Tim Burton – Essay

“Fear grows in darkness; if you think there’s a bogeyman around, turn on the light.” Tim Burton is a renowned director who is well known for his ability to create really effective gothic imagery, especially in two of his most famous films; “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Sleepy Hollow.” He does this using various film techniques, such as lighting, symbolism and flashbacks. In this essay, i shall explain the use of these techniques in the films “Sweeney Todd” and “Sleepy Hollow,” and show how Tim Burton is able to manipulate the audience’s view on certain scenes.

Tim Burton’s films are consistently meant to be seen as dark and scary. One way that Burton portrays such a unsettling image on the screen is by the use of lighting. There is many different types of lighting that can be used but in Tim Burton’s films he favours some specific techniques including low-key lighting, and chiaroscuro, which is associated with the German expressionism movement. Low-key lighting is a use of only one key light that creates a more prominent view on the subjects features, by putting shade on to parts of the object or person.  This technique is how the chiaroscuro effect is created. Chiaroscuro is the use of using bold contrasts in lighting, between lightness and darkness, and it is used to indicate the use of the low-key lighting. Both these techniques are used to enhance the shadows in the scene which therefore creates a dark tone and colours. This creates quite a scary atmosphere and mood which makes the viewer quite uncomfortable when watching. Firstly, effective lighting is used in Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.” Burton uses low-key lighting throughout the film, for example during the scene when Todd and Mrs Lovett are in Todd’s barber shop after she has given his precious blades to him. The room is small and has little mise-en-scene. The room is only lit from the light coming through a big dirty window, that creates a long shadow across the room. The outside environment is already quite dark and gloomy so this window does not bring in very bright light, it rather creates a rather monochromatic tone in the room. By the use of lighting in the room, Burton has caused the viewer to see only half of the characters faces, which also shows their facial features more distinctively and prominently. As well as the lighting on the faces, the lighting effect on the rise-en-scene also comes into effect. Secondly, Burton also uses low-key lighting and chiaroscuro in “Sleepy Hollow.” One scene where Burton used it effectively was in the scene when the headless horseman breaks into the Killian family’s home. The young kid is trying to hide from the horseman under the floorboards. Down here it is very dark with only small slithers of light coming through from between the cracks in the floor. The kid’s face can’t be fully seen, but there is usually one small beam that comes through onto his face. This also significant enhances his facial features and expression. Overall, I think Burton’s intention of using low-key lighting and chiaroscuro in these particular scenes is to foreshadow what is about to happen, and from the dark, monochromatic tones it indicates it is going to be a negative foreshadow, which is a subtle indication that something is about to happen in the near future. The slight darkness creates the vibe that a part of the character is mysterious because you can’t see their whole face. This indicates that we don’t know what is to come in the scene but it is slightly hinting that what is going to happen is not going to be good. Burton is trying to make the film slightly intense and keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. By using low-key lighting and chiaroscuro the viewer feels uncomfortable because it gives the sense of potential evil to come. It makes the viewer anticipate something scary is about to happen and sets the vibe for it. 

