When Tim Burton descended the steps to the Melbourne exhibition of his lifetime's work, the first thing he said was, "It's dark. I like it".

Currently in residence at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Tim Burton: The Exhibition has already seen over 100,000 tiptoe across the darkened threshold to peer wide-eyed at the creative genius of this rock-star director.

If you ever wanted a glimpse at the inside of Burton's mind, this is your chance. The ACMI exhibition, curated in collaboration with the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and assisted by Burton himself, traces the creative progression of the filmmaker's life. This is a map not only dotted with the successes of his directing life, but with a flourishing vision of an undeniably artistic one.

And it's attracting all sorts: elderly couples linger over the Edward Scissorhands topiary; slick-haired schoolboys loiter around Mars Attacks! alien brains; and Goths float drawing to drawing.

Everyone ultimately ends up clustering around the screening of one of Burton's first short films, Hansel and Gretel. It was filmed in 1983 for Disney television, who were so horrified by what Burton came up with they never showed it again. Once the candycane-nunchuck wielding witch is vanquished and the gingerbread house has finished spewing green goo, the small audience claps in appreciation.

The whole exhibition was around five years in the thinking and the making, and its presence in Melbourne is certainly something being felt and cherished. So beloved is Burton, in fact, that the week he spent opening the exhibit became a frenzy of sold-out talks, workshops, and ecstatic fans lining up from 1am to catch a glimpse of his mythical presence.

For the curators, part of what makes Burton so special is what they discovered when he opened the doors of his house to their eager archival fingers.

ACMI director Tony Sweeney, who worked in collaboration with MoMA to bring the exhibition to Melbourne, says the extent of Burton's talents was as much a shock to the curators as it can be for exhibition-goers.

When Burton let in the galleries, says Sweeney, "he just said, 'see what you can find'. And they just couldn't believe it when they saw all this".

"The unusual thing about Tim is, not only is there a lot of really fascinating material from the films themselves, but all that body of drawings which nobody knew was there. Tim literally does all of this drawing, and then he just stuffs it in drawers.

"He's a film maker - all these drawings, he doesn't create them for art. [For him] they're just sketches, ideas."

Oddly enough, it's these drawings that are attracting so much attention in the exhibition itself.

The whole thing is like a dimly-lit dream. Walk past the Batmobile, into the open jaws of a monster, down some steps, and you're in. Populated by characters both spindly and bulbous, sinister and comical, murderous and humane, the exhibition spans Burton's childhood, a strange period working for Disney, and each one of his iconic films. From Betelgeuse to Nightmare Before Christmas, from Sweeney Todd to Alice in Wonderland - it's all there.

Burton even took time from the set of Alice to assist ACMI with additional materials to add on to the MoMA exhibition, co-designing the fluoro tent-like 'Burtonariam', and providing costumes and material from Alice itself.

On the purple walls of the exhibition march lines of carefully sketched and artfully water-coloured figures. Most are caricature-like, but with an uncanny depth and darkness that really echoes the complexity of Burton's vision.

It's also a vision irrevocably tied up with humanity itself.

A sense of introspection in his characters is evident throughout Burton's oeuvre, but no more so than in a fascinating series of early works from his Burbank days in California. The loneliness of Burton's childhood in suburban American is something that has continually haunted his works.

An amateur picturebook entitled The Giant Zlig from 1976 depicts a hesitantly-drawn monster who ends up begging a wizard to return him to normalacy. Another illustrated poem, Blind Date, humorously tells of an anxiety-ridden date gone wrong.

An ethereal later sketch depicts a squinting, quivering suited boy with triangular hands sitting in shadow, with words small and shakily etched beneath: "My name is Jimmy, but my friends just call me 'the hideous penguin boy'". The work is from Burton's book of macabre children's tales, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy: and Other Stories.

This is also a favourite work of assistant curator Kate Warren, who notes how Burton's works often seem to "connect with people on some kind of deeper emotional level".

Behind the masking and the stitching, the wavering figures and distorted sculptures, there's an underlying humanity to Burton's characters that ensures the continued appeal of his work.

"He's built his career on something that's really about how he engages with other people, and it's still there," says Sweeney. "His films are about exploring filmmaking, but they're also about exploring human interaction, and I think most people find something in it."

Despite the phenomenon of the exhibition opening, Sweeney says Burton is typically humble about the reception both his presence and his works are receiving by a gracious public.

"He's really touched because people seem touched by him. It's not just that idea of touching greatness - people want to connect with him. And he takes that trouble."

To view the Tim Burton sketch gallery click here.
Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)
Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia

Open daily until October 10
Further information: Australian Centre for the Moving Image
Megan Anderson travelled as guest of Tourism Victoria.