By: Todd Gilchrist, originally published on Cinematical
At Comic-Con, legends come a dime a dozen, and those are just the ones on the printed pages of the comics on the exhibition hall floor. But in Hall H, the epicenter of the convention's surprises, revelations and exclusives, true groundbreakers and history-makers are in comparatively short supply. This year, however, there were several, including James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Terry Gilliam; but even in such rarified company, Tim Burton stands head and shoulder above in terms of providing memorable, specific, and ongoing inspiration to the folks who like to look up at these filmmakers' latest projects.
Suffice it to say that a checklist of his most iconic films would be redundant, since virtually all of them qualify, either because of their source material, or his interpretation of it. But the filmmaker has two high-profile projects coming out in the next year or so, each of which applies his inventive style in different ways: first, there's 9, Shane Acker's computer-generated post-apocalyptic odyssey, which Burton is producing; and in 2010, there's Alice in Wonderland, his adaptation of the classic novel by Lewis Carroll.
In between Hall H panels, Cinematical caught up with Burton to discuss his work on 9 and Alice in Wonderland. In addition to talking about the technological opportunities and challenges presented on both films, he offered a few secrets about the forthcoming spectacle of Alice, and reflected on the filmmaking style – and substance – that has made his idiosyncratic body of work a happy home for outsiders and mainstream audiences alike.
Cinematical: At Comic-Con, it was informative to watch you first discuss a film which you're directing and then one that you're just producing. In the 9 panel you said that you were there to fight battles with the studio so that Shane Acker could focus on directing the film; when you're serving in a producorial capacity is that what you do or is there a sort of creative consultation?
Tim Burton: Well, yeah. I don't know if Shane said it, but I was an animator and I know what it's like; you have to be so concentrated and have to put so much thought into every detail. I had it easy because it's like you want somebody that's not looking at those every day and has a more fresh perspective on it, which is something I appreciate because when I make something, it's extremely helpful to have people that you trust who have been through it before to look at the big-picture kind of stuff, look at a cut or look at the script or look at the characters inside. Shane's an artist, and the good thing about an artist is that they don't have that ego; he was very open to things. I felt it was quite a good collaboration with everybody, because Timur [Bekmambetov]'s made films, I've made films, and we all liked what Shane did so there was none of this, like, "well I've got to put my stamp on this or that" kind of a thing. So it was kind of creating that kind of an environment to let someone do their thing; even without all of that stuff, just making the film, that's where you want him to put all of his energy.
Cinematical: Both in the program and on stage the film was referred to as "stitchpunk." Do phrases like that mean anything to you?
Burton: No. I mean, I always liked stitching, and maybe I'm a frustrated sewer, but no. I just like the look of it and the feel of it. Personally I think it's intriguing, and I like that fact that someone has given something a name like that, but I don't do that myself.
Cinematical: Even if you're the one inventing such descriptions or names, is that limiting at all in the sense that it creates a specific association? Or does that provide sort of a shorthand that gives people an immediate entry point for what they might be seeing?
Burton: I don't know. The thing I liked about this movie was that I couldn't quite categorize it. We've all seen post-apocalyptic imagery in films – it's not like it's new territory in that sense, although at the same time I liked it because I couldn't quite categorize it. There was an emotional quality, and after myself working on Nightmare and things where you're trying to take characters that are not necessarily perceived as attractive-looking characters, but giving it an emotion, that's what I liked about what Shane was doing, so I felt connected in that way. But I like the fact that you can't really categorize it; the very Hollywood sort-of way of pitching things is kind of like, "well, it's The Terminator meets Wall-E," you know, but you immediately get that's a kind of short-hand, but I was just kind of like, oh, brother. I think we're all lucky with a group of people like Shane and Timur and Jim [Limley] and myself, we all kind of like to avoid that stuff, so there was none of that going on and it was good.
Cinematical: Yesterday at one of the panels a fan asked if you would be interested in remaking The Wizard of Oz. As much as adaptations and interpretations of properties like Alice and Wonderland and Sleepy Hollow are in your wheelhouse, do the commercial opportunities of doing material like that limit you from doing things that are more original or specific to your appetites?
