Tim Burton: The Early Disney Years

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

For many young people, being hired to work as an animator at Disney Feature Animation is a dream come true, but for recently graduated Timothy Burton of Burbank, Calif., it was a living nightmare.

He felt out of place with his fellow animators. His unique, quirky approach to subject matter and drawing was eventually considered unmarketable and a drain on the Disney Company’s resources and he was finally let go. However, like most Disney stories, this one also has a “happily ever after” ending where a Burton project became a Disney film classic.

Timothy William Burton grew up virtually right next door to the Mouse House. Born in Burbank on August 25, 1958, Burton has a brother and two parents from whom he's always felt distant. His father, a former ballplayer and park-league coach, urged him to go outside and play baseball. When his mother, who owned a boutique specializing in items decorated with cat motifs, suggested he go out and play, Burton would go to a nearby cemetery.

However, Burton did feel an affinity for Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price and the classic monsters from many horror movies. His earliest ambition was to grow up and be the actor who donned the costume to play the monstrous Godzilla.

For Burton, drawing was a sanctuary and, in the ninth grade, his artwork adorned the garbage trucks of Burbank since he had won first prize for designing an anti-littering poster.

“I came [to Disney] when I was 13, just to visit and ask what I would have to do to work here,” Burton recalled. “They told me the standard stuff about going to school. I hated school.”

By the time he was 18, he had written and illustrated a children’s book about The Great Zlig, a huge, frightening blue monster who terrorized other creatures.

From a page in Burton’s submission: The giant Zlig went walking one day; he told all the others,”Get out of my way! You all better move and let me go through. You all better move or I’ll step on you!”

When he submitted it to Disney, he received a very kind and encouraging rejection letter:

February 19, 1976

Dear Tim:

Here are some brief impressions of your book, The Giant Zlig.

STORY: The story is simple enough for a young audience (age 4-6), cute, and shows a grasp of the language much better than I would expect from one of today's high school students, despite occasional lapses in grammar and spelling. It may, however, be too derivative of the Seuss works to be marketable--I just don't know. But I definitely enjoyed reading it.

ART: Considering that you suffer from a lack of the proper tools and materials, the art is very good. The characters are charming and imaginative, and have sufficient variety to sustain interest. Your layout is also good--it shows good variety in point-of-view. Consequently, I not only enjoyed reading about the Giant Zlig, but I got a chuckle watching him, too.

I hope my comments please you. Thanks for the opportunity to read The Giant Zlig; keep up the good work, and good luck.

Very truly yours,

(Signed, 'Jeanette')

T. Jeanette Kroger
Walt Disney Productions

Encouraged by his high school art teacher and wanting a career for which he wouldn't need too much more schooling, Burton got an artistic scholarship to attend California Institute of the Arts where he studied animation and left in 1979. He was hired to work at Disney Feature Animation after they reviewed his student film about a creepy dentist named Dr. Maxwell Payne and his assistant. Only a brief fragment of that film titled "Stalk of the Celery Monster” has been uncovered.

"What I feel really good about, really happy about, is that I did not go to film school. I went to Cal Arts and went through animation, where I got a very solid education," Burton remembered. "You learn design; you draw your own characters, your own backgrounds, your own scenes. You cut it; you shoot it. You learn the storyboarding process. It's everything, without the bulls--- of film school: the competition, the feeling like you're already in the industry - you don't get a chance to create."

However, what he was not happy about was working on a typical Disney animated feature, The Fox and the Hound. He was teamed with veteran animator Glen Keane whom Burton described as "nice. He was good to me; he's a really strong animator and he helped me."

But all the help in the world wasn't enough.

"I couldn't draw those four-legged Disney foxes. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't even fake the Disney style. Mine looked like roadkills," he said.

Burton found himself assigned to drawing the distance shots where his lack of ability in the approved "Disney-style" of drawing would be less noticeable.

