Tim Burton's world of scissor-handed sensitive types, pumpkin-headed spooks and sing-songy Oogie Boogies didn't just spring up fully formed as if from some monstrous jack-in-the-box.
Or did it?
Burton gives a faintly puzzled look and an anxious smile. He isn't so sure either, as he shrugs and pushes back his trademark shock of hair. Who can say where his little monsters really came from?
Curators poured over thousands of his drawings and other artwork to come up with the roughly 700 items on show at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Friday. "It was kind of scary actually," says Burton. "What were they going to find next?"
The career-spanning retrospective, originally a crowd-pleaser at New York's Museum of Modern Art, includes screenings of his films and specially commissioned works, all emphasizing how Burton's gothic aesthetic developed over the years.
Running until April 17, Tim Burton: The Exhibition is the first show from MoMA to come to Toronto in more than 20 years. As the second major exhibit at Lightbox, the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival, a lot is riding on this whirlwind tour of Burton's brain. The hope is to entice other cultural organizations to partner with the venue to bring in more shows like this.
Burton is amazed that curators, intent on documenting the evolution of his trick-or-treat imagination, have so methodically pulled together so much of his artwork, ranging from conceptual drawings for films to highly expressive personal work.
"I don't know where they found those things," says Burton half-jokingly. The collection was amassed from Burton's collaborators, collectors and Burton's own rag-tag archive (i.e. drawers stuffed with drawings at the American movie director's home base in London).
Yet, tracing his path from his student years at the California Institute of the Arts to an ill-fitting job working as a Disney animator, the exhibit shows Burton's fully formed aesthetic by the time he started making his short films in the early 1980s. His cartoonish ghoulishness, always just shy of actual gore and horror, was there right from the start. And he has been drawing on those same early ideas ever since, down to the minutest detail of Catwoman's distressed costumes, or Edward Scissorhands's crazy get-up, or the disheveled insignificance of Stainboy (a character from a less-known, more personal art project of Burton's).
Even though Burton didn't fit in at Disney as an assembly-line animator, the studio nevertheless helped nurture him. Basically, he says, they didn't know what to do with him, but still wanted to keep him around.
"I wasn't really cut out for it. It was the time of The Fox and the Hound, and I was not very good at drawing cute foxes or cute anything. So I struggled," he says. "I was working for a great animator, this guy Glen Keane, who took me under his wing and tried to help me out."
Burton was taken aside to work on character development, in which animators create the prototypes for characters. Burton worked on some characters for the slightly spookier 1985 film The Black Cauldron, he notes. "I got to just basically sit in a room for a year and draw whatever I wanted," he adds with a shrug. "None of them [the prototypes]ever saw the light of day, although at the same time I felt lucky to be paid to draw."
Around that time, he also made a rarely seen live-action adaptation of Hansel and Gretel for Disney's Japanese channel. It apparently only aired once on the U.S. Disney cable channel. Described by Lightbox's artistic director Noah Cowan as the Holy Grail of Burton's earliest work, it features prominently in the exhibit.
Then came another break when master of the macabre Vincent Price agreed to narrate Burton's early stop-motion animated film Vincent. Many see the film - about a little boy with a playfully demonic urge - as one example of Burton putting a little of his own personality into his characters. "I'm all for it," Burton says. The more people want to read into it, the better, because that's what movies or folktales or fairy tales or dreams are really all about."
But should we see his major characters like Edward Scissorhands as semi-autobiographical? Or interpret the frightful costumes, to say nothing of Burton's intricate hair dishevelment, as a kind of psychological armour, as the exhibit suggests?
"[Edward Scissorhands is]not me per se, but me as a feeling. That's where that character came from: Very strong feelings I had as a teenager. Yeah, I think with anything you do, you put in aspects of yourself. Especially for me, because I've never been overly verbal. I always felt like I needed to connect with a character," Burton says.
Much has been written about Burton's upbringing in all-American Burbank, Calif., that pseudo-suburb on the edge of Hollywood seediness. And it's easy to equate his Halloween-y world as a lifelong, possibly tormented escape from suburbia. Yet, Burton doesn't see his early penchant for Mad Magazine-inspired drawings as any different from other kids at the time. It was an important outlet though.
"It was a form of expression for sure, certainly as I got older and was working at Disney. Because I also didn't speak very much. I was not a very verbal person. So, that was sort of a bizarre form of communication for me. Not really literal, but it was a way to get your emotions and feelings out there."
He then gives another nervous shrug, with his legs crossed, showing his characteristic striped socks and continually kicking his foot in the air nonchalantly. For him, this collection of little nasties and other creations may, in fact, be the most natural thing in the world.