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Tim Burton is a fascinating man. His career spans four decades, with work that is instantly recognizable, his influence is pervasive and important in the world of visual art. Yet his work, and the man himself, remain largely misunderstood. Often pigeonholed with words like “dark” and “gothic”, his works delight millions, while terrifying others. The exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox, opening Friday, November 26, and originally curated by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, was specifically designed to celebrate Burton as a visual artist, and hopefully shed some light on the process of a true visionary.

Burton arrives at TIFF Bell Lightbox looking very much himself — dark clothing, unruly hair, striped socks — but the man who sits to begin taking media questions is certainly not the man I expected. Timid and soft spoken, he humbly talked about his career, his influences, his rejections and how his work is perceived.

While he has always been an artist, doodling and sketching things on napkins to this day, — scraps of paper his assistants try to grab wherever they find them, lest they get left behind — this constant creation came largely out of necessity. “Nobody thought I could speak, actually,” he says of his early years directing, “Whether I did a sketch or had to write something down, it was all probably because I had trouble speaking, so I needed to either get things out in a note or a piece of paper or a sketch.” That said, he never let this communication method get in the way of his producing art. “Part of the joy of making a movie is working with collaborators,” Burton says, “In animation class you draw the characters, you cut it, you do everything, which is great, you know, ’cause it gives you a good background on everything. But as you go on, that’s part of the joy of working with collaborators, people that surprise you, people that you try to tell them what you’re doing and then they get it and they add something to it. And whether it’s actors or designers or whomever, I’ve really got to enjoy that process because it keeps things fresh. You get surprised by people and that’s part of the joy of making a film.”

Has it always been easy for him? No, certainly not. “Did you see all the rejection slips up on the wall?” Burton jokes, “There were more. There could have been a whole room of rejection slips, to be honest.” Turning to a slightly more serious note he says, “All those kind of negatives just give you more fighting spirit, so to speak. I think I’ve been lucky throughout my life to have those kind of things to fight against… I always looked at those experiences as still quite positive.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t still frustration. Adults and children often perceive his work in vastly different ways. Adults feel his imagery might be too dark, while children find the soul of the character and the intention of the piece to be less menacing than their adult counterparts. “I’ve been through this so many times. Nightmare Before Christmas is a perfect example. ‘Oh it’s too weird for kids’, and blah, blah, blah. That’s the thing is to talk to kids. They, to me, are the clearest barometer of what’s going on. Most stories for children are quite subversive.”

He strives to tell stories that are real, not scary, but still engage the imagination fully. “The thing is, for me I grew up on films where they were, I guess you would say, more visual. Those were the films that spoke to me, the kind of monster movies, visual films, but within that I always felt there to be a reality in there. You know, you watch Frankenstien and you can say it’s a fantasy, but there’s something emotional and true about it, so for me that was always a reality. That’s why from very early on this sort of talk of what’s real, fantasy, reality is always a bit of a strange blur all great fairy tales, folk tales, have some reality to them. There’s some meaning to them; some real truth there.”

The exhibition itself has been very well received by the public. Rajinder Roy, curator at the MoMA, noted that they didn’t receive one complaint letter from parents who brought their children to the New York exhibition, but instead the opposite. “We got letters of thank you from parents saying, ‘You inspired my kid to take their doodling seriously [and] take their interest in drawing seriously,’  and actually realizing, it’s not a direct line, but there is a way forward, there’s something in the material that can lead to a great work of art.” It is precisely this that Burton wanted to celebrate with this exhibition, and he was touched by the way the MoMA wanted to present his work. “That to me is the most gratifying thing, that kind of response,” Burton noted, “It is kind of’ anything is possible’ because it just shows that you don’t have to be a great artist or a great filmmaker. It sort of blurred the gap of what kind of people go to museums and that was something very special to me.”

It is this philosophy that makes this particular exhibition special. While the public may walk in thinking they’ll see a collection of artifacts from Burton’s many films, what they’re get instead is a rounded look at an artist’s process, beginning to end. Roy notes, “The emphasis was really on the unseen work, the unknown work, which were his personal drawings. The work that Tim actually never intended anyone to see. Kind of beyond even process around the films. Clearly his masterpieces are the films, but the insight into the working process of an artist, he was able to demonstrate that it is not a straight line. It’s multi-fold.” Burton adds, “It’s the weird kind of crossover of [how] things sometimes start out more abstractly and one little sketch might become something for a bigger idea or not, but that’s what I liked about the presentation of it for showing the weird process.” Roy sums it up best, however, when he says, “To be a creative person ““ to be Tim Burton ““ there needs to be a lot of stuff happening at once.” This exhibition is the perfect demonstration of exactly that.

Burton takes a seat in one of the exhibits