Tim Burton has a very defined style as a director. Analyse how he uses visual and/or verbal features across at least two of his texts to fulfil the common conventions of gothic fiction.

Tim Burton is an American film director who specialises in the genre of gothic fiction. He has made many movies that follow the same ideas by using similar visual and verbal techniques.  The two movies I will be looking at are Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow. Sweeney Todd is about a man named Benjamin Barker who was living a very happy. life “There was a barber and his wife and she was beautiful.” They had a kid together and were very happy. One day a man came along called Judge Turpin who fell in love at first sight with Benjamin’s wife. He was very high in power so sentenced Benjamin to go to jail over a crime he didn’t actually commit.  15 Years later he returns home only to find that he has no wife and kid to come back to. This makes him very angry and wants revenge on Judge Turpin. He is trapped in this revenge and will stop at nothing until he kills judge Turpin. Sleepy Hollow is about a headless horseman who has returned from the grave because someone has stolen his head from his resting place. A Policeman named Ichabod Crane was sent to investigate these murders and find who is behind this terrible crime. I will be talking about three Film techniques that are continuous throughout both of these movies. These three film techniques are colour, symbolism and setting. For colour, I will be talking about what colour means and how it is used to represent different things that for fill the common conventions of gothic fiction. For Symbolism, I will be talking about how a bird in a cage represents a sense of being trapped and for Setting, I will talk about isolation and the fog/smoke and what this helps to portray to us as the audience.

Colour is a visual technique that Tim Burton has used very well in both Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow. He has used monochromatic colour to show different emotions in both of these movies. He has also used the use of flashbacks to show different emotions within the film. Monochromatic colour is when one shade of colour is used in a scene in this case the colour used is often dark or black. The colour black is often represented as meaning death, evil, mystery or sadness. At the start of Sweeney Todd, the colour is almost black and white. The characters shown seem to have no life in them. They have no warmth, no colour, they are as pale as a ghost. The rest of the scene is dark. The colour used throughout the whole film is dark and gloomy. I think Tim Burton has done this to represent the sense of sadness and almost depression. The only time colour is used is in flashbacks. The use of flashbacks in Sweeney Todd represents happiness and freedom. The flashbacks are filled with vibrant colours and we know that this represents happiness and freedom because the use of vibrant colour is only ever used when Sweeney Todd is happy and free. It is used to show how Sweeney Todd used to be before judge Turpin came along. He was happy, full of life and free of revenge. This is how we can tell that bright colour is used to represent these things. In Sleepy Hollow there are also flashbacks full of colour. Crane has flashbacks to when he was happy and free of sadness and being trapped. He has flashbacks to before his mum was killed. The flashbacks show all the happy memories that Crane had with his mother. Again similar to Sweeney Todd these flashbacks show how colour represents happiness and being trapped. As soon as these flashbacks are over the colour is turned back to monochromatic shades and therefore happiness is gone and the sense of being trapped has returned. Burton has used the same visual feature in both films to represent happiness and free of being trapped through the use of vibrant colour. He has used the opposite of this (monochromatic dark colours) to show sadness and the feeling of being trapped. 

Symbolism is a visual feature that Tim Burton has purposely used throughout both of his movies. Symbolism is the use of objects to represent different ideas. The main symbol that Tim Burton used in both movies is the bird in a cage. In Sweeney Todd, the symbol of a bird in a cage was first showed to us when we saw a mid shot of Johanna (Todd’s child, Turpins ‘Daughter’). She is isolated in a tiny room with a bed and not much else. She has a bird who is trapped in a cage next to her bed. This is a metaphor as she herself is trapped in a cage. She is locked in by Turpin and has no access to the outside world other than her small window. Johanna just like the bird and wants to escape her cage and fly away like a dove. I think Tim Burton has done this to create a damsel in distress which is a common convention of gothic fiction.  This makes me think that she is more than just Judge Turpin’s daughter and this is correct because later on in the film we find out that she is Sweeney Todd’s long-lost daughter. In sleepy hollow Crane carries around with him an optical illusion string and paper circle that when you pull it, it shows a bird trapped in a cage. This struck me quite a bit because there was a direct link between this symbol and the symbol that I saw in Sweeney Todd. Crane just like Johanna is trapped and this use of symbolism shows this. Crane is trapped by the death of his mother. His mother was murdered because she was a witch and Crane was never able to escape the grief of this. Crane takes this optical illusion out when he is thinking about his mother and feeling trapped from the grief of her death. Crane then gives the optical illusion to Katrina which means she is now the one who is trapped.   