“I was employed on The Fox and the Hound for about a year, but I just couldn't do it. I'd gone to Cal Arts, which had sort of a program, training people for Disney, but I couldn't get the style. It was too soft for me. I tried very hard, but—It was so weird,” Burton said. “I had an office at Disney, and I could look out the window, and see the hospital where I was born, St. Joseph's, and the cemetery where my grandfather is buried, Forest Lawn. It was like the Bermuda Triangle. I was working on The Fox and the Hound, and it was pretty quickly obvious that I was not cut out for it. It was, like, oh man, I couldn't do it. I couldn't handle it."

“At Disney, I almost went insane," he said. "I really did. I don't ever want to get that close to that certain kind of feeling that I had. Who knows what a nervous breakdown is? Or who knows what going off the edge is? I don't want to get that close again. No. 1 is, I was just not Disney material. I could just not draw cute foxes for the life of me. I couldn't do it. I tried. I tried and tried. The unholy alliance of animation is you are called upon to be an artist, but on the other hand, you are called upon to be a zombie factory worker. And for me, I could not integrate the two. Also, at the time they were making kind of [s-----] movies. And it took them five or six years to make a movie. There's that cold, hard fact: Do you want to spend six years of your life working on The Fox and the Hound? There's a soul-searching moment when the answer is pretty clear."

Burton's behavior was odd. He slept 10 hours at home and another four at work, sitting up straight in his chair with his pencil ready to move if anyone came in while he was sitting there. It was a sign of depression. Co-workers might find him hiding in a closet or under his desk. Here is a video of what a very frightened and helpless Tim looked like at that time, very much like a scared raccoon caught in the headlights of an oncoming car:

In an attempt to find an appropriate use for the obviously talented Burton, Disney decided to make him a concept artist and team him with another young animator, Andreas Deja.

"They were very nice to me," Burton said. "They said, 'We're doing this movie, The Black Cauldron’, so I just sat in a room for a year and came up with ideas and stuff, just drew any idea I wanted to, and it was great. It was like weird characters, weird props, weird furniture, just sitting in a room doing whatever I wanted. But at some point I realized they had no intention of using any of it. It was like that TV show, The Prisoner. It was all very pleasant, all very nice, everyone's smiling and being very supportive. But it's like you realize early on that it's like a vacuum, a black hole. When I was at Disney, animation was in a terrible state. I just wanted to get out. The talent was there, but they didn't have the foresight to see that people have a sense of quality and would respond to it.”

It was really not a collaboration between Burton and Deja. Their styles and personalities were very different. While some of Deja's designs made it into the final film, none of Burton's work did. All of that work is owned by the Disney Studio and if they were clever they could release a book of Burton's imaginative sketches for the film, including a Burton creature that is created by four distinctive animals when it is frightened. Burton's work for the project was typical Burton: very dark and scratchy and angular. However, Burton's work caught the attention of producer Julie Hickson and the head of creative development at Disney at the time, Tom Wilhite.

It was Wilhite who came up with $60,000 so that Burton could develop a somewhat autobiographical children's book he had been working on about a boy who wanted to grow up and be Vincent Price. After three years working at Disney, Burton would finally get to work on a project that was truly his vision, a stop-motion short titled Vincent.

Burton was able to secure the services of Price himself as the film's narrator. Price loved the poem and understood what Burton wanted to accomplish. For Burton, it was a joy meeting his idol who lived up to all his expectations and more.

Burton's next project was a short film for the Disney Channel, Hansel and Gretel done with an all Japanese cast. Burton made the children's father a toymaker so he and Rick Heinrichs who he had worked with on Vincent had fun creating unusual toys that were showcased on a Disney Channel special hosted by animation historian John Culhane. Hansel and Gretel was shown only once on Halloween night 1983 on the Disney Channel and has never been re-issued.

Burton also did some concept work for the live action film, Toys, and for another project titled Trick or Treat that would have dealt with kids on Halloween and a haunted house. Before he left Disney in 1984, Burton also directed a black and white live action short titled Frankenweenie, a twist on the classic Frankenstein horror film, where a young boy brings his dog, Sparky, back to life.

