Tim Burton at his exhibition “The World of Tim Burton” in Hong Kong.

The World of Tim Burton comes to Hong Kong: sketches and doodles

Travelling exhibition of director’s works has been criticised by some for its superficiality, but shows his imagination and should inspire children to draw

There’s a saying that all children are born creative, but we simply grow out, or worse, education removes it. Director Tim Burton is one of the very few who has retained the unrestrained imagination of a child and is able to project that onto the big screen.

In a touring exhibition that showcases mostly drawings and sketches, Hongkongers can now catch a glimpse of the creative mind behind films such as Beetlejuice (1988) and Corpse Bride (2005).

And a glimpse it is. “The World of Tim Burton” has visited six major cultural hubs including Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo and Toronto and drawn criticism, mostly for its superficiality.

The exhibition was originally curated for Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2009, where Burton’s works were displayed alongside those of artists such as Claude Monet and William Kentridge.
A drawing of Sally from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Photo: Tim Burton
A New York Times critic called the exhibition a “let-down” as “there is a sameness to all Burton’s two- and three-dimensional output that makes for a monotonous viewing experience.”

A critic from The Guardian said: “Impressive stuff for a teenager, no question, but it leaves the show feeling awfully samey.” And a Sydney Morning Herald review said: “It shows [visitors] some pretty costumes without much revelation about the creative process.”

However, that has more to do with the curation of the exhibition than Burton’s works themselves.

“One of the things I like about the exhibition is that it’s not linear. It’s photographs, drawings and things. None of it is meant to be hanging on the wall in a museum or anything,” says the 58-year-old filmmaker. “But it does show the process of how I work.”

Untitled (Mothera). This early drawing (c. 1980-1988) pays homage to Japanese monster films, one of Burton’s core influences. Photo: Tim Burton
More than 500 works are displayed under nine different themes. That seems an impressive number, but the bulk of it is rough sketches, from doodles on napkins dating back to 1995, quick portraits of people he met during his travels, and basic outlines of monsters and caricatures.

And the process that probably fascinates film buffs most – how Burton’s raw ideas become the visually arresting films we see on screen – is conspicuously absent.

The most intriguing zone is “Unrealised Projects”, featuring character designs Burton did as an apprentice animator in Walt Disney Animation Studios in the early 1980s, which were ultimately abandoned. The drawings in this section are also most developed; they are coloured and shaded.

Burton at his exhibition in Hong Kong.
“I’ve worked on a few projects where I thought they were going in and they didn’t. It’s quite devastating. You never really forget those. I got really frustrated because I couldn’t draw in the Disney style,” says Burton.

“One day, I just said ‘I can’t draw like this. I’m just gonna draw the way I draw.’ And it’s a real mind expanding moment.

“If you look throughout the sections, you can see Burton’s ideas reverberating from one project, from one personal artwork to another,” says curator, Jenny He.

“And it’s really hard for me as a curator to put him in a box,” she says, adding that the magic is lost when you try to do so.

But as Burton explains, “the thing that’s most gratifying about going to different venues and places is how it inspires kids to draw”.

“The World of Tim Burton”, ArtisTree, Cornwall House, TaiKoo Place, 979 King’s Road, Quarry Bay. 10am-10pm. HK$180-HK$220. Ends January 23

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: sketchy account