The setting of a film is about the time, place and “circumstances” where the film takes place. The setting in Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow has been purposely made the way it has in both films by Tim Burton for a reason. In Sleepy Hollow, the main location where the film takes place is in an isolated town in New York named Sleepy Hollow. It is surrounded by a thick forest which hides the literal living dead. Sleepy Hollow’s setting is also very foggy. This is to hide what is actually out there beyond our sight of view. Tim Burton has made this little town so isolate and so far from any other civilisation. He wants to create a feeling of being trapped and a feeling of no escape from the headless horseman. I think Tim Burton has done this because it makes us feel uneasy and this is a common convention of gothic fiction. It makes us feel uneasy because many people around you are being killed and you could be the next target. It’s like a nightmare where you just can’t run away.  The setting in Sweeney Todd is in a way very similar to the setting in Sleepy Hollow. This is because yet again Burton has created a major feeling of being trapped. Sweeney Todd’s windows show a sense of being trapped because his windows are barred just like a prison. This would show us that his room is like a prison and he can’t escape until his debt has been paid and he has killed Judge Turpin. Sweeney Todd looks out his window regularly and watches other people. He can see out but they can’t see in. This means he is forgotten and has no one. He watches their lives move forward whilst he is trapped in his cell by his grief, past and revenge. The setting shows another way that Sweeney Todd is trapped and this is by the smoke that is coming out of the chimneys of the houses in London. Todd can see lots of smoke out of his window and this means a sense of being trapped. The smoke in the setting makes Todd’s vision cut off. This means he is cut off from the rest of the world and reality which means he is again, trapped. His view on reality is blurred by the smoke.  

The film techniques of colour, symbolism and setting all interlink and have direct relations. The film technique of colour, for example, is directly related to symbolism. This is because in the flashbacks there are vibrant colours which are a symbol of happiness. The film technique ‘colour’ can be used as a symbol to prove this. This is the same for the settings in these two films. Colour plays a huge part in the emotions given off by a setting. If the colour is a dark monochromatic colour like Sweeney Todd’s attic then we know that it is a dark and unhappy place and if the colour in a setting is mostly bright for example, the flashbacks, then this symbolises happiness and freedom. These three film techniques are in a triangle of linked ideas. They all are related to each other and help to show the audience what is meant by the colour, setting and symbolism within these two films. These film techniques make it easy for us to recognise these two films as gothic films. 

Symbolism, Colour and Setting are three film techniques that Tim Burton uses to fulfil the common conventions of gothic fiction. My three technique are three visual film techniques that Tim Burton has used in both Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow. Symbolism has been used to represent a feeling of being trapped in both films and therefore making us feel uneasy which is something that gothic fiction is made to do. This symbol also presents to us a damsel in distress which is a common feature in gothic fiction films and novels worldwide. The film technique of colour shows us what emotions monochromatic dark shades and vibrant colours give off to us as the audience. The dark monochromatic shades give us a sense of sadness, mystery, evil and death. The vibrant colour gives us the emotions of happiness and freedom. The sense of being trapped is often used in gothic fiction and this has been used in both movies which prove that both movies fulfil the common conventions of gothic fiction. The use of the film technique setting is also used throughout the film to represent the sense of being trapped and puts a sensation of fear into us as the audience. The setting in both films is dark and the view of reality is skewed by either fog or by smoke. In Sleepy Hollow, the setting is very isolated and surrounded by a thick forest. The setting is also a very foggy location and is hiding the reality of the danger past the sight of view. In Sweeney Todd, the fog outside Todd’s window prohibits him from seeing reality in its true fashion. He is also trapped in his cell-like room and cannot escape until his debt has been paid. All three of these movies show very strongly the same ideas that fulfil the common conventions of gothic fiction. I know from these three film techniques that these two films are gothic fiction films. 

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Lewie,

    A good start and I can see where you are taking this essay.

    Remember to offer descriptions of how the technique is used in the film (be specific)

    When you are discussing the technique and describing how it is used (as you have done with the make up for the Headless Horseman) be sure to develop the explanation of WHY the director has used that technique in that way, WHAT they are trying to achieve and HOW the audience is influenced by the use of that technique.

    You also need to ensure you comment on how these techniques combine to deliver us a text we can recognise as ‘gothic fiction’.

    Mrs. P

  2. Lewie,

    Be specific without going into too much of a ‘plot recount’. At the moment, you are retelling too much of the plot. Particularly in your introduction.

    Mrs. P

  3. Hi Lewie,

    Over the final periods of this assessment, look to:

    – Address some of your informal language choices.
    – Develop your analysis of the directors intentions and what impact this has on the audience.
    – Look to discuss how your techniques combine to bring us two films that we can recognise as gothic fiction.
    – Address the technical errors in your work.

    Mrs. P


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