Tim Burton Cinematic Techniques

The greatest directors of our time often have a “trademark” style that audience members come to recognize and connect with them. Tim Burton is among such directors along with JJ Abrams and Oliver Stone; both of which have a brilliantly unique style. The protagonist in Burton’s films frequently reveal his emotions and the way he sees the world.
In his films he creates a recurring theme about outsiders and how they fit in this crazy, mixed-up place. It is clear in Edward Scissor Hands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, that people fear change and the great unknown. Burton gives light to vastly suppressed outsider perspectives and teaches an important lesson about difference and all that it brings.
He uses cinematic techniques such as emotional close-ups, contrasted lighting, and non-diegetic music in order to create gothic fairy tales revealing the cliché that not everything is the way it seems. In many of Tim Burton’s films, he uses close-up shots to resonate with his audience that a deep emotion or personal connection with the character is being made. This is shown numerous times in Edward Scissor Hands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride.

This technique is most often used in what’s believed to be Burton’s most personal film, Edward Scissor Hands. More specifically with the young Edward and Kim. The close-ups allow the audience to not only see, but to feel the forbidden love the two characters share. For example, when Edward first see’s her photos, it’s as if time stops. Burton uses a close up in order for the audience to see emotion deeper past Edwards frightening exterior.
Burton uses a similar concept in The Corpse Bride, when Victor and Victoria meet for the first time. The close-up on both individuals who are forceful to be wed show the audience the true connection they share despite the circumstance. This foreshadows a genuine relationship progressing. Though it is common, love is not the only emotion displayed with close-up shots. Burton zooms into Emily’s face as she sees Victor and Victoria together to show the audience utter hatred. In yet another Burton film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when Willy Wonka is asked about his father there’s a close-up on him to present the pain it brings Willy to discuss such a personal matter, thus immediately telling our audience that he suffers from an emotional problem with his past and family.
Burton very efficiently uses’ this camera movement to detach his protagonist from the other characters. This isn’t always a physical separation but often a mental and social detachment as well. It’s safe to say that an audience can almost always spot a “Burton Film” within the first few moments of a preview. He is well known for his use of low key lighting to create a dark, ominous, and mildly disturbing picture.
This is a technique that plays a major role in setting Burton apart from your average director. While being a strong believer in the use of low key lighting, he very frequently uses it in contrast to high key lighting, often with bold colors to coincide with the use of cheerful and upbeat music to display a sense of utopia.
In Edward Scissor Hands Burton presents the seemingly “perfect” town painted with bright pastel colors and a kind setting; then contrasts it with an isolated castle shown in the distance that is showered in darkness. From the first time the audience is presented with the eerie castle, an image of separation between Edward and the townspeople is created along with a preconceived idea of the mysterious protagonist. This technique is used in many other Tim Burton Films, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He shows the audience a grey town riddled with a glum vibe, while Willy Wonka’s factory is unveiled to be a wild array of color and creativity. The factory is certainly not what it appears to be on the outside. While unordinary to the public eye, only a select few are granted with the view of the amazement that lies inside.
This seems to be a recurring theme within the films under Burton’s direction. Twisting things around in Corpse Bride, Burton displays a town overruled with morbidity that isn’t contrasted with a factory or castle, but the beautiful land of the dead. It seems ironic that the dead are shown as the most joyous and “lively”, but is it really? The gothic mannerisms are almost always the most unique and wonderful places to be when it comes to a Tim Burton film.
The point Burton is trying to prove is that a life of difference can be filled with happiness and that nothing is really what it at first seems. Another technique Tim Burton uses very precisely that is often overlooked is his use of non-diegetic music. In Edward Scissor Hands, Burton uses a wide variation of music.
For example, whenever Edward saw Kim a light and whimsical song is played, thus foreshadowing to the audience the progressing feelings Edward has for Kim. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the music is used to create a contrast between the depressing life of Charlie Bucket, and the magical factory. Sorrowful music is played whenever Charlie’s home is being shown, creating a sympathetic mood. While the factory is accompanied with upbeat music whenever presented. A similar style is displayed in Corpse Bride.
The living world is set with dreary ominous music while the land of the dead is filled with a dancing jazz town that is bursting with “life”! This of course is a humorous take on death that plays very well into the themes seen most often in Tim Burton’s films.
Tim Burton’s trademark style wouldn’t be complete without his use of music to construct a particular mood and tone for his audience. Tim Burton wouldn’t be known as such a film genius in this generation if it wasn’t for his use of cinematic techniques such as close up shots, contrasted lighting, and non-diegetic music. While they may seem like small details, they all play a very large role to create the ‘in between the lines’ message Burton strives to convey: not everything is what is seems and lonely life isn’t necessarily an unhappy one. Burton shows an uncommon perspective that a life of difference can be bliss in this own misunderstood. No one will ever completely be able to explain the stylistic techniques of such a unique director, but that’s just the way Tim Burton likes it.


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