The Sensorial in Early Tim Burton’s Feature Films

Grotesque, Gothic, and bizarre, are some of the adjectives that commonly describe the films directed by Tim Burton. Although their stories are often simple, Burton’s films have unique visual and aural styles that complement the lack of narrative complexity and captivate the audience with their rich symbolism and energy. On the one hand, their visual style relies on the use of expressionist lighting and camera angles, geometrically acute set designs, surrealist backgrounds, highly designed costumes, and hand-made special effects. On the other hand, the complex layering of sound effects, ambient sounds, voices, and orchestral music characterizes their aural style. Thanks to the systematic use of these stylistic choices, Burton’s films convey a very sensorial experience in which strange and non-realistic worlds and characters become more immediate and present. In this essay I analyze the first five feature films directed by Burton –Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Batman Returns (1992)– in order to describe the characteristics of their aural style and understand how it contributes to the creation of a very sensual experience.

First of all, I am going to situate this group of films inside the historical narrative that Michel Chion has elaborated in his book Film, A Sound Art. These films belong to the Dolby era, the period of time that expands from the introduction of Dolby Stereo in 1975 to our present Dolby Digital days. According to Chion, the movies from this era have an increasing physical presence and produce more sensorial impressions due to the advances in sound technology and the refinement of certain sound-image editing practices (reaffirmation of montage). By bringing to cinema wider frequency range (more high and low sounds), increased dynamic range (more contrasts), and multitrack sound (more layers to mix), Dolby technology facilitated the proliferation of well-defined sounds that coexist in a single sonic environment and superimpose to each other without loosing their quality. As a result, the audio of the films from this era is dynamic, analytical, and is characterized by polyrhythms, polyphonies, constructed voices, new sound effects (foleyed cinema), and expressive silences.

Perhaps the only problem that emerges when situating the early Tim Burton’s feature films in Chion’s historical narrative is that in these movies the dynamism of sound does not elide music. As a matter of fact, the music in these films remains being an important element of the Dolby sound mix. Besides having some pop songs as diegetic music, each of these films uses extensively background orchestral music (composed by Danny Elfman) that follows important classical Hollywood’s norms such as narrative cueing, invisibility, signifier of emotion, continuity, and unity. The non-diegetic music definitely plays a crucial role in these films not only by establishing the bizarre settings and modeling the mysterious characters and but also by creating of the sensual sonic environment characteristic of the Dolby era.

The polyrhythm and polyphony of a setting.

By analyzing some of the scenes where particular settings are being established, it is possible to reveal how music, sound effects, ambient sounds, and voices coexist in these films, superimposing to each other their particular rhythms and tones. In Beetlejuice (1988), for instance, we find this kind of layering of sounds during the scenes that take place at the “underworld/purgatory’s headquarters.” While the visuals reveal a very messy kind of office with a typing pool of skeletons, zombies hanging out of pulleys, printing paper around the floor, and green and purple steams coming out of ducts; in the aural dimension we hear the rhythms of typewriters, the ringing of telephones, the crumpling of paper, the squeaking pulleys, and the constant voice of a woman announcing death arrivals in an airport fashion, being mixed with the non-diegetic music of minor key arpeggios played in a harp.

Establishing the streets of Gotham City also requires a complex layering of sounds. In the opening sequence of Batman (1989) we see two establishing shots of a skyline that resembles like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, immediately followed by a panning shot that moves across the foggy and wet downtown streets showing us cars, steams, buses, lights, people walking in the sidewalks and standing up around a small square, and a family that is trying to catch a taxi cab. During these sequence, that last almost a minute, we hear many layers of sounds superimposed: the constant passing of cars over wet streets (with Doppler effect), the burst of steams, the coming and going of sirens, horns, car screeches, food steps over wet side walks, multiple and non-intelligible voices from a crowd, and the voices of the family calling a taxi cab and folding a paper map. Meanwhile, in Gotham City, we also hear parts of a pop music tune (Prince’s It is the future) fading in and out as the camera pans in front of the small square where young people is hanging out.

Compared to the crowded sound of Gotham City, the polyphony and polyrhythm of suburbia land is clean and pure. In Edward Scissorhands (1990), the first time the neighborhood is established, we see shots of the facades of several houses revealing the activities of the inhabitants. While the shots are changing the layers of sound are superimposed. We hear birds singing, a water coming from a hose and falling into grass, hammer impacts, the rolling of a mechanical gardening machine, barking dogs, and the heel steps of a woman that is about to enter a house.