Secondly, symbolism in Burton’s films. He uses symbols as an element to create the famous gothic vibe he is famous for. Symbolism in films is a physical representation of an idea, an object or a person. Burton has used symbolism in both “Sweeney Todd” and “Sleepy Hollow.”  Firstly, Burton displays symbolism in “Sweeney Todd” when we first see Anthony come across Joanna, who he immediately falls in love with. Joanna is locked in a small room in the upstairs of Judge Turpin’s large estate. When the viewer is first introduced to the Joanna character, we see her singing looking out the window, to a small bird who is trapped in a cage. The bird in the cage is a symbol that represents her. They are both trapped in small confinements against their own will and want to get out as they look out into the open world. Secondly, Burton uses symbolism in “Sleepy Hollow” also. He again uses the symbol of a bird in a cage. Again, Burton is portraying the the character is trapped. In the film, it shows Ichabod Crane when he was a young boy. His mother gives him a toy that has a picture of a cage on one side, and a bird on the other. When you spin it, the bird appears to be trapped in the cage. Ichabod’s mother encourages him not to worry because the bird isn’t really trapped, even though it seems like it is. This toy symbolises Ichabod; he feels trapped but in reality it is him who has made himself feel trapped. There isn’t really a cage, just the illusion that we as people create to prevent us from getting hurt. He only feels trapped because it’s in his head that he is, but he can get through it with some effort and persistence. Overall, Burton’s aim of using symbols in his films is to express the characters emotions, sometimes to show how the characters feel even when they aren’t necessarily expressing their emotions. Burton uses symbols to portray ideas to the viewers that the characters can’t say. He has specifically used these so that the audience can understand what is happening throughout the film without actually explicitly saying anything about it. It is quite an unique way of portraying emotions, but to the audience is effective because it they can anticipate what is to come. In gothic fiction this is important because the storyline is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat and feeling slightly disturbed. These symbols create unease because of the emotions they display are quite unpleasant.

Lastly, Burton features scenes in his films that contain flashbacks of the main characters past. Flashbacks is a psychological phenomena that a person experiences when powerful emotions remind them of a past event. It is generally involuntary and the memories may be happy or sad depending on what triggers the flashback. Firstly, Burton has used flashbacks in “Sweeney Todd.” Towards to beginning of the film we see Sweeney have a flashback to when he was younger, triggered by Mrs Lovett when she speaks about ‘Benjamin Barker,’ who was a young barber, who Sweeney Todd used to be when he was happy and before he had his heart broken. The scene shows Barker, his wife Lucy, and his baby daughter Johanna. He is picking out some flowers, when Judge Turpin decides he is very interested in Lucy. Turpin has Barker arrested so he can take Lucy for himself. Now in the present, Barker’s alter ego, Sweeney Todd has come back to seek revenge. Secondly, Burton again uses flashbacks in “Sleepy Hollow.” Flashbacks of Ichabod’s childhood are shown when he is with his mother. Back then Ichabod was somewhat of a curious child, until he sees his mother get into trouble for using witchcraft. In the present, Ichabod has grown into a very skeptical character, who is very easily scared and frightened. He has lost almost all of his courage and is pretty much afraid of his own footsteps. In both films, the flashback scenes are projected in much brighter colours than the actual present scenes. Burton has done this to again, express the characters emotions. Back in the past the characters were much happier and living life ideally. In the present time scenes, it is all in monochromatic colours and tones which tells the viewer about the characters emotions again. The dark tones represents the angry, scared or evil emotions while the bright tones suggest the characters are happy and peaceful. So overall, Burton’s use of flashbacks was to again show the characters emotional state, past and present. This time, it somewhat shows the characters drive to what they do. For Sweeney Todd, the flashbacks show why he is seeking revenge and why he’s overwhelmed with anger, while Ichabod Crane’s flashbacks show why he is such a coward and why he is slightly selfish. In gothic fiction, one important factors of a character is too know why they feel the way they do and what there drive is. As the audience, this is important because it creates quite an intense vibe and keeps you interested because you know what the character wants overall and how badly they want it. 

Overall, Tim Burton is able to create a very effective gothic fiction film, through the use of lighting, symbols and flashbacks. Through these techniques, Burton is able to present ideas and information through certain character’s emotions and also through a setting’s lighting and what kind of vibe that creates. To conclude, Tim Burton’s influence on gothic fiction is very effective through the use of visual and verbal techniques in order the create such an unsettling image.

One Reply to “Tim Burton – Essay”

  1. Ethan,

    – Watch some of your vocabulary choices. At times, some of your ideas sound clumsy.

    – You have some repetitive moments. Look to eliminate these.

    – You need to analyse the use of the techniques, not just state what is happening. WHY has Burton used chiaroscuro in the attic scene? What does it say about ideas/characters etc? How does it impact on the audiences perception of the film and its ideas.

    You need to ensure you are addressing these things, not just listing what is occurring.

    Mrs. P

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