Inside "the mind of Tim Burton" at Neon Museum in Las Vegas

Tim Burton’s art on view at Las Vegas museum
Tim Burton’s art on view at Las Vegas museu... 06:39

Filmmaker Tim Burton has a love affair with the City of Light — not the new Las Vegas, but the old one. 

"I love the neon, you know, the old signs, and the beauty of them, and the sort of artistry of them are very important to me and part of my sort of artistic development in a way," said Burton.

And so the brains behind films like "Batman," "Beetlejuice" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" threw his artistic expression into the one place he says still represents it: the boneyard of the city's abandoned landscape. 

In October, at the only museum in the nation dedicated to neon, Burton debuted his own artwork. The "Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum" includes an assortment of animatronic sculptures, holographic drawings and signs of all sizes, mixed in with the museums permanent collection. 

"This exhibition is an immersive experience into the mind of Tim Burton," said Jenny He, the "Lost Vegas" exhibition curator. 

"What he puts on screen or on a page or in a sculpture is identifiable for all of his fans. So there's really no disconnect between Tim and his viewer or Tim and his visitor because of that intense emotional connection that he imbues into his work," He said.

Burton directly nods to nostalgia by using actual footage of the 1995 demolition of the Landmark Tower. Burton said the event had a very distinct impression on him. 

"It was like watching an ancient dinosaur being killed or something," he said. "It's like after it happened, it was silent. Everybody couldn't speak. It was so kind of strangely powerful, sad, beautiful."

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Filmmaker, artist, writer and animator Tim Burton poses for a photo at his exhibition "Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum" on Oct. 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Denise Truscello/Neon Museum

For more than three decades, Burton's films have ranged from delightfully dark to weirdly whimsical, grossing more than $4 billion worldwide.

"You have 'Edward Scissorhands,' 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' 'Frankenweenie,' 'Alice in Wonderland' — should it surprise anybody that there's this side of you?" asked "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Michelle Miller.

"Well, no, because it kind of brings me back to where I started," said Burton. "I've always liked to draw and make things."

Burton's singular style was apparent early on. His short, "Stalk of the Celery Monster," helped land him a job at Walt Disney Studios.

"I had a room when I was an animator. And I saw, from my room, where I felt trapped like Rapunzel, I could see the hospital where I was born, and then Forest Lawn, where all my family was buried, and I felt like I was in the Bermuda triangle, you know, this weird place of life and death," said Burton.

Fired after a few years, he found his footing directing "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." That began a string of hits that made Burton a household name.

Tim Burton Commemorates Debut of "Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum
"Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum" on Oct. 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Denise Truscello/Neon Museum

Burton's art has traveled the world, including a 700-piece collection that was viewed at New York's Museum of Modern Art. There, it drew the third largest crowd in the museum's history, just behind Picasso and Matisse.  

"He drew more than 800,000 to MoMA. That is New York City with a very sophisticated art audience. At the same time, Las Vegas draws 43 million tourists a year," said Neon Museum CEO Rob McCoy. He hopes Burton's appeal will draw more people to his museum.

When asked what his favorite piece is at the "Lost Vegas" exhibit, McCoy replied, "It would have to be the signature sign Lost Vegas. And here's the reason why. We lost the Dunes sign ... and as an homage to the Dunes, he created that wonderful outline of the old Dunes sign. And then just the icing on the cake, he put Stardust stars from the Stardust sign up through the middle of it. So in one fell swoop, he captured probably two of the most famous signs in the history of Las Vegas."

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Lost Vegas sign, 2019 The Neon Museum

Jenny He says each bulb on the 40-foot sign was sanded and painted to look old and weathered. "Visitors are supposed to come in and think that this has been here for decades," she said.

Burton said his artwork is "like therapy." Asked what some of his pieces mean, like "The Blue Girl with Wine," Burton said, "I spent a long time with not having a girlfriend, so there you go."

And about the blueprint of his most famous creation — a sketch of Edward Scissorhands — Burton said, "he took on many forms."

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Burton's sketch of Edward Scissorhands Tim Burton

It all reaches back to The Boneyard — his way of keeping Las Vegas' past, present.

"We used to sneak into where they kept the signs, like, in the '90s, you know, it was on the other side of town, and they're beautiful, you know, to me, they're beautiful art," Burton said. 

When asked what he hopes people will feel from the exhibition, Burton said, "Vegas to me is very dreamlike in a weird way, so memories are, like, little snippets of dreams. You kinda do things, and it's all very personal, no matter what you do. So if you do connect with somebody, it's quite special."

  • Michelle Miller
    Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.