An unusual setting that is established in some of Burton’s cinematic worlds is the pseudo scientific laboratory. Because the main feature of these “labs” is that they have a working Goldberg machine, the polyrhythm and polyphony that we hear reminds us of the comic symbolism of the pieces of machinery that are moving. In Pewee’s Big Adventure (1988), we are introduced to a huge breakfast machine that occupies an entire kitchen. As each mechanism is activated and showed in a close-up shot, a layer of sound is added to the mix. In consecutive order, we hear the sounds of an electric fan, a wind paper toy, a match, an anvil falling over a face metallic plate, a motor, a mini Ferris wheel, a rotating gear, a mini propeller, an egg rolling inside a tube, a bird head toy cracking an egg with its bleak, two pieces of bread being carried by a dinosaur skeleton that glides through a rope, bread being dropped into a toaster, an egg being dropped into a pan with sizzling oil, a golden boy pouring pancake batter into a pan, a dinosaur squeezing an orange with its mouth, cereal falling from a Thomas Jefferson’s hat into plastic dish, a pan cake being thrown into the ceiling, and, finally, the spring sound of two toasts exiting a toaster. While each sound is added to the polyrhythm we hear a repetitive and energetic non-diegetic music that accelerates its tempo and increases its instrumentation as the Goldberg breakfast machine performs more tasks (starts with a celesta solo and then adds the other instruments of the orchestra giving emphasis to cymbal hits and brass outbursts).

There are also some settings where the verbal polyphony seems to have more importance than the music and other rhythms that share the space in the mix. These settings are usually in gardens or big rooms where parties or dances take place. In Edward Siscorhands, there is a neighborhood party in the Bogg’s garden where we hear the superimposition of many unintelligible voices (party chat effect) mixed with the diegetic music of a Muzak-ish version of the “Alo-ha” theme coming from a radio. In Batman Returns (1992), during the mascarade dance party we hear the same kind verbal polyphony superimposed over foot step sounds, while a group of chamber musicians play an stylized version of a pop song.

Constructed voices, laughs and schizophrenia

As Michel Chion has noticed, with Dolby technology the supplemental character of the voice in relation to the body becomes evident. Because the Dolby recording and reproduction of sound allow us to hear more frequencies and more contrasts, the vocal versatility becomes more explicit. By mastering their voices, actors and actresses can construct different voices using accents and timbres that can be used for better depiction of the characters.

In Tim Burton’s early feature films we find that most of characters have pretty specific constructed voices. The construction of Pee Wee Herman’s voice by Paul Rubens sounds comic and cartoony due to a constant variation in its pitch. The voice of Edward Scissorhands interpreted by Johny Depp is calm, soft, and tender, and effectively transmit the mysterious humanity of the character. The voice of a Beetlegeuse performed by Michael Keaton sounds harsh, grotesque, very material and guttural, with an accent that is a mixture of Texan cowboy and circus master. Villains such as the Joker and the Penguin, have low pitched voices that oblige us to listen to them, they are dark and energetic at the same time.

Characters who have double personalities such as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina/Catwoman, have a double constructed voice. In a sort of sonic schizophrenia, the voices of these characters change pitches according to the costume and mask they are wearing. While Bruce/Batman alternates between a clear medium pitch voice with proper eloquent English and a low pitch darkened voice, Selina/Catwoman goes from a clear and shy high pitch voice to a very sensual and erotic whispering tone.

An interesting feature of the voices in Burton’s early feature films is that in all of them, there is always a constructed laugh that seems to act as a leitmotif of the films. Although this laugh is associated with some of the main characters (Pee Wee, Joker, Beetlegeuse, and Penguin), in certain occasions the laugh comes from secondary characters. For instance, in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure we hear the horror laugh of Large Marge, the sinister laugh of the doctor clowns and devils during a dream, and the laughs from a group of tourists at the Alamo.

The new and old expressiveness of foleyed cinema

The analytical and dynamic quality of sound in the Dolby era also gives a new status to sound effects, in particular to the noises associated to with particular objects and bodies. As stated by Chion, “noise is no longer associated with the pulse of the world; it is a sound effect, an expressive and dynamic supplement emitted by our bodies.” (141)

It is perhaps in the two Batman films where more new audio creations or sound effects are being used. Since the fantastic, dark, and urban world and characters of these films is inspired by a comic book superhero, there is an implied necessity of creating sound for the new objects that fill the environment and surround the main character. Hence, the Bat-mobile, the Bat-weapons, and the Bat-plane, are all surrounded by specially designed sounds that punctuate some of their features. The Bat-mobile, for instance, has a constant turbine sound when is on that is synchronized with a huge flame that comes from its trunk. Because the Bat-mobile is a transformative vehicle, its shape can change easily according to danger it has to confront. Whenever this happens, we hear the sound of electronic beeps punctuating its metamorphosis. In contrast to the electronic quality of the Bat-mobile, the sound of the Bat-weapons is more analogue and similar to the one that arrows and ropes would make. This is due to the fact that that Batman uses weapons that he always throws into the air, especially ropes that have bat-hooks.

