To mark the occasion, the festival was screening a 3-D version of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the animated movie and gothic tale based on a story by Burton that has acquired a cult following.
The award was being presented Wednesday by Johnny Depp, who has starred in several Burton movies, including "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood," a black-and-white biopic on B-movie director Edward D. Wood Jr.
"Hopefully it just inspires me to keep going," Burton told reporters in Venice, speaking of the award.
The 49-year-old Burton is best known for his quirky stories and the gothic atmosphere of his pictures, which also include "Beetle Juice," "Big Fish," "Mars Attacks!" and a remake of "Planet of the Apes."
He said it was hard to pick a favorite.
"I feel strangely close to all of them, they all have a certain place in your heart," he said.
"There are ones that are a bit more special to me, 'Scissorhands,' 'Ed Wood,"' he said. "But I like parts of a lot of them, and I really enjoy making them. They all have a special place for me."
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969