Auteur Theory and Tim Burton
Tim Burton is an incredibly talented director, writer, artist, and animator. His unique artistic ability has enabled him to influence unforgettable films such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and more. In fact, because his artistic influence is so powerful, Burton is often cited as a proof for the existence of the auteur principle, which suggests that one person is the driving force behind the style, treatment, and content of the film. Although some critics may deny the auteur theory, Burton’s overpowering use of recurrent stylistic themes in the mise-en-scene elements, character quirks, and cinematography clearly add credibility to auteur theory.
One notable stylistic theme in Burton’s films is the unique use of mise-en-scene. Burton uses distinct color contrasts in his films, and this is certainly evident in these three films. In Edward Scissorhands, Burton portrayed Edward’s mansion by using low-key lighting and grayscale colors, yet the suburban town was depicted in vibrant pastels. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton portrayed Charlie Bucket’s house in similar grayscale colors, yet the Wonka factory was filled with bright and imaginative colors. Sleepy Hollow also shared this unique color contrast: much of the film was depicted in low-key lighting and gray colors, whereas Ichabod’s dreams of his parents were often richly colored with impressive visual effects.
Even the costumes reflected the same goth-styled themes. Tim Burton likes to use black and white contrasts in many of his costumes. Edward Scissorhand’s main outfit was a black jumpsuit that contrasted with his pale face. In Sleepy Hollow, Katrina, portrayed by Christina Ricci, wore Burton’s trademark black and white stripes in a dress in the final scene. In addition, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also reflected this unique pattern in the Oompa Loompa’s socks and sleeves, as well as Wonka’s cane topper.
These costume schemes worked well with Burton’s frequent use of religious, occult, and/or gothic themes. In fact, the use of such themes is almost a trademark of Burton films. In Sleepy Hollow, the entire plot circulated around the occult and witchcraft, especially since it was the method used to summon the Headless Horseman. In Edward Scissorhands, Esmeralda was a character portrayed as overly religious, and this was emphasized by showing her religious decorations in her house, as well as her accusations of Edward’s arrival as having something to do with Satan. And while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn’t address religion directly, Burton’s gothic black and white stripes appeared in many of the wardrobe elements.
Besides the recurrent costume and religious/occult themes, Burton’s films also feature themes of wealth vs. poverty. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt was a spoiled brat who had the blessings of wealth, but Charlie Bucket’s humble family lived in extreme poverty. In Sleepy Hollow, Van Tassel was a wealthy farmer, and this wealth served as an important part of the plot. Likewise, in Edward Scissorhands, Edward lived in a mansion, while the people below lived in the suburbs. These differences in classes or status often appear in Burton’s films.
In addition to the “rich vs. poor” theme, Burton also likes to open his films using similar techniques. All three films opened with eerie or dramatic music, along with flashes of scenes of machinery or some other interesting process taking place. In fact, complex gadgets and manufacturing machinery are common in Burton’s films, and he almost always uses these imaginative gadgets as a backdrop of the story. Long shots are often used in the beginning as well, and they help to establish the context of the town.
Another evidence of auteur theory in Burton’s films is that he often works with the same actors and film professionals. For example, Johnny Depp is the star in all three of these films. Burton’s trend of reusing actors is also present in his other films. He is also known to work with actors such as Vincent Price, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, and Helena Carter. By forming an ongoing working relationship with these actors, Burton is able to communicate and incorporate his visions and unique style into every film.
Furthermore, the main character in all three of these films has this one thing in common: He has a quirky, “misfit” personality, yet he also possesses a certain level of genius. Edward Scissorhands does not fit in well with society, yet he sculpts incredible landscapes and cuts hair like a seasoned professional. Wonka is very socially awkward and must rely on index cards when addressing a crowd, yet he is clearly a business and manufacturing genius when it comes to his chocolate empire. Ichabod Crane’s character also follows this trend: He is a “by the book” guy who doesn’t follow the norm, yet he is incredibly inventive with gadgets, and has an impeccable sense of intuition when solving crimes.
Finally, when developing each of these main characters’ background stories, Burton often employs the same editing technique: the flashback. Burton uses this technique to tell the parental conflicts or tragedies that likely led to some of the personality quirks in his characters, and this is noteworthy in all three films. In Edward Scissorhands, Edward witnessed the tragic death of his “creator.” In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, flashback editing revealed that Wonka had an overbearing father who demanded abstinence from all junk food. And in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod had flashbacks of his father’s brutal killing of his mother.
In conclusion, Tim Burton’s rare talent as a director, writer, artist, and animator has led to an overwhelming and unmistakable influence in each of his films. Burton has consistently used stylistic elements that even novice film fans can easily recognize, including contrasting colors and gothic apparel. His frequent use of themes such as religion and wealth add to his unmistakable style. Finally, characters in Burton’s films exhibit both quirks and brilliance, and Burton relies on familiar actors to give these peculiar performances. All of these elements combine to create an unmistakable brand on Tim Burton’s films—so much so that auteur theory becomes essentially provable. Because of Burton’s unique artistic influence, many of his films have stood the test of time, and they will likely be relevant for decades to come. Although some critics may deny the auteur theory, Burton’s overpowering use of recurrent stylistic themes in the mise-en-scene elements, character quirks, and cinematography clearly demand its existence.