Tim Burton Talks Practical Effects, AI, and Cancel Culture

Tim Burton is resisting the soullessness of modernity. In an interview with The Independent, the director of Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and more discussed his next film, Beetlejuice 2, and the old-school way he’s filming it, as well as cancel culture and AI. It’s a great read if you love the oddball filmmaker’s work.

Regarding Beetlejuice 2, the director reveals that filming was almost complete when the actors’ strike halted the production, saying the movie is “99 per cent done.” He also says that Beetlejuice 2 – which features Jenna Ortega, Willem Dafoe, and Monica Bellucci alongside returning stars Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and, of course, Michael Keaton – is being made in the same style as the first:

“I tried to strip everything and go back to the basics of working with good people and actors and puppets. It was kind of like going back to why I liked making movies.”

This indicates that Beetlejuice 2 won’t be awash in CGI but will use practical effects either mostly or exclusively. And that’s a good thing; Beetlejuice is a marvel of practical effects, with dummies, makeup, masks, and outlandish costumes creating a tangible world in which ghosts reside. It holds up today; I saw it last year in a theater, and the audience – which had some kids who’d likely never seen it – reacted as if it was a brand-new movie. That’s magic, and something at which Burton excels. I’m still a bit worried about making a sequel to a film that never needed one, but the more I hear about Beetlejuice 2, the more I’m looking forward to it.

Burton’s affinity for old-fashioned special effects may be part of what informs his opinion on artificial intelligence, but it’s more about the lack of humanity involved. When asked about a recent AI project from Buzzfeed that re-imagined Disney Princesses as if Burton created them, he said this:

“They had AI do my versions of Disney characters!… I can’t describe the feeling it gives you. It reminded me of when other cultures say, ‘Don’t take my picture because it is taking away your soul’… What it does is it sucks something from you. It takes something from your soul or psyche; that is very disturbing, especially if it has to do with you. It’s like a robot taking your humanity, your soul.”

I can understand that reaction. Imagine being an artist – any artist, but especially one with as singular and personal a style as Burton – and seeing someone use a computer program to recreate it and use it for purposes you never intended, in effect making something that is from you, even though it’s not. It’s a freaky thought, and one I can imagine artists not appreciating. This is why I sympathize most with the AI arguments made in the writers’ and actors’ strikes. It isn’t simply being replaced by computers, which is bad enough; it’s having your mind or body recreated and forced to do whatever a studio wants without your input. You are reduced to an algorithm, a code of guesses as to what you would write, how you would move, how you would interpret a character or spin a yarn. There’s something incredibly dehumanizing about that.

Burton also briefly gives his thoughts on cancel culture when asked about his old friends and collaborators Johnny Depp and Paul Reubens:

“When I was a child, I always had an image of the angry villagers in Frankenstein… I always used to think about society that way, as the angry village. You see it more and more. It’s a very, very strange human dynamic, a human trait that I don’t quite like or understand.”

Indeed; we’ve become a society of mob mentality when it comes to cancel culture, sacrificing whoever has a finger pointing at them on the altar of perceived virtue. And when the dust settles, and someone is discovered to be innocent, shoulders are shrugged, and we await the next victim while the previous one wonders if they’ll ever put their life back together. We see it more with celebrities because they’re in the public eye, but it must be even harder for regular people who are drummed out of their jobs and social circles over false allegations. Imagine going through what Johnny Depp did without all that Pirates of the Caribbean money to defend yourself. It’s got to be hell.

I enjoy when a figure like Tim Burton gets honest in an interview like this. It’s refreshing to hear a lack of spin from someone who has a genuine love for his art.

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