Tim Burton’s first short film produced after college, Vincent (1982), tells the quirky tale of little Vincent Malloy – a boy who dreams of being like his hero, Vincent Price. Real film actor Vincent Price narrates the film, describing Malloy with rhymes: “He doesn’t mind living with his sister and cats, though he’d rather share a home with spiders and bats.” Malloy daydreams of living like Price’s famous characters – mad scientists and debonair villains – and muses over his imaginary dead wife.
Shot in stark black and white, the film’s stop-motion animation is surreal and exaggerated as characters have big round eyes, tiny arms, and abstract faces. Slanted walls, abstract shadows, and stylized sets establish Malloy’s inner world filled with horror and isolation. Barely over six minutes in length, Burton’s Vincent reveals the inner imagination of a child and relishes in the beauty of horror.
Tim Burton’s macabre and quirky visual style is recognizable to nearly anyone. His early films Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) have become favorites among adults and children, leading to the branding of his films as dark, fantastical stories featuring surreal, horror, and gothic mise-en-scene; characters as outcasts, freaks, and villains; and themes of isolation, life, death, perseverance, and love. However, before Burton became a household name or even made his first feature film, he worked for Walt Disney Productions and made Vincent.
At only 24 years old, Burton apprenticed for Walt Disney Productions working on storyboards, animations, and concept art. His dark, abstract style clashed with Disney’s established aesthetic. Fortunately, Disney’s head of creative development recognized Burton’s strong, unique talents and gave him $60,000 to produce his own film. With the money and two months of production, Burton wrote, directed, and designed Vincent. Upon completion, the film received limited distribution and was rumored to have never existed until it was added as a special feature to The Nightmare Before Christmas in 2008 and added to Cinema 16’s American Short Films.
Contextualized within Burton’s filmmography, Vincent is the first film to demonstrate his trademark animation style. Drawing from classic horror films and German Expressionism, Vincent includes canted angles, bold shadows, abstract set designs, skeletons, zombies, lightning, spooky music, and more. Burton’s personal admiration for Vincent Price, Dr. Suess, and Roald Dahl also inspired the film; Dr. Suess’s narrative style and Roald Dahl’s flair for dark humor is evident in Vincent’s narration. Burton’s second short, Frankenweenie (1984) coincides with Vincent’s aesthetics, but Disney Studios did not know what to do with the films. After making them, Burton went on to make his first feature film with Warner Brothers, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and began to alternate between directing live-action and animation films. Almost twenty years later after Vincent and Frankenweenie were produced and shelved, Burton has come full circle with a feature film version of Frankenweenie (2012). Although not permanently returning to his film roots as an animator, Burton continues to explore stories of life, death, and peculiarity and will release a biopic about painters Walter and Margaret Keane later this year.
Watch Burton’s first short film and an homage to horror classics, Vincent, on YouTube.