Salute Your Shorts: Tim Burton's Short Films (Part 1, 1971-1982)

Movies Features Tim Burton
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“Vincent” tells the story of how a child named Vincent dreams of becoming like his namesake, Vincent Price. In rhyming couplets, Price himself narrates about how Vincent goes about these dark activities until eventually he gets carried away and digs up his mom’s flower bed. She punishes him, but Vincent remains obsessed with Price.

Burton spent the next several years of his life working for Disney, where by all accounts he chafed under their dictatorial approach towards animation (this was before the studio’s second renaissance). On the side, though, he made friends with many of the other people who worked at the studio and completed several films with them. These movies were never meant to be seen by anyone; they were more of a stress release for Burton and his friends to do something really crazy instead of working in the conventional Disney format they spent their days stuck in. 

Again, this copy of "Doctor of Doom" is slightly truncated, but as it’s less interesting (and frankly difficult to watch), this is less irritating than with “Celery Monster”:


In “Doctor of Doom,” Burton plays the titular doctor in this Frankenstein-esque homage to 1930s horror films. Dialogue is intentionally mis-synched and the elephant mask is likewise meant to be as awful as possible. The short is mostly just interesting as a predecessor to Ed Wood, as the short has something of Wood’s terrible style and heavy-handedness to it. Also, like Wood, it’s difficult to watch. Had the short not been made as an homage, Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have eaten this material up.


A much more interesting project that was an outlet for Disney employees is “Luau,” which is by far the strangest of Burton’s films. Like “Doctor of Doom,” the film was never meant to actually be screened for anyone, which I suspect allowed Burton to do his craziest and go all-out in what is an insane idea executed brazenly. Also co-written, directed and produced by Burton’s friend Jerry Rees (The Brave Little Toaster), who also worked with Burton on “Doctor of Doom,” the short is a sort of surf-movie parody with influences from Ed Wood flicks and other b-movies. The short is intentionally cheesy and full of obvious camera effects pulled from B sci-fi flicks. I would give a plot synopsis, but there really isn’t much of one, and half of the film is just bad dancing anyhow. With a focus on unexplained mystical powers and nonsensical human interactions, there’s a sort of anti-narrative pull here as with “Doctor of Doom” that seems very different from the conventionally plotted works Burton moved to in features.

My favorite part of “Luau,” and the rest of Burton’s early works, is how much fun it’s clear the director is having. With Sleepy Hollow or Sweeney Todd, so much time is meticulously put into the correct mise-en-scene that some of the visceral nature of filmmaking is gone. Here, though, goofy moments like projecting the film’s credits on a girl’s skirt or fast-forwarding through bad visual puns have a sort of excess that’s enjoyable. Alongside this is a sort of sexuality that doesn’t typically enter Burton’s films, which draw some of their childishness through never broaching on this topic. Despite Catwoman’s fetish outfit, most of Burton’s movies touch on this no more than the Disney world he broke away from, but “Luau”’s leering glances contrast the ellipses of his later films. The short also has lines like “It’s the Katzenjammer Kids gone to the moon, Man!” and “I wanna be called by my right name: Vladimir Moonface Junior!”

After several years of his work being largely disregarded by the studio, Burton convinced Disney to let him make his own movie for $60,000. The short would be based on a short story Burton had already written, and the work was conceived as partially a film and partially a screen test for integrating computer and 3-D animation with traditional animation. Their project was given “off-the-lot” status and Burton and the short’s producer Rick Heinrichs had for the most part free reign to do as they liked. What they produced was both Burton’s first commercially released film and his first truly professional-looking work.

Part of what’s great about “Vincent” is the way it manages to translate early Burton’s art style into three dimensions. Drawing influence from equal parts Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss, the short looks beautiful in its sculpted stylization, as usual composed of slinking limbs connected to bulbous bodies. More than that, though, its story is perhaps Burton’s most autobiographical save maybe Ed Wood, connecting all of Burton’s main influences into one place and showing how a child grows up wishing to be a dark, gothic brooder when he’s really just a seven-year old creating worlds. Young Vincent Malloy’s fantasies have an analogue with the films Burton himself made just a few years earlier, creating his own homemade B Movies in the same manner that Vincent reimagines his world. Unlike many of Burton’s works, though, the short doesn’t treat itself too seriously, both identifying with Vincent’s obsessions and criticizing the way they take over his world and become his identity, stealing from Price rather than seeing how things really are. It’s a more mature work than anything Burton would put out in more than 10 years and still looks just as good today as it did in 1982.

It’s with “Vincent” that Burton transitioned into a professional director rather than a hobbyist, and while he continued doing design work for years to come, for the most part he was making his own films for studios from this point on. Next week we’ll take a look at Burton’s short works since 1983. 

Extra Credit: The Burton exhibition at MOMA also features this short, untitled piece of animation about a king and an octopus.  As its style is similar to "Celery Monster" and it's from 1978-79, I suspect the short was done while Burton was at Cal Arts. That being said, I've never found any other references to the tiny film and what it was made for.  

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