A vast exhibit of filmmaker Tim Burton's paintings, drawings, puppets, costumes and storyboards launches at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday and runs through April 2011. ((Derek Frey/TIFF))

From Federico Fellini to Terry Gilliam, it’s a given that cartoonists often make the most visually adventurous live-action filmmakers. It’s not surprising, then, that Tim Burton’s roots are firmly planted in the sketchpad. The creator both of stunningly original "live" movies like the modern classic Edward Scissorhands and of animated delights like Corpse Bride, Burton came to the cinema via art school and got his start as a misfit animator for Disney.

The 52-year-old director has never stopped drawing and designing, and the fruits of his visual imagination are on abundant display in Tim Burton, the exhibition and film retrospective opening at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox on Friday. Presented by the Toronto International Film Festival and running through April of next year, the show tracks Burton’s career from the six-minute stop-motion short Vincent of 1982 to this year’s blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, using the drawings, maquettes, puppets and other visual material he created for his movies. 

'It was an out-of-body experience. It was like, "Oh, there’re my dirty socks hanging on the wall."'

—Tim Burton on seeing his private artwork in a museum

Also included are souvenirs from the productions themselves — Catwoman’s provocative costume in Batman Returns, Sweeney Todd’s array of cutthroat razors — and juvenilia from Burton’s days as a dreamy, inarticulate kid growing up in Burbank, Calif.

Tim Burton originated at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it premiered in 2009 and was a box-office smash. TIFF is putting its own stamp on the exhibition by having Burton design a Lightbox display window as part of the Canadian debut, and by offering a complementary film program that pairs Burton’s work with cinema classics and offers a two-day marathon screening of his complete feature-film oeuvre.

Burton himself was on hand Monday to discuss the show during a Lightbox news conference. Affable and typically dishevelled, his hair as rumpled as the brown sweater under his pinstripe blazer, he admitted that seeing his preparatory artwork and youthful doodlings in an exhibition was a strange sensation.

"I never really went to museums — wax museums, maybe — so it was an out-of-body experience," he said. "It was like, ‘Oh, there’re my dirty socks hanging on the wall.’"

He says MoMA curators Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He sifted through drawers and boxes of stuff that Burton, a self-described "slob," had left untouched over the years.

"Ron and Jenny found all kinds of things. I’m mean, I never knew I had so many rejection slips."

A typewritten "No thank-you" response from the Disney people, alongside one of Burton’s humble handwritten submission letters, are among the more touching items on display. He did finally land a coveted job at the studio, only to have his work continually vetoed.

"I felt like the princess in the castle," he said. "I was treated nicely but I was still locked up in the tower."

The exhibition has exhumed one of his few green-lit projects from that period, an Asian-flavoured TV version of Hansel and Gretel that was broadcast exactly once, on the Disney Channel, in 1983. It screens in the exhibition, along with webisodes of his lesser-known 2000 internet series, The World of Stain Boy.

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Viewing the exhibition, Burton’s cartooning influences are easily identifiable — Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Ralph Steadman. Scrapbook clippings also reveal a teenage taste for National Lampoon, Mad Magazine and the deliciously morbid work of Gahan Wilson. Similarly, his films owe an obvious debt to the monster movies of his childhood — from those of his idol, Vincent Price, to the ghoulish output of Britain’s Hammer studio and the silly/sublime stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen.

Burton believes he was attracted to them because of his environment. 

"In Southern California, where there was no weather and no real sense of design and culture, you’re deprived of those things, so you find them in other ways," he said. "I found them in the opposite extreme, in horror movies with dark and lightning and rain."

Those early inspirations are reflected in the film program’s ambitious series of double bills: Price’s flamboyant revenge flick Theatre of Blood from 1973 is paired with Burton’s similarly themed Sweeney Todd; the ’50s Hammer classic Horror of Dracula starring Christopher Lee plays alongside Sleepy Hollow (in which Lee has a cameo) and Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts  finds its complement in James and the Giant Peach.

Lightbox programmer Jesse Wente has gone further, however, and twinned Burton’s work with some unexpected selections. The fantastical Edward Scissorhands shares a bill with Delbert Mann’s low-key, realistic 1956 Oscar winner Marty. The 3D blockbuster Alice in Wonderland goes back-to-back with the campy grotesqueries of John Waters' low-budget, no-taste Desperate Living. The most audacious double bill, however, has to be the one in which Beetlejuice follows a screening of Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½.

"I thought it was interesting to look at Burton in a larger cinematic context than just his direct influences," Wente explained in a separate interview. "I wanted to connect his work to people like Fellini, who, with 8 ½, made a carnivalesque movie, which is also an apt description of many of Burton’s movies."


Burton, who was in Toronto on Monday to discuss the exhibition, designed a Lightbox display window as part of the Canadian debut. ((Chris Young/The Canadian Press))

Wente also attempts to show that Burton’s films, for all their distinctive quirkiness, are part of a cinematic continuum. Scratch the disparate surfaces of, say, Marty and Edward Scissorhands,  and you find very similar stories.

"They’re both these romantic movies about outsiders who are ostracized for their physical appearance," Wente said. And, just as the role of Edward was a breakout performance for then-TV actor Johnny Depp, Marty, the homely Bronx butcher, made Ernest Borgnine a star.

"Burton is part of an ongoing dialogue in cinema," Wente said. "His movies come from earlier places — and not just monster movies."

Burton’s own influence has been considerable, at least from a Hollywood perspective. His seminal and phenomenally successful Batman in 1989 not only paved the way for the superhero onslaught, it also brought the art house to the multiplex. 

"He allowed blockbuster filmmakers to have an auteur’s vision," Wente said, "which hadn’t been the case in the ’80s, when blockbusters tended to be more like assembly-line products."

But Burton's effort to reconcile the differing demands of artistic and blockbuster movies has resulted in uneven work. His coarse spin on Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was a travesty, while his recent Alice in Wonderland succumbed to the fatuous 3D trend. His best film, after Edward Scissorhands, remains 1994's Ed Wood, which was lean on FX but rich in character. Another of his outsider stories, it allowed Burton to capture the heady process of filmmaking by focusing, ironically, on a marginalized figure considered the world's most inept director.

Burton says it’s a personal favourite. "Thematically, it’s [about] that whole sort of delusional quality you get when you make a film," he said. "You get passionate, you get swept up into it. And that’s what I loved about it." That experience is also one of the main reasons he keeps shooting movies. "The feeling of making something is great," he said. "That’s something you never want to lose."

The Tim Burton exhibition likewise celebrates that creative process. And according to MoMA’s chief film curator, Rajendra Roy, in New York it was a particular hit with the least likely museum patrons — teenage boys.

"They were probably brought there kicking and screaming," he said, "but we watched them become literally mesmerized. We got thank-you letters from parents saying, ‘You inspired my kid to take their doodling seriously, to take their fantasies seriously.’"

"That to me was the most gratifying thing," Burton added. "It just shows anything is possible."

Tim Burton runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from Nov. 26 to April 17, 2011.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.