List: Top 10 Tim Burton Technical Achievements

Originally posted at

This week, after months of anticipation, the trailer for Tim Burton’s upcoming Dark Shadows was revealed, so I felt a list in his honor was more than appropriate. I initially tossed around the idea of compiling a list of the best performances by the actors in his films, but when I realized that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter would take about 8 of the spots, I decided against it. Since people always talk about how he’s all style and no substance, it seemed appropriate to list his top 10 more recognizable technical achievements as a director. It was hard to narrow it down, because I didn’t want everything to be either a set design or something contributed by Danny Elfman (who still ended up filling three spots on the list). In the end, I think I was pleased with what I came up with, and I have no regrets in leaving some great things off. 

NOTE: I limited myself to his feature-length directing efforts, so you won’t find The Nightmare Before ChristmasVincent, or the original Frankenweenie on the list.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 technical achievements in Tim Burton’s films:

10. Danny Elfman’s score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

I’m cheating a little bit with this inclusion because I haven’t seen the film. Normally, I wouldn’t have even considered it, but Danny Elfman’s score for this is so damn great that I couldn’t help but give it a spot on the list. Even from the first track, you know you’re going to hear something quite unique as loud piano keys accompany a bombastic level that no doubt will annoy some. It doesn’t slow down from here, resulting in one of the loudest scores I’ve ever heard. It fills me with joy every time I press play. I imagine that if I’d actually seen the film by the time this list was published, it would be near the top. (Best track: Breakfast Machine)

9. Colleen Atwood’s costumes for Alice in Wonderland

Although I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland to some degree, there is no denying that, in the storytelling department, it’s far from Burton’s best. Visually, it’s everything that a Burton-directed re-telling of Lewis Carroll’s classic should have been, and it rightfully won Oscars for its art direction and costumes. The latter ultimately stands out as the best achievement in the entire film.

Atwood, who has worked with Burton on almost every one of his films since Edward Scissorhands, is at the top of her game here. Her designs are wacky, colorful and inspired as they very well should have been given the imaginary world this film takes place in. The most impressive of her designs is the dress the Red Queen wears throughout. It’s grandiose, as one would expect royalty to wear, and way too detailed a piece of clothing worn by someone whose head will obviously distract from the dress. These costumes are the best Atwood has ever designed, and it’s a shame they weren’t for a better film.

8. Dante Ferreti’s set designs for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd started out as a Broadway musical, and as with any theater-to-film adaptation, one wondered how the transition of the original material was going to be handled within a medium where filmmakers can often get carried away with the source material. Dante Ferreti’s work on the sets in the film managed to make the transition without a hitch. With his extremely tight and detailed set pieces, filled with the look of grim decay, Ferreti and Burton managed to maintain the feeling of intimacy a theatrical production gives you. Although elaborate, the sets never once distract from the character driven story. It’s as if the sets themselves are an extension of the character’s personality.

7. Ve Neill, Steve LaPorte, and Robert Short’s makeup designs for Beetlejuice

In addition to being known as a filmmaker, Burton is very well known for his crazy and creepy illustrations of the many projects he has worked on throughout the years. In fact, museum exhibits have been built honoring this particular aspect of his career. Oddly enough, out of all his live-action films, only Beetlejuice (and Edward Scissorhands to an extent) has managed to sport the particular feel his illustrations do. This is for two reasons: one being that the world it takes place in gives artists more creative freedom, with the other being the film’s makeup artists taking full advantage of it. Thanks to the work they did for Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin’s transformations (like the one pictured above), and the many unique takes on the various visitors of the underworld (the football team, the beauty queen, etc.) we are looking at Burton’s illustrations in the flesh, and that alone guaranteed the film a spot on this list.

6. Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands

I watched this film for the first time a few months ago and overall I wasn’t very impressed by it. Perhaps I was not in the right mood, but it just didn’t strike a chord with me. One aspect of it did stick with me, however, and that’s Danny Elman’s score. At times he does veer into his familiar upbeat, bombastic sounds, but they fit well given the scenes where these particular pieces play. The rest, though, is as magical as the story wished to be.  Using relatively quiet piano notes, a traditional orchestral arrangement and a choir, Elfman created a score that is noticeable, but never interferes with Burton’s visuals and actually enhances them. For example, watch the famous scene where Kim dances under the ice shavings of Edward’s sculpture. Although it is one of Burton’s most visually striking scenes, it simply would not be quite as good had Elfman’s music not been there, or if it had been altered. And there’s “The Grand Finale,” one of the greatest music tracks to have ever been featured in a particular film.

5. Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography for Ed Wood

Ed Wood was an unlikely biopic based on the life of a very unlikely subject, and Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography perfectly encompasses the unlikeliness of the whole thing, remaining one of the reasons why the film is near the top of what Burton has given us as a director. The stylish and at times purposely amateurish cinematography works as an homage to Ed Wood’s infamous films, but it’s more than that. The way it was shot makes it even clearer that we are looking at the life of man who didn’t live in reality and didn’t care about reality, not even the times when it was staring at him right in the face. It’s a gorgeous work, and I can only hope one day he decides to make a movie like this once again.

4. Rick Baker’s makeup designs for Planet of the Apes

We can all agree that Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes is a failure, especially when you pair it with the original. However, for me, Rick Baker’s makeup artistry surpasses that of the original’s. The original’s were great, which is why they’re iconic, but Baker does so much more. As we can see from the picture above, there is a ton of detail in the characters’ faces, each of them sporting their own unique features even among those of the same breed, and they simply look more simian than the designs of the originals. When in motion, the makeup does not deter the actors from using their face as an instrument for their overall performances. This is an example of a legend at the top of his game. But, just like the costumes of Alice in Wonderland, they deserved a better showcase.

3. Anton Furst’s set designs for Batman

I generally like Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman more than Burton’s because I’m one of those who likes the character to be in more “serious” situations. But the one thing that Nolan got wrong about the Batman universe (there are many more, I’m sure) was the look and feel of Gotham City, which Burton and Anton Furst captured perfectly. Gotham is supposed to a humongous, crowded and polluted place that represents the corruption running rampant throughout. From the moment we first see the place with a family of tourists arriving, the film achieves its intended feel with the cramped spaces between buildings, the puddles of water in the street, the low bridges, the steam, everything captures the spirit of Gotham.

The film’s executive producer, Benjamin Melniker, said upon walking through the film’s huge sound stage that it was more impressive than the sets he had seen from Ben Hur. From my perspective, I agree. These are some of the best set designs in history.

2. Danny Elfman’s score for Big Fish

Big Fish was one of the films that made me fall in love with the medium. I still remember the first time I watched it. I was doing an important homework assignment, and the film was supposed to be just background noise, but once it started, I just couldn’t peel my eyes off the screen. Danny Elfman’s score has as much to do with it as the great story and Burton’s visuals. A combination of folk and his trademark whimsy, Elfman’s work here has a John Williams feel to it. It’s grand, some might say overtly orchestrated, and it’s not afraid to tell you when you should feel something, and that’s why I love it so. Just like Edward Scissorhands, I doubt the film would have worked as brilliantly as it does. I mean, can you picture the punch-to-the-gut that is the finale without the music? I can, but I don’t want to. I know that people are tired of the Burton formula, but I do hope that he never stops working with Elfman.

1. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography for Sleepy Hollow

Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Something about a headless horseman coming back from the dead to chop people’s heads off just hit the right buttons. I watched Tim Burton’s film for the first time in about 10 years a few months ago, and it still managed to blow my mind. Burton nailed everything as I had pictured it in my mind. The one that surpassed my expectations however was the cinematography. With the stylish and moody lighting of the daytime scenes, the foggy forests, the exaggerated flashbacks, and the downright creepy nighttime scenes, Emmanuel Lubezki didn’t just transport us to colonial America, but the colonial America of our nightmares that we think of when we hear all those folk tales about it. He took us to a place that doesn’t necessarily look real, but you feel as if you were living in it. And for that reason, this easily tops any other technical achievement in Burton’t filmography.


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