Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Tim Burton Cartoons

The current special-effects technology of motion capture used famously in "Avatar," the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Polar Express" uses actors' movements and expressions to control digitally created characters. Because it combines the performance of the actor with the images created by teams of visual artists, this somewhat new frontier has blurred the line between animation and live action and caused controversy among animators and awards committees. So there may not be a more fitting director to try out the technique than Tim Burton, the Disney animator turned live-action director. He's done just that in "Alice in Wonderland," combining mo-cap characters with live ones and pushing his already stylized cinematic worlds to new, more exaggerated plateaus.

In honor of this development, let's take a look at Burton's previous live action films that best showcase his animator sensibilities.

"Frankenweenie" (included on the DVD for "The Nightmare Before Christmas") is a 30-minute live-action short Burton directed while still at Disney. In stylish black and white, it tells the story of Frankenstein in the world of a child, as young Victor Frankenstein uses household items to resurrect his dead dog. Burton is currently reworking this short as a stop-motion feature.

"Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" was Burton's first feature, and still one of the funniest movies ever made. Pee-Wee's world is something of a living cartoon, but the movie also uses some hilarious cutaways to stop-motion animation (Large Marge, animated T-rex), a technique Burton also used to great effect in "Beetlejuice."

"Edward Scissorhands" is maybe Burton's most personal work of cartoon-goth. His pallid, colorless hero lives in a gothic castle that springs from the middle of a candy-colored, cookie-cutter suburb straight out of an animation background painting.

Although it marked a decline in Burton's emotional attachment to his work, something he's never quite recovered from, "Mars Attacks!" was Burton's most animated live-action movie until "Alice." Its humorously one-dimensional buffoon characters are no match for the anarchic mayhem of the CGI big-brained little green men created by Industrial Light and Magic. Burton originally tried to create the Martians with stop-motion animation before finding it financially prohibitive.

The personality of Burton's squiggly animation designs can be seen in pretty much all of his movies: the purple and green evil of The Joker in "Batman," the Shreck's Department Store cat mascot of "Batman Returns," the eye-popping witch of "Sleepy Hollow," even the haunted-house ride in "Ed Wood" (Burton's most minimalist movie). It will be interesting to see if the worlds of Burton's art and his human beings merge even more as the technology continues to progress.


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