Burton: Well, yeah. It's true, because there are things like Nightmare or Edward Scissorhands, things that I really [put myself into], but I've enjoyed the other things that I've done. But yeah. Also, too Hollywood, it becomes a thing where it's, okay, which TV show haven't we done yet, and I understand it because it's an easy [choice], but yeah. I'm not answering your question, but it's a bit of a danger. Yeah, it is, but that's why I like getting involved with this, and what also was nice about this which you don't get these days is sort of flying under the radar; there's something about him, something new where you don't know a whole lot about it, and it gets made, and it's a bit more of a surprise, and that was really cool with this.
Cinematical: So when you do something like Alice in Wonderland that has a cache of familiarity, does that allow you to be able to do your own projects? For example, you did Big Fish, which wasn't as commercially successful as its follow-up, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Burton: I don't think about that stuff. I mean, I'm aware of the fact that if you make a bunch of movies that don't make any money it's hard to continue to make movies. There is a certain amount of that, but I never sort of said, well, I'll do a big studio movie and then I'll do a personal movie. If you can really sort of maneuver that, because that's the problem – it's a hard way of thinking. I never want to think about making a movie to make money, because it's not an exact science. Things like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I know it's a known thing, but it's also a book that I loved as a child. So you make a personal connection to everything that you do; even Alice, there's been so many versions of it and there's never been a version that I really liked. So that's my attempt, to make a movie of Alice that's just more than a series of weird events.
Cinematical: How did the technology augment your ideas for that adaptation, both in terms of 3-D and in terms of conceiving these really amazing character designs?
Burton: Well, I'm still in the process, and that's the scary thing. I mean, usually I don't ever talk about stuff in these early days, but the jury is still out on that one. I haven't felt the sort of liberation of technology yet; it's actually a bit more sort of the opposite of the way I usually work, where you have sets and actors and you can see what you get right away. Here, it's the reverse – you've got all of these pieces of stuff and you see a finished shot very, very late in the process. So it's strange.
Cinematical: As must be the case right now with these two films, how difficult is it to juggle your producorial efforts with those that you direct?
Burton: Especially in animation it takes so long that it wouldn't do Shane, it wouldn't do anybody a service to be [controlling], because it's like watching paint dry. It's a long, long process, so again, I love it because especially when I'm thinking of something else, like when I'm on Alice thinking about it, it's actually a luxury to kind of take my mind away for a second and look at something here and have a fresh perspective on it. it kind of keeps my mind stimulated and going, so it's actually been quite good that way.
Cinematical: Has your evolution as a filmmaker been sort of concurrent with the technology you're using now? For example, Nightmare was stop-motion, and potentially 9 could have been as well, but you and Shane are using CGI. Also, Nightmare was retrofitted for 3-D and now you're using it during the production of Alice.
Burton: Each project you try to actually pick the medium for the project, and the thing I liked about 9 is Shane, his inspiration was all stop-motion and it actually has a stop-motion feel. The quality of the animation, it's got that like more naturalistic thing. Now, the reason he couldn't do it [stop-motion], which I understand, is for the budget and the kind of camera moves, the kind of action stuff that he wanted to get. He chose to do it that way, which I think he made exactly the right choice; you get the best of both worlds with that. For me and for things like Alice, it seemed like 3-D and Alice, the material and doing it that way just seemed appropriate with the project, just the mix of animation and manipulate the live-action so it's in a stranger way. But that's not something you pre-plan; you just kind of take it, you see where the technology is at that moment, is this possible, and then take it as it comes, really. Obviously technology is so rapidly changing and it goes through those spurts, doesn't it, and it's in one of those growth spurts at the moment.
Cinematical: Do you feel a sense of protectiveness coming from the world of cel animation? It seems to be used more and more rarely these days, although today at the Disney panel, they showed footage from their next film, which is being done with hand-drawn animation.
