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

Movies Features Tim Burton

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

While many were enthused about the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland last week, more interesting (and perhaps less disappointing) has been the Burton exhibit at MOMAthat’s been running since the end of November and will stay open until the end of April. MOMA has unearthed many of Burton’s drawings that have previously been available, but even more exciting are the many short films he’s directed that were thought lost or at the very least impossible to see.

That being said, even for those of us who don’t live in the NYC area and are unable to make it to the exhibit, most of what’s being shown is easily available through the magic of YouTube. This includes even some of Burton’s earliest works. From 1971-72, Burton worked on a series of Super 8 movies with his friends, all very short but still of more than just passing interest. The first of these was “The Island of Doctor Agor,” which stars Burton himself as a man who drowns at the hands of his own twisted creations. In a similar vein, Burton also made “a mad doctor movie, and a little stop-motion film using model cavemen.” Already he was experimenting with what could be done with stop-motion animation, and these films fill out the “Tim’s Dreams” series of the time. Apart from these, though, Burton also directed a somewhat different film in that it wasn’t just a rehash of old monster flicks, “Houdini: The Untold Story.”

Like many of his early films, Burton not only directed the short but starred in it as Houdini as well. The story is kind of incoherent, which is to say that the beginning of the film has little to do with what happens afterwards, but its style is pretty interesting. The film truly looks like an old-fashioned short from the first decade of film, and is as good a stylistic copy as something Guy Maddin would make, though with much larger means. There isn’t much else to it, though, and Burton still used his dreams as a framing device for the picture.

What Burton seemed to spend most of his time during school at weren’t these short films, however, but drawings. All of the exhibit’s copies can be seen here in miniature, and it’s clear early on that he had a set artistic style that has remained consistent. Stripes and extremely skinny and fat limbs abound, as does the obvious influence of Dr. Seuss. Burton’s art eventually earned him a scholarship to the Cal Arts program, which had a program set up by the Disney Studio with an aim towards training young animators. Burton described this as “like being in the Army; I’ve never been in the Army, but the Disney program is probably as close as I’ll ever get. You’re taught by Disney people, you’re taught the Disney philosophy…. You were taught by Disney artists, animators, layout people; you were taught the Disney way.”

At the end of the year, all of the students in Cal Arts’ animation program would do a piece of animation which would be reviewed by Disney. Anyone who showed particular promise would be plucked up by Disney and offered a job, and during his last year there Burton directed “Stalk of the Celery Monster” and was picked.

The standard for these Cal Arts thesis films was to use the assignment as an opportunity to perfect difficult animation techniques. These led to theoretical and, for the most part, uninteresting, films. Burton went a different path by actually trying to make a film, with a beginning, middle and end, as well as well-developed characters. I’m uncertain where exactly this version of the short was edited together from, but it seems to be complete and the sketchy art style is in fact final. At the MOMA exhibit, the version of “Stalk of the Celery Monster” shown is the entirely black and white, silent version of the short, so what you see here is in some ways more finished than what Disney saw. It’s not hard to see why Disney thought this short was promising, even if the film isn’t professionally completed. Burton’s animation is smooth and expressive, with my favorite part being the walking animations of the celery monster. The multi-layered backgrounds at the beginning of the short set a dark and expressionistic tone with a minimum of effort, something that Burton would use again countless times during his career. Not only that, but the camera movements and shots are perfectly chosen for the material. Burton draws as if using a wide angle lens at appropriate moments and his zoom close-up on the monster’s appearance is a wonderful use of the technique. Finally, the film’s plot itself is clever, and despite the faux-darkness, quite kid-friendly, showing the mad scientist to be no more than an ordinary dentist. The choppy editing of this video, by the way, is not Burton’s, but is due to this bit being edited together from various versions of the film that have been released on TV and is in fact an abridgment—the actual film is roughly twice this length.

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