D.W. Leitner has more than 50 directing, producing, and cinematography credits in feature-length documentary and dramatic films produced in the U.S. and abroad.

7: Tim Burton’s Cinematographic Imagination


Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005) was “filmedâ€? with Canon EOS 1D Mark II DSLRs adapted to Nikon lenses, and edited on Final Cut Pro.

If you’re anywhere near New York City between November 22 and April 26, 2010, you’ll want to drop by the Museum of Modern Art and visit the marvelous Tim Burton exhibition opening next week. I attended the press preview, with Burton in attendance, in advance of the madding crowds.

It’s rare, if ever, that MoMA hosts a potential blockbuster of a show about a filmmaker, but Burton’s 27-year career spans fourteen live-action and animated films as director/producer and concept artist—and often illustrator, writer, and photographer too.


Visitors enter the Special Exhibitions Gallery on MoMA’s third floor through a monster’s mouth designed by Burton. Photo by D.W. Leitner

The exhibition comprises more than 700 drawings, paintings, sculptures, sketchbooks, and films assembled from private collections and Burton’s own archives in Los Angeles and London—most of it not seen before in public. Burtonalia, in fact, is on view throughout the Museum, occupying the third-floor Special Exhibitions Gallery, the basement theater lobbies, even the Sculpture Garden, where a large one-eyed balloon monster and deer-shaped topiary inspired by Edward Scissorhands loom menacingly.


More than 700 works by Burton are on view throughout the museum, including an Edward Scissorhands topiary in the Sculpture Garden. Photo by D.W. Leitner

It’s only fitting that MoMA organized this tribute to Burton the filmmaker. When MoMA’s Department of Film was established in 1935, it asserted, “Modern art is not confined to painting and sculpture … the motion picture is the only great art peculiar to the twentieth century.” MoMA’s famous film collection and screening series are second to none, but gallery shows relating to film have been minor affairs, displaying animation or poster art, mostly hung in MoMA’s theater galleries (with the lone exception of the Pixar Animation Studio 20th Anniversary show four years ago).

In the same way that MoMA will never exhibit Picasso’s brushes or Dan Flavin’s wire cutters, the Burton exhibit showcases only graphic works to the exclusion of tools or discussion of technique. That’s why it’s worth remembering that Burton was a pioneer in the use of SLRs and DSLRs in photographing stop-motion classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.


Life-size maquette of Edward Scissorhands in the Special Exhibitions Gallery. Photo by D.W. Leitner

Famously, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was the first full-length stop-motion film, featuring more than 227 painstakingly animated armature puppets. If memory serves, a Nikon with a home-brew video assist was the principle camera. Corpse Bride (2005), in turn, was the first stop-motion film shot entirely with an off-the-shelf CMOS-based DSLR—a Canon EOS 1D Mark II. Twenty-four of them in fact, adapted to Nikon lenses.

At a time when it’s all the rage to capture motion pictures by means of digital RAW files, as epitomized by Red Digital Cinema Red One, or compressed MPEG-4 newly offered by hybrid HDSLRs like Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D and Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1, it’s useful to remember these trends have roots and didn’t materialize from thin air.


Vincent Price in Burton’s long-lost Hansel and Gretel, broadcast once in 1983 on the fledgling Disney Channel. (Look closely and you’ll see Hollywood director Catherine Hardwicke listed in the credits as Model Assistant.) Photo by D.W. Leitner

RAW files were captured by the Canon 1Ds used in Corpse Bride and subsequently converted to 2K Cineon files. They were conformed on a Quantel IQ from an offline edit—standard definition, by the way, in Apple Final Cut Pro 4.5 on Power Mac G5s… we’ve come a long way, baby!—and output to film on Arrilaser film recorders.

Burton himself did not operate any stop-motion cameras, and whether or not he had an immediate hand in directing them, he nevertheless created the story and characters and inspired both creative and technical risk-taking—which is what we look for in a great director.


Animatronic Robot Boy, whose brains runneth over, salutes as you enter and leave. From Burton’s 1997 children’s book, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. Photo by D.W. Leitner

That, and a world-class cinematographic, if scary, imagination.

Do yourself a favor and see this show. And/or visit this wonderful Tim Burton Flash site that conveys some of the show’s highlights.

Next week’s blog: On Nov. 18, Sony announced a new AVCHD camcorder line called NXCAM at InterBEE in Japan. Available early next year, the first NXCAM will be a hand-held with a detachable 128GB flash memory module. Yours truly has some first-hand notes to share already. So stay tuned.

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Related Topics: Cameras, Cinematography, DSLRs, Musings

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Leitner's Cinematography Corner is a new destination for reviews, blogs, notes, and opinions from longtime millimeter Contributing Editor David Leitner, who also happens to be an award-winning director, producer, and cinematographer of independent films showcased at film festivals like Sundance and Berlin. Leitner argues that since everything's now digital outside of cameras and projectors that shuttle celluloid, "digital" has lost its cachet. Leitner's Cinematography Corner will instead frame innovations in production gear as the latest advances in the long march of motion-picture technology, well over a century old. And never lose sight of the fact that technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself.


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