As "Corpse Bride" continues to delight moviegoers around the country, I really find it kind of amusing that Tim Burton is being hailed as the new modern master of stop motion animation. I mean, if you actually do any research about Burton's career, you'll discover fairly quickly that Tim originally wasn't all that enthusiastic about animation. At least back in the late 1970s, when he worked at Walt Disney Studios.

Timothy William Burton grew up virtually right next door to the Mouse House. Born in Burbank on August 25, 1958, Tim has a brother and two parents from whom he's always felt distant. His father, a former ballplayer and park-league coach, urged him to go outside and play baseball. When his mother, who owned a boutique specializing in items decorated with cat motifs, suggested he go out and play, Burton would go to a nearby cemetery. However, Burton did feel an affinity for Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price and the classic monsters from many horror movies. His earliest ambition was to grow up and be the actor who played Godzilla.

For him, drawing was a sanctuary and in the ninth grade his artwork adorned the garbage trucks of Burbank since he had won first prize for designing an anti-littering poster. Encouraged by his high school art teacher and wanting a career for which he wouldn't need too much schooling, he got a scholarship to attend California Institute of the Arts. He studied animation and left in 1979 whereupon he went to work immediately at the Disney Studios when they reviewed his last bit of animation, "Stalk of the Celery Monster."

"What I feel really good about, really happy about, is that I did not go to film school. I went to CalArts and went through animation, where I got a very solid education. You learn design; you draw your own characters, your own backgrounds, your own scenes. You cut it; you shoot it. You learn the storyboarding process. It's everything, without the bullshit of film school: the competition, the feeling like you're already in the industry - you don't get a chance to create," said Burton.

However, what he was not happy about was working on a typical Disney animated feature, "The Fox and the Hound". He was teamed with veteran animator Glen Keane whom Burton described as "nice. He was good to me; he's a really strong animator and he helped me." But all the help in the world wasn't enough and Burton found himself assigned to drawing the distance shots where his lack of "Disney style" drawing would be less noticeable.

"I couldn't draw those four-legged Disney foxes. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't even fake the Disney style. Mine looked like roadkills," he claimed.

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--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. I was working on "The Fox and the Hound", and it was pretty quickly obvious that I was not cut out for it. It was, like, oh man, I couldn't do it. I couldn't handle it. At Disney, I almost went insane. I really did. I don't ever want to get that close to that certain kind of feeling that I had. Who knows what a nervous breakdown is? Or who knows what going off the edge is? I don't want to get that close again. Number one is, I was just not Disney material. I could just not draw cute foxes for the life of me. I couldn't do it. I tried. I tried, tried. The unholy alliance of animation is you are called upon to be an artist, but on the other hand, you are called upon to be a zombie factory worker. And for me, I could not integrate the two. Also, at the time they were making kind of shitty movies. And it took them five or six years to make a movie. There's that cold, hard fact: Do you want to spend six years of your life working on 'The Fox and the Hound'? There's a soul-searching moment when the answer is pretty clear."

Burton's behavior was odd. He slept ten hours at home and another four at work, sitting up straight in his chair with his pencil ready to move if anyone came in while he was sitting there. It was a sign of depression. Co-workers might find him hiding in a closet or under his desk. Disney was going through a period of transition and this type of "artistic" behavior apparently wasn't bothersome. In an attempt to find an outlet for the obviously talented Burton, Disney decided to make him a concept artist and team him with another animator, Andreas Deja.

"They were very nice to me. They said, 'We're doing this movie, 'The Black Cauldron', so I just sat in a room for a year and came up with ideas and stuff, just drew any idea I wanted to, and it was great. It was like weird characters, weird props, weird furniture, just sitting in a room doing whatever I wanted. But at some point I realized they had no intention of using any of it. It was like that show, 'The Prisoner.' It was all very pleasant, all very nice, everyone's smiling and being very supportive. But it's like you realize early on that it's like a vacuum, a black hole. When I was at Disney, animation was in a terrible state. I just wanted to get out. The talent was there, but they didn't have the foresight to see that people have a sense of quality and would respond to it. But I think the success of the recent Disney films has been good for animation."

Advertisement

It was really not a collaboration between Burton and Deja. Their styles and personalities were very different. While some of Deja's designs made it into the final film, none of Burton's work did. All of that work is owned by the Disney Studio and if they were clever they could release a book of Burton's imaginative sketches for the film including a creature that is created by four distinctive animals when it is frightened. Burton's work for the project was typical Burton: very dark and scratchy and angular. However, Burton's work caught the attention of producer Julie Hickson and the head of creative development at Disney at the time, Tom Wilhite.

It was Wilhite who came up with sixty thousand dollars so that Burton could develop a children's book he had been working on about a boy who wanted to grow up and be Vincent Price. It seemed more than a little autobiographical. After three years working at Disney, Burton would finally get to work on a project that was truly his vision, a stop motion short entitled "Vincent."

Burton was able to secure the services of Price himself as the film's narrator. Price loved the poem and understood what Burton wanted to accomplish. For Burton, it was a joy meeting his idol who lived up to all his expectations and more.

Burton's next project was a short film for the Disney Channel, "Hansel and Gretel" done with an all Japanese cast. Burton made the children's father a toymaker so he and Rick Heinrichs who he had worked with on "Vincent" had fun creating unusual toys that were showcased on a Disney Channel special hosted by animation historian John Culhane. "Hansel and Gretel" was shown only once and has never been re-issued.

Burton also did some concept work for the live action film, "Toys", and for another project entitled "Trick or Treat" that would have dealt with kids on Halloween and a haunted house. Before he left Disney in 1984, Burton also directed a black and white live action short entitled "Frankenweenie", a twist on the classic "Frankenstein" horror film where a young boy brings his dog, Sparky, back to life.

Burton also worked on another poem story about a Halloweenland. HenrySelick first encountered Tim Burton and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" at Disney in the early 1980s, when Burton proposed it as a 30-minute television special perhaps narrated by Vincent Price. Selick was also having difficulty adapting to the Disney Way.

After leaving Disney, Selick worked for several weeks in Seattle on Carroll Ballard's 1986 film of Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," creating storyboards and miniatures. He also worked in collaboration with Portland animator Will Vinton on "Return to Oz." "Storyboarding was how I learned to direct, and I worked on 'Oz' for about a year," said Selick.

Burton was more than content to write and produce "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and to leave his old friend, Selick, to direct it.

"I'm very happy with the way it worked out. It was very comfortable for every one of us. When I was in animation, I had to get out because I didn't have the patience for it. To me, the artistic spirit is very spontaneous - when you get a thought that's very creative or exhilarating, and then you apply it to this long drawn out process, it's very difficult. And this type of animation (stop motion) is even more difficult because it takes so long. What keeps you going through making a movie like Nightmare is the energizing feeling you get when each of those shots come through."

I guess it's just too bad that Tim Burton didn't feel all that energized when he first worked for Disney Feature Animation.