Burton: Yeah, that's great. Because I remember somebody, Dreamworks does a cel-animated movie and it doesn't make any money so they go, "we're not making any more cel-animated films." I think Disney even said that at one point. John Lasseter and the real animators know that's just a stupid concept, and Pixar has proven the fact that you just do a project, do it in the medium that fits it and do a good story, and it can be hand-drawn, hand puppets, whatever. It will connect if it's the right thing.
Cinematical: How far into production are you on Alice?
Burton: We shot all of the live-action, and now it's just a lot of animation, and a lot of compositing. That's the thing: you just see pieces of a lot of shots. But there's a lot going on (laughs).
Cinematical: For Alice, how did you arrive at the way these characters would be rendered? Because they are exaggerated but they do have a vaguely real quality.
Burton: It just came down to things in technology that I liked or didn't like. For instance, I'm not a big fan at the moment for mo-cap stuff because I just don't like it personally. A lot of people have used it very successfully, but it's personally not a thing that I like. That's why I decided to go with pure animation for some of the characters, and then for some, live-action, rather than it just being animation or live-action – to blur the lines a little bit. With some of our characters, we're just doing some manipulation with it, so it's their real performance, real faces, real heads, real bodies, everything, but just manipulate it so that it's kind of a weirder crossover into what Wonderland is. It just comes down to sort of things that you like or don't like, and I just find with animation, you're able to achieve more reality by just doing the animation than maybe doing mo-cap stuff. Although it's getting better, I know that; they're doing really good things with it. But it's just a personal choice to do something that way.
Cinematical: So would it be accurate to say you're looking for an artistic authenticity rather than realism?
Burton: No, I don't know. I'm not sure. I think it just really came down to the fact that I didn't want to do the mo-cap thing, and therefore, how do we blend it? Because also, you've got things where you've got animation and live-action, and it's obvious what's animation and what's live-action, so there's a few characters where we can blur those lines a little. I'm not sure how that will manifest itself or how it will turn out, but that's the goal.
Cinematical: At their Visionaries panel, James Cameron talked about the way that Peter Jackson's Gollum showed him that performance capture was at the stage that he felt he could do Avatar. Do you or have you seen films that gave you a similar sense that a technology or design element had made a step forward that would make you want to use it?
Burton: It happens all of the time. I mean, yeah, definitely. That's why, for me, I didn't want to use mo-cap, but it's getting better all of the time, and it's great that people are doing it. I think the more tools, the better; that's why people go, oh, how come you're not doing this this way or that way, and the fact is there's no right way or wrong way. Robert Zemeckis does his things because he wants to do a certain thing, and that's great, and other people have a different way they want to do it. But each one is great; there's no right or wrong way to do it, I think. It should just be open to whatever the elements are, whatever the project is, use those elements, and all tools.
Cinematical: At the 9 panel an attendee said to you, "I'm a huge fan, and not in a hot topic kind of way." Is there any consciousness either consciously ignoring it or being aware of it when you take on new projects, that there is an association between you and a certain persona of being dark, brooding, or this goth guy?
Burton: No. You know, it happens to you in school – once you get a reputation for something, no matter what you do or who you are, it's like it sticks with you. I don't know where that one really came from because I don't consider myself that at all. I don't know if this answers your question, but I try not to think about it too much; it's that kind of thing like, you're a human being, not a thing, you know! I find it nice when people are complimentary or like something you do, and that means the most of anything. That means a lot to me, and when that happens, I feel very grateful for it, but I don't think about any kind of labeling or how people perceive me, because it's a slightly disturbing thought to me (laughs).
Cinematical: How then do you find the projects you do? Do you sort of gravitate to them, or is it a matter of being in the right place at the right time?
Burton: It's a mixture of all of that. That's why I don't like to plan too far in advance, because you don't know how you're going to feel. Sometimes a project can come to you, like this, like Alice in Wonderland in 3-D, and I thought, ooh – that sounds intriguing. That's how that happened, but other projects like Nightmare or Scissorhands are things that you want to have and live inside you and you want to do, and sometimes they take a while to [happen]. Like Nightmare, from thinking about it took ten years to get made; Scissorhands similarly, Corpse Bride, similarly. But those are the kind of things that you know you're sometime going to do just because they're inside you and then there are the ones outside that intrigue you.