January 27, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Film
Lights, Camera, Exhibition: Making Tim Burton

Installation view including Sandworm Jaws prop from the feature film Beetlejuice (1988)

I like to compare the process of organizing a large-scale museum exhibition like Tim Burton to the process of producing a film. (What can I say, I’m a film person!) You start with an idea, and then research the subject as if you were writing a script—in the case of a gallery show, this means determining what art, objects, media, and documentation are available, and how they can most effectively be used to tell a “story.” Ideally, you want your interpretation of the materials to seem fresh and relevant to a contemporary audience. Typically you negotiate for the loan of materials to your show from various archives around the world—sort of like signing “stars” to a film—and then work with teams of exhibition designers, graphic artists, lighting technicians, A/V folks, carpenters, and so forth to bring your show to life in a gallery, just as the director and producers collaborate with a production department on the lot of a film studio during the making of a movie.

This is an especially rewarding experience at MoMA, because our production and design staff is filled with collegial and skilled individuals. Our Graphics Department has already won two certificates of excellence from the Type Directors Club (TDC) for their Burton show designs. Furthermore, my co-organizers in the Department of Film and I naturally assumed roles modeled on those of the filmmaking process: Chief Curator Raj Roy was Executive Producer, troubleshooting at the highest levels; Curatorial Assistant Jenny He acted as Assistant Director and Projects Manager; and I took on the role of Director. This turned out to be a very efficient and productive way for us to approach our work together.

From 2005 to 2007 we went through the process of “pre-production,” researching Tim’s work and drafting exhibition proposals, as I’ve described in my earlier posts. Finally, in February 2008, the process of actually visiting archives and negotiating loans began. From New York, we eventually made a total of five trips to Europe and the West Coast exploring the collections at the studio archives of Walt Disney, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, Mackinnon and Saunders, Stan Winston, Carlos Grangel, Gentle Giant, and the Chiodo Bros.; a few private collections, like that of costume designer Colleen Atwood; and of course, the materials held by Tim Burton himself. As you might imagine, the studios are a storehouse of treasures for the curious curator. But we were on a mission: to select works for loan that would serve to demonstrate how Tim’s visual imagination is brought to life on film through his collaborations with concept artists, puppet- and model-makers, designers (set, costume, and production), and others. With so much to choose from in the archives—and so little space in the Museum galleries that had already been assigned to us—the secret was to always keep in mind the Burton themes and motifs that we wished to illustrate. For example, the Sandworm Jaws from Beetlejuice (1988) that we found at Warner Bros. would serve to represent the “festive nature of the grotesque” (the “Carnivalesque”) in Tim’s work, while costumes from Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994), paired with the cowls from Batman (1989), would serve to illustrate themes of armoring and masking.

Installation view including costumes and props selected to demonstrate armor and mask motifs in Burton's work

Next time, I’ll describe the surprising range of differences between the archives we explored in search of Tim Burton.