The grotesque and comic aspect of some of the Tim Burton’s worlds and characters have also opened the opportunity for designing sound effects that have a cartoon quality. This is certainly the case of the film Beetlejuice where we encounter a sort of homage to some of the conventional boinks, horns, kisses, and screeches characteristic of Hollywood animation golden age. The humorous potential of these sound effects is realized when they punctuate the vulgar actions of the “bio-exorcist” Beetlegeuse such as moving his buttocks and eating a giant fly.

I find one of the most interesting uses of sound effects in the characterization of Edward Scissorhands. The noise that his hands make is not the one that we would normally expect from an assembly of at least ten gardening and cooking scissors in a single device. Instead of hearing the sound of a heavy device as the one that we see on the screen we hear a very delicate sound that seems to accompany the character whenever he goes contributing to the creation of an aura of mystery and humanity around him. This sound can be described as the one produced when two knives are sharpened against each other. Since Edward does not talk a lot, many of his interactions with the world and other characters are punctuated by this bright and high-pitched sound. Sometimes he answer questions by making this sound as when he is inquired by a policeman in the court. Other times, when he is happy, he repeats the sound several times creating an irregular rhythm as when he is sculpting the bushes, hairstyling the suburban women, and cutting the hair of dogs. There are several occasions when the scissorhands change their sound, and they seem to be related to the moments of danger and frustration, as when Edward is trapped in the money vault and when he scratches the walls of the house after seeing that his beloved Kim stops talking to him and goes to meet her boyfriend. In general, it can be said that the sound that has been designed for the scissorhands humanizes Edward’s character by representing his very fragile emotions.

(Silence) Explosions and the rumors of the rooms.

One of my favorite aspects of Dolby technology is that by allowing sounds to be very analytical and dynamic it also opened a big acoustic space for exploring the expressive potential of silence. In the sample of films that I have been analyzing we can hear to different approaches to silence. On the one hand, silence is used for describing particular settings such as dining rooms and offices. On the other hand, silence is used for creating a huge contrast, a kind of minimal vacuum in the continuous sonic flow that is suddenly filled with an overwhelming explosion of sound.

In Batman Return (1992) the Max Schrek’s offices located at the top floors of a very high building are visually portrayed very bright and clean, with marble floors, huge windows, and cold artificial light. The two scenes that occur in the office stand out because the overwhelming silence we hear. This silence is made conspicuous by the resonance of footsteps, the characters’ voices, and a very soft continuous ambient noise that seems to be produced by an air conditioner system. A similar kind of silence can be appreciated in Batman (1989) during the scenes that take place at the rooms of Bruce Wayne mansion. For instance, when Vicky Vale and Bruce are sitting together at the extremes of a long table in the middle of a huge dining room, we hear not only their voices resonate in a big empty space but also the continuous swing of a pendulum clock as a background rumor. It is also when characters are sit around a table, that we hear the silence of a suburban dinning room in Edward Scissorhands. In this case, the silence is made conspicuous by the very sharp and percussive noises Edward makes when he is trying to catch the food from the dish using his scissorhands.

The other kind of silence that I have identified can be appreciated in action scenes that involve special effects of explosions, fire, breaking of window glasses, and gunshots. The destruction of Joker’s chemical factory in Batman (1989), for instance, has this moment of silence. In this scene Batman has entered the factory driving his batmobile while the Joker’s army shoots him. After crossing several tunnels and resisted minor explosions, the batmobile arrives to a central vault where suddenly stops. As the visuals show the close up of a special batmobile mechanism performing the action of taking a little sphere out of the car, the non-diegetic music fades out and the sound of guns and explosions disappear. Suddenly, in the middle of the silence, the sphere is dropped into the floor in and we hear three metallic impacts punctuate the bouncing of the sphere. While the bouncing is occurring the batmobile leaves the vault and the visuals cut to a establishing shot of the factory. After hearing the third bounce, we hear a very loud explosion that is followed by other minor ones.


Polyrhythms, polyphonies, constructed voices, new sound effects (foleyed cinema), and expressive silences are the characteristics of cinema from the Dolby era that appear in the aural style of the early feature films directed by Tim Burton between 1985 and 1992. The grotesque, gothic, bizarre, and fantastic worlds and characters from these early films are perceived as being more immediate and as having more physical presence thanks to the analytical and dynamic sound that Dolby technology enabled. The constant reaffirmation of the presence of sound –mixture of voices, sound effects, ambient sounds, and music– in combination with the highly stylized visuals, makes these films very sensual and sensorial, very pleasant.


  1. If you have seen the movies that he makes, then I would suggest you concentrate on the music. It is really important for them to make the music sound appropriate to the movie.

    1. Hi Andy, the music of Burton’s films is precisely what I tried to address in this post. It is certainly an important aspect of his movies.

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