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Tim Burton, in his element

'The Art of Tim Burton' is as personal as a scrapbook, full of reminiscences and previously unseen work of the filmmaker, whose territory is marked by whimsy and darkness.

December 31, 2010|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • "The Art of Tim Burton"
"The Art of Tim Burton" (Steele's Publishing )

If, as William Carlos Williams wrote, "The pure products of America / go crazy," where does that leave Tim Burton, a pure product not just of America but also of Southern California, land's end of our national phantasmagoria?

Hollywood, maybe, where Burton — born in Burbank, raised on TV and the films of Ray Harryhausen, educated at the California Institute of the Arts — landed in the late 1970s. Or London, where he now lives with the actress Helena Bonham Carter and their two kids. Really, though, the landscape Burton occupies is one of the imagination, a territory marked by whimsy and darkness, in which the visuals are the main event.

"My background is animation," he says by phone from his home in England. "Early on, I was essentially a nonverbal person." Even now, the director of "Beetle Juice," "Batman," "Corpse Bride" and "Edward Scissorhands" seems not completely comfortable in conversation; he pauses, backtracks, like someone speaking in a second language, as he discusses "The Art of Tim Burton," a lavish art book featuring more than 1,000 images, some of which go back to childhood.

"The Art of Tim Burton" first came out in 2009, to coincide with the opening of a Burton retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. That show arrives at LACMA in May, but in the meantime, Burton has released a new limited edition of the book, with bonus material, including a signed lithograph.

The book is self-published, available from Burton's website. "Publishers approached me, but they didn't seem too enthusiastic," he says, "so we decided to do it independently. That way, the whole point was the process, the joy of making it, doing it, seeing it develop. It was a more fun and positive experience."

Burton is no stranger to books. In 1997, he published a collection of macabre fictions called "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories"; he also wrote the children's picture book adaptation of his stop-action animation classic " The Nightmare Before Christmas."

More recently, he — along with writer Leah Gallo and designer Holly C. Kempf, who did much of the heavy lifting on "The Art of Tim Burton" — has produced commemorative volumes for the films "Sweeney Todd" and "Alice in Wonderland," to be given to the cast and crew. "Instead of crew jackets," Burton says, "we'd do these books: yearbooks, personal books. So in some way, this book grew out of that."

That's a fine analogy, for "The Art of Tim Burton" is as personal as a scrapbook, full of reminiscences and previously unseen work. A childhood crayon drawing of the Creature from the Black Lagoon leads to the image of an early (and unpublished) picture book called "The Giant Zlig" and a poster Burton designed as a teenage employee of the city of Burbank for an anti-litter campaign.

There are character sketches from his movies (Jack Skellington, the Joker, Sweeney Todd) and surreal cartoons that work as visual puns. In "A Tongue Twister," a noxious insect twists a man's tongue so tightly that it looks like a corkscrew; "Mr. Happyface remembers better days" presents the iconic yellow "Have a Nice Day" face turned in on itself, frowning over empty bottles and a half-drunk glass of wine.

Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Pee-wee Herman and even Harryhausen all weigh in on Burton and share anecdotes. Particularly resonant is old friend Rick Heinrichs' "Short Montage of Early Personal Impressions of Tim," which includes this telling recollection: "Pulling up to his Burbank apartment to pick him up on our way to see a film at the Cinerama Dome and observing him completely absorbed by something at ground level: the micro-world of an anthill."

Here, we get a glimpse of Burton in his element, which is what "The Art of Tim Burton" offers, as well. "It's not showing me as a great artist," he says. "It's just showing my weird mental process, the way things grow. Whether I'm working on a movie or doing a drawing, my favorite time is making it. When I finish, there's a nice sense of accomplishment, but really, it's about the process for me."

Part of that process is physical, a hand's on interaction between Burton and the work. This is why he was drawn to animation, and it's also why he wanted to produce a book.

"I love books," he says, "their tactile nature. Like stop-action animation, there's nothing else like them. In this age, when everyone is looking at screens, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make a book — big, heavy, hard to hold sometimes. I wanted it to be a physical experience."

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