March 3, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Film
Searching for Tim Burton

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. 1985. USA. Directed by Tim Burton. Photo courtesy Warner Bros/Photofest. © 2010 Warner Bros.

The search for Tim Burton took us to four Hollywood studio archives, five independent production company collections, and four private lenders, exposing us to an interesting variety of archival situations. Studio archives are traditionally housed on the lots where their films and television programs are shot, or, if their collections are large enough and the demand great enough, in off-lot research centers and warehouses. When we visited Twentieth Century Fox and the Disney Corporate archives, we got to stroll the studio grounds, and we were hoping for a glimpse of a production in progress through the open door of a soundstage—readers who can recall Paul Reubens on a bicycle being chased around the Warner Bros lot at the end of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) will have a picture of the craziness we were expecting. But as it turned out, the lots were as quiet as an empty office park on summer weekends. Disney’s Animation Research Library is a sleek facility away from the studio, and the Warner Bros storage site is located in an industrial area. At each we were assigned teams of archive specialists who showed us carefully preserved art and film props. Half of the Los Angeles area sites we visited were in Tim’s hometown of Burbank, CA, which he used as a muse for such early films as Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), so we made a particular point of soaking up the atmosphere of that city.

The production companies were all smaller, more eccentric operations. At the Grangel Studio in Barcelona, Spain, the studio is located in the modest apartment of a residential building. Buzzed in from the lobby like visiting friends, we looked at art from Corpse Bride (2005) in a room next to the kitchen, where a refrigerator full of snacks was at our command. At the Mackinnon and Saunders Studio, in a nondescript country village outside Manchester, England, we examined stop-motion Martian puppets in various stages of dress from Mars Attacks! (1996), and observed craftspeople at work on the puppets for Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). At the late Stan Winston’s studio in San Fernando, CA, now known as Legacy Effects, we located the Scissorhands costume with its striking appendages (it was later relocated to the Profiles in History archives, from whom we eventually borrowed it). At Gentle Giant Studios, along a busy highway in Burbank, we found twelve original concept models, hand-painted by Burton, from the artist’s set of collectible toy figures, Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys (2003), and observed remarkable 3-D computer modeling equipment. Finally, located in the shadow of an elevated Burbank freeway at Chiodo Bros. Productions, we discovered the eleven plaster “Large Marge” eyeballs that were used to transform a lady trucker into a snarling beast in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Professional studio archivists know their collections inside out, and an important part of an archivist’s full-time job is to provide access to qualified users. At an active production company, on the other hand, the staff is busy doing other things, and access to a collection is a trickier proposition that often hinges on their enthusiasm for your project. Happily Tim Burton was so admired by the collaborators we approached that his name alone opened doors. Visiting a private collection is yet another experience entirely, because these collections are typically housed in the collector’s home and require the hospitality of folks in their personal space. Arriving as a virtual stranger, I was made to feel like an honored quest. The wife of renowned production designer Rick Heinrichs served hors d’oeuvres as Rick himself filled their living room with the maquettes he’d sculpted and painted in the 1980s as a means of proving to studio execs that Burton’s character drawings could work in three dimensions as animated puppets. Costume designer Colleen Atwood met me early one morning and left me “home alone” at her place, where I studied work from Planet of the Apes (2001), Big Fish (2003), and Sweeney Todd (2007). The converted two-car garage of collector extraordinaire Ron Magid served as a walk-in treasure chest, filled floor to ceiling with a marvelous assortment of horror and sci-fi memorabilia stretching back to the silent-film era, from which we selected a larger-than-life scarecrow head from Planet of the Apes.

Working in Tim Burton’s personal archive was an intimate experience as well but I’ll save my description of that for my next post.