Burton was born in 1958, in the city of Burbank, California, to Jean Burton (née Erickson), the owner of a cat-themed gift shop, and Bill Burton, a former minor league baseball player who would later work for the Burbank Park and Recreation Department. As a young man, Burton would make short films in his backyard on Evergreen Street using crude stop motion animation techniques or shoot them on 8 mm film without sound. (One of his most famous juvenile films is The Island of Doctor Agor, that he made when he was 13 years old.) Burton studied at the Burbank High School, but he was not a particularly good student. He was a very introspective person, and found his pleasure in painting, drawing and watching movies. His future work would be heavily influenced by the horror and science fiction films he watched, such as Godzilla, the films made by Hammer Film Productions, the works of Ray Harryhausen and Vincent Price.
After graduating from Burbank High School, Burton attended the California Institute of the Arts to study character animation. Some of his classmates were John Lasseter, Brad Bird, John Musker and Henry Selick. (In the future, Selick and Burton would work together in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.)
After graduating from CalArts in 1979, Burton was hired at Walt Disney Productions' animation studio, where he worked as a concept artist on The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985). Burton's personal artistic tastes clashed with the Disney house style, and he longed to work on his own projects.
While at Disney in 1982, Burton made his first short, Vincent, a six minute black and white stop motion film based on a poem written by the filmmaker, and depicting a young boy who fantasizes that he is his (and Burton's) hero Vincent Price, with Price himself providing narration. The film was produced by Rick Heinrichs, whom Burton had befriended while working in the concept art department at Disney. The film was shown at the Chicago Film Festival and released, alongside the teen drama Tex, for two weeks in one Los Angeles cinema. This was followed by Burton's first live-action production Hansel and Gretel, a Japanese themed adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale for The Disney Channel, which climaxes in a kung-fu fight between Hansel and Gretel and the witch. Having aired once at 10:30 pm on Halloween 1983 and promptly shelved, prints of the film are extremely difficult to locate, which contributes to the rumor that this project does not exist. In 2009, the short went on display in the Museum of Modern Art. Next was the live-action short Frankenweenie, starring Barret Oliver, Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall (an early supporter of Burton's work). Burton and Duvall would once more work together in 1986, where Burton directed an episode of her Faerie Tale Theatre.
Although Burton's work had yet to see wide release, he began to attract the attention of the film industry. Producer Griffin Dunne approached Burton to direct After Hours (1985), a comedy about a bored word processor who survives a crazy night in SoHo. However, when Martin Scorsese faced delays in financing the The Last Temptation of Christ and wanted to direct After Hours, Burton bowed out.
Not long after, actor Paul Reubens saw Frankenweenie and chose Burton to direct the cinematic spin-off of his popular character Pee-wee Herman. Pee-wee Herman gained mainstream popularity with a successful stage show at the Roxy which was later turned into an HBO special. The film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), was made on a budget of $8 million and grossed more than $40 million at the box office. Burton, a fan of the eccentric musical group Oingo Boingo, asked songwriter Danny Elfman to provide the music for the film. Since then, Elfman has provided the score for all but five of the films Burton has directed and/or produced, those being Cabin Boy, Ed Wood, James and the Giant Peach, Batman Forever and Sweeney Todd.