. The first time I saw the Scissors they took my breath away. The way they moved; it was an incredible invention.”

Working alongside Burton for so many years, Atwood has seen the filmmaker, who she calls a “regular” guy, develop from young artist to man. “Tim has evolved rather than changed,” she offers. “He’s become a man and he was a very young man when I met him. The thing is his spirit and his vision always ring true and it is a thread through all his work.”

Their relationship is intuitive. “We have our own language and comfort zone. Tim never really hands me a sketch of a character, per se,” Atwood says. “He knows it’s a fluid process and because he’s an artist himself he respects other people’s ideas. I show him three or four ideas and he’ll pick one and then we’ll go with that and do fittings and take it from there.”

The organic nature of the process extends to her work with Depp, too, whom Atwood clothed for Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie, and Sweeney Todd. Depp’s fittings help create the character, she says. “I bring a few pieces to the table and see how Johnny interprets them. For instance, on Alice in Wonderland, in our first fitting I had the hat and the hair and the symbols, and he started doing things with all these bits and you see the character come to life.”

For Burton’s Alice, Atwood and Depp imagined the Mad Hatter as a sartorial cacophony reflecting his ruptured mental state, an ensemble that evolved from the actor and designer playing dress-ups with the elements. “We had this idea early on,” says Atwood. “Johnny wanted the Hatter’s costume to have the feeling of a mood ring, so I took these silks in different colours and shredded them away, so that when it moved in the light it changed colour. The accoutrements were all things that the Hatter might have in his day.”

Having clothed Martians, Scissormen, cross-dressing directors, apes, Victorian barbers and fairytale crackpots, the question remains: is there anything Burton could present that would challenge Atwood?

“I guess we’ll find out,” she laughs, considering the thing most difficult of all. “Probably a normal guy walking down the street.”

Little doubt that would be transformed into magic by Burton, too.

The Tim Burton exhibition opens at ACMI June 24 and runs through October 10.

Originally published in Yen, 2010 (PDF here)

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