About This Lesson Plan



Lesson 5: Tim Burton

Students will learn about Tim Burton's unique style of illustration.

To have students understand that an illustration of a character's physical image is often the direct opposite of the "inner character" of behavior and understanding; to use the framework of fables to demonstrate Burton's style of illustration and their understanding of his conceptual approach.


The Nightmare Before Christmas book, Edward Scissorhands DVD, sketchbooks, watercolors, black and blue pens

Other resources include:


1. Have students view and discuss Tim Burton's works, including The Nightmare Before Christmas book and Edward Scissorhands DVD.

2. After viewing the concept art and interviews on the bonus portion of the DVD, discuss with students the following points:

How does Tim Burton utilize the phrase "when worlds collide"? Burton uses it as an expressive adjective for his story outline. Burton uses concepts, images, and places or events that often would not go together, melding them through such a concrete method of storytelling and imagery that we wonder why we ever thought they wouldn't fit together.

Ask students why they think Burton chose to combine Halloween and Christmas? Initial thoughts may be good and bad, scary and loving. "Contrast" is a tool that Burton uses with expertise. Upon closer examination, however, these two holidays have much in common: giving and receiving, traditional decorations and symbols, and interactions between people. Interactions that allow for Burton to utilize a favorite concept: the child within us, who loves to be scared, and to find wonder in the world—often at the same time.

Explain that Burton's work draws its storyline from the style of fables: good and bad, and a lesson learned or realization arrived at. He ends with a life lesson for those who are in the story and those who observe the story. Burton is drawing attention to the fact that we have similar experiences to those of his characters.

In an interview on the bonus portion of the Edward Scissorhands DVD, Burton discusses the development of Edward's character: "He is a simple graphic image, should be, and yet, I look at him and get mixed feelings and mixed emotions. He has something inside but it is at odds with the way he looks; a split of simple/complicated, beautiful/scary...symptoms of what makes life up."

Have students look again at the concept art from the DVD and analyze aspects of Burton's sketches for Edward in terms of these contrasts. Ask how this relates to their world. Edward is very much a teen, who has trouble fitting in on several levels, the least of which is his physical limitation.

Ask students how they related to Edward and his difficulty fitting in. Ask how Burton uses this concept to demonstrate a key message: Accept your gifts and limitations, and always be yourself.

Look at the illustrations from The Nightmare Before Christmas. How has Burton used this same technique of contrasts? Jack is a gentle soul, and yet he craves to have more experiences than the everyday scare. Burton uses rhythmic lyrical prose to capture the inner voice, building on the inner desire of knowing there is more to life, something we all search for.

Discuss Burton's illustration techniques, such as his monochromatic tones, use of proportion, and character features. How does Burton use these tools to help his story along?

In The Nightmare Before Christmas, traditional images of reindeer appear with the twist that they are represented as skeletons, Christmas decorations in realistic color contrast with images of Jack in blue tones. In Edward Scissorhands, Edward is shown initially in close-fitting tight leather, black and metal. But as the story progresses he tries on humanity and dresses himself in baggy clothing, losing his identity. Finally he returns to his leather at the end, where he carves ice high on a mountaintop that becomes beautiful snow in the valley. It's all about contrasts and perception.

3. Share with students background information about Burton. He was born in Burbank, California, in 1958. Burbank, home to many film and television studios, was the quintessential 1950s American suburbia, a world in which the shy, artistic Burton was not quite in step with the shiny, happy people surrounding him. He was not particularly good in school, and was not a bookworm. Instead, he found his pleasure in painting, drawing, and movies. He loved monster movies. One of his heroes was actor Vincent Price. Tim attended the California Institute of the Arts, founded by Walt Disney, and went on to work at Disney studios as an animator. He found the rigorous rules of animation tedious and was made a conceptual artist, developing characters from scratch. His artwork did not have the typical Disney look, but he was allowed to explore his own direction, working on what would eventually become The Nightmare Before Christmas. Vincent Price was the subject of a short film that got Burton noticed as a director. He did live-action films with other characters that didn't necessarily fit in as well: Batman and Beetlejuice to name a few.

1. Explain to students that they are going to do a project beginning as Tim Burton did with Edward. They will draw a character who has trouble fitting in because of some physical problem. As Edward coauthor Caroline Thompson says, "Tim had the image of him [Edward] and no home for him."

2. Students will create a character who has trouble fitting in. The artwork should be in the style of Burton, who utilizes traditional cartooning techniques or larger heads or features, monochromatic tones, and blue bases. Students could use watercolor backgrounds with pen-and-ink drawings.

3. Students should think about how the X-Men series also uses this concept. Special gifts and skills that make one stand out can become positives rather than negatives.

4. Display the finished drawings in a series.

Alternative Projects and Extended Lessons
  • Brainstorm as a group to create a story about one of the images created in class. Utilize characters from the students (without creating new ones) in a storyline. Ask the language arts teacher to help students write a story for the images created in art class.
  • Create a book with the story with online publication websites.
  • Utilize an existing fable and rework the characters in the style of Tim Burton. Display the story mounted on boards as individual illustration spreads.
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