Burton worked on another poem story about a Halloweenland. Henry Selick first encountered Tim Burton and his The Nightmare Before Christmas at Disney in the early 1980s, when Burton proposed it as a 30-minute television holiday special, perhaps narrated by Vincent Price. Selick was also having difficulty adapting to the "Disney way."

After leaving Disney, Selick worked for several weeks in Seattle on Carroll Ballard's 1986 film of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, creating storyboards and miniatures. He also worked in collaboration with Portland animator Will Vinton on Return to Oz.

"Storyboarding was how I learned to direct, and I worked on Oz for about a year," Selick said.

Burton was more than content to write and produce The Nightmare Before Christmas and to leave his old friend, Selick, to direct it.

"I'm very happy with the way it worked out. It was very comfortable for every one of us," Burton said. "When I was in animation, I had to get out because I didn't have the patience for it. To me, the artistic spirit is very spontaneous - when you get a thought that's very creative or exhilarating, and then you apply it to this long drawn out process, it's very difficult. And this type of animation [stop motion] is even more difficult because it takes so long. What keeps you going through making a movie like Nightmare is the energizing feeling you get when each of those shots come through."

Here is a video of Burton talking about early days at Disney and then demonstrating how to draw the character of Jack Skellington.

With the attention for the film and Burton’s popularity, the Disney Company looked at possible ways to integrate Burton into the Disney theme park.

In 1996, Imagineer Chris Merritt submitted a proposal for a traditional Disney dark ride that was inspired by Nightmare. Visitors would enter through the tree/portal to Halloween Town, and board a coffin sleigh for a trip that would take them through the land of Halloween, into the Professor's laboratory and through Oogie Boogie's lair, resulting in a whirlwind trip through a familiar snow-covered graveyard where Jack finally gets his girl before the sleighs return to the world of the living.

While that concept never got off the drawing board, another one about combining the Haunted Mansion with Nightmare took almost three years to get approval. The original concept was to theme the Haunted Mansion to Dickens’ Christmas Carol and its Christmas ghosts. On October 3, 2001, Haunted Mansion Holiday opened and quickly became popular with many guests. The storyline is that all of this takes place after the events in the film where Jack Skellington discovers the home of the Happy Haunts and to spread some holiday joy, he shares some of his original “dark” Christmas presents and decorations.

At the NFFC convention in 2003, Tim Burton was asked on whether there were plans for a Broadway version of his film, Nightmare Before Christmas.

“No,” replied Burton with a straight face. “We thought we’d go right to the ice show.”

Coming Soon: The story behind the short Frankenweenie and how it resulted in Burton being let go from the Disney Company but finding a friend in Pee-Wee Herman.



  1. By craigdvc

    Tim Burton is a good producer and director when it comes to his own ideas or new projects but why does he have to [deleted] on other's work?
    Dark Shadows
    Alice in Wonderland
    Sweeny Todd
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    Planet of the Apes
    Sleepy Hollow
    Batman Returns

  2. By jcruise86

    Quote Originally Posted by craigdvc View Post
    Tim Burton is a good producer and director when it comes to his own ideas or new projects but why does he have to [deleted] on other's work?
    Dark Shadows
    Alice in Wonderland
    Sweeny Todd
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    Planet of the Apes
    Sleepy Hollow
    Batman Returns
    One man's s**t is another man's (mine) delightfully demented, visually brilliant fun!

    And although I prefer Gene Wilder's Wonka to Johnny Depp's, Burton's wonderful Wonka film is actually closer to Roald Dahl's book.

    Thank you, Jim Korkis,
    for an interesting and inspiring article!

  3. By craigdvc

    Quote Originally Posted by jcruise86 View Post
    One man's [deleted] is another man's (mine) delightfully demented, visually brilliant fun!

    Thank you, Jim Korkis,
    for an interesting and inspiring article!

    I'm saving that quote!!!!!! Hilarious!

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