How does Tim Burton create his characters?

Tim Burton

Tim Burton is behind some of the most prolific films in history, with characters that are immediately identifiable, as they all draw inspiration from Burton’s artistic talents.

In terms of directors that are regarded as living legends, Tim Burton is one name that instantly comes to mind.

With a career spanning over five decades, Burton has been behind some of the most successful and popular films in history, which have all established the filmmaker as an auteur in his own right.

When you come across a Tim Burton film, you can almost always identify his cinematic style, and even though this can be credited to the ingenious worlds he imagines, they are all hinged on the character designs and conceptualisations of the characters.

This signature way of viewing the world and creating his characters is largely attributed to his primary passion as a visual artist, whose drawings informed the look of his characters and the worlds he brings to life.

Who is Tim Burton?

Born Timothy Walter Burton, Tim Burton was born in California, where he spent most of his childhood as a recluse finding solace in drawing cartoons, watching old movies and reading.

His talent was recognised while he was in ninth grade, upon winning a prize for his anti-litter poster. After graduating from high school, he studied at the California Institute of the Arts.

Thereafter, his first job was as an animator for the Walt Disney company, which led him to make his first short film, Vincent in 1982.

This was after he had worked and collaborated on other productions but had creative differences with the people he was working with.

How does Tim Burton create his characters?

Vincent was the first film that highlighted the signifiers that would continue to distinguish a Tim Burton production from other films.

The character of seven-year-old Vincent was based on Burton’s childhood drawings, which would continue to define most of his character designs.

Vincent as a character had long stringy hair, large exaggerated eyes with bags under them, and somewhat pale gangly limbs.

While this aesthetic is mainly used in his animated films, Burton has incorporated some of these aspects onto his live-action films as well.

A prime example being Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands, which was a character that was developed from a doodle Burton drew of himself as a teenager. However, Burton’s characters are not the only thing that have made him an auteur director.

The title is also inclusive of how he chooses to tell stories, the worlds he creates, and his continued work with specific actors. He is not afraid to use and combine different cinematic techniques, like the different lenses he uses.

Tim Burton and his approach to storytelling

Tim Burton’s films all straddle between playing with light and darkness. Therefore, his films are constituted by narratives that have a specific focus on existential dread, ghoulish monsters, and the macabre wrapped in sometimes deadpan comedic timing.

This can be traced back to his first film, Vincent, to his most recent film, Dumbo, released in 2019. You always get the sense that the main character is always an outsider seeking acceptance, despite their physical differences with the rest of the world.

To an extent, his stories continue to reference the little boy stuck in suburbia seeking understanding in spite of feeling like an outsider.

Tim Burton’s approach with the mise-en-scene

The word mise-en-scene is just another way of saying what is in the frame of the lens. Tim Burton has ensured that with every film he creates, he is not only aware of the world he creates, but what is in every frame of the film.

Mostly, the world and mise-en-scenes created by Burton play on two spheres. Lighting and contrast.

While most of Burton’s films are “cold” in their tone by using dark filters and colours, when brightness is used, it is intentional and serves to direct the viewer to a particular moment.

The contrast is used as in a film like Edward Scissorhands, the seemingly coordinated suburb has a dark and gloomy mansion breaking the uniformity by standing out.

What is Burtonesque?

Burtonesque is a term used to reference filmic tropes or devices that seem to be inspired or derived from those created by Tim Burton.

Considering his prolific career, Burton has inspired multiple generations of filmmakers. Filmmakers that have either used the stylistic choices honed by the auteur director or have subverted them after understanding what they are.

Those that have learnt and understood the school of Tim Burton filmmaking, intentionally use Burtonesque elements in their films.


Tim Burton is one of the most famous and living auteur directors. This is as the director and artist is not considered a screenwriter, but a conceptualist when it comes to developing the narrative of the films he has worked on, that being said, he does work with screenwriters to fully realise the narrative.

Furthermore, due to his talent as an animator, Burton makes use of particular lenses to imagine his characters and the worlds in the stories he creates, and within these worlds, his drawings are believed to be the beginning of bringing everything to life.