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by Kurt Loder

LONDON — Everybody's here at Three Mills Studios but Tim Burton. Tim Burton is the reason everybody's here, but he himself is en route from someplace else, someplace way on the other side of town, where he's been overseeing post-production on one of his two new movies, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Burton swings by Three Mills every day to keep tabs on his other film, "The Corpse Bride." But the sullen spring rain that's dribbling down from the pewter-gray sky outside will surely not expedite his expected arrival today, having, as it does, a congealing effect on the already glutinous London traffic.

But no matter. Several dozen people here at Three Mills are beavering away at building sets and wrangling puppets and generally getting on with the job of bringing "The Corpse Bride" to life. Burton is co-directing the picture with Mike Johnson, who worked as an animator on his last stop-motion puppet project, 1993's "Nightmare Before Christmas." Johnson presides over the day-to-day details of shooting the movie. Burton carries the look of the picture around in his head.

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The ground floor of this big building we're in is curtained off into a warren of separate mini-sets. There's a skeletons-only pub with a coffin-shaped billiard table over there, for example; and over here, a Victorian town square with an obsessively detailed cobblestone street and weathered stone buildings rising up 12 feet in the air. There are no movie cameras in evidence. Instead, the set is ringed by computer-controlled digital still cameras — Canon bodies with Nikon lenses — some of them screwed down on tripods, others affixed to flying jibs for tracking shots. The idea, a novel one, is to create a sort of photographic cartoon, with 24 separate exposures, or "cels," making up one second of the finished film. Each of these shots must be minutely tweaked, and maybe re-lit, to carry the action forward. On a good day, the camera guys — who, like everyone else, have been working 12-hour days for the last 41 weeks — can knock off two seconds of film.

Tim's still not here, I see.

Burton has been kicking around the idea of "The Corpse Bride" for 10 years, ever since he first heard about it from his friend Joe Ranft, a story supervisor at Pixar. The story, which I'm afraid has Tim Burton written all over it, apparently dates from 19th-century Russia, a period when anti-Semitism might be said to have been the national pastime, and Jewish brides-to-be were sometimes kidnapped and murdered (before they could produce any more Jews) and then buried in their bridal gowns.

One day (if I may slip into the folk-tale idiom for a moment), a young man on his way to be married stops in a forest and, spotting a fingerlike stick protruding from the ground, playfully slips onto it the wedding ring intended for his fiancée. The "stick" turns out actually to be the skeletal finger of a murdered bride; she leaps to life, shakes the worms out of her hair, and declares that she and he are now, in fact, married. She is most insistent. You can imagine the complications.

Burton finally went to work in earnest on "The Corpse Bride" about three years ago, in collaboration with a company in Manchester, England, that had developed a new kind of puppet technology that enabled the creation of 12-inch-tall marionettes with clockwork heads whose facial expressions could be adjusted simply by slipping an Allen wrench into one of their ears. Their soft silicone flesh was unusually life-like, and their mouths could be stretched like putty into a smile or a snarl. Contemplating a movie with 30 featured characters, Burton ordered 300 of these puppets, many of which were of course multiples and spares.

Photos: "The Corpse Bride"

With an ever-more-generous amount of time on my hands here, I've just been inspecting some of the "Corpse Bride" cast. There's a dead-man puppet with tire tracks running across the front of his frock coat, and another who's been sliced in half, with his innards slopping out. One character consists only of a head, which is carried about by miniature beetles. There are zombies, maggots, spiders and imperious matriarchs with upswept hairdos who are so fanatically realistic in their miniature way that their jutting, corseted bosoms actually quiver when they move. Who thinks of these things?

Still no Tim.

I have naturally brought along wads of research on everybody's favorite Hollywood eccentric — a man who has burrowed deep into the big-studio system and managed, over the last 20 years, to create 11 subversive and hauntingly stylized live-action features, from the ground-breaking "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1985) and "Beetlejuice" (1988) and "Batman" (1989) to "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), "Ed Wood" (1994) and "Sleepy Hollow" (1999).

He was ... let me see ... born 47 years ago in Burbank, that bland suburb of the Hollywood movie biz. In school he was — guess — never one of the Cool Kids. But he loved to draw, and, fresh out of the California Institute of the Arts, he went to work in the Walt Disney animation factory, essentially on a slave basis. Disney let him make his own little films on the side, though, and before long ...

Let's skip ahead here. He still sketches all the time, apparently. Wears a lot of black, as you know. Was voted the 49th Greatest Director of All Time by — oh, please ...

He is pretty much joined at the hip with the brilliant soundtrack composer Danny Elfman, whom he used to go see at L.A. punk clubs back in the New Wave days, when Elfman was fronting that peculiar band, Oingo Boingo. Elfman is not only scoring "The Corpse Bride," he has also written some songs for it, one of them cutely titled "The Remains of the Day."

He loves old horror movies, and has hired such venerable horror stars as Michael Gough, the late Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee to appear in his films. (The 83-year-old Lee in fact lends his presence to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and his voice to "The Corpse Bride.")

He has assembled a shifting repertory company of actors over the years, among them Michael Keaton, Paul Reubens, Lisa Marie (his former, longtime girlfriend), Jeffrey Jones, the esteemed English actress Helena Bonham Carter, and of course, most fruitfully, Johnny Depp.

He became romantically attached to Bonham Carter around the time of "Planet of the Apes" (2001), the first of his films in which she appeared. He was subsequently reported to have bought a house right next to hers in London, and then to have had a tunnel shoveled out to connect the two buildings. They now have a son named Billy, who'll turn two in October.

Burton on Pixar, getting dumped from "Batman" and why outcasts are so much cooler than popular kids ...
Photo: Warner Bros. and Getty Images

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