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The Nightmare Before Christmas
Remind Me

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The adventurous and idiosyncratic director Tim Burton got his start at, of all places, Walt Disney Studios. As he told Premiere magazine in 1993, "I was born in Burbank, right down the street from the Disney studio, and like a lot of people who grew up liking to draw, I thought Disney would be a great place to do it. But the turnaround period from dream to nightmare was about as quick as it could get." Burton fled the studio in 1984 but returned almost a decade later to face his nightmare, producing the cult favorite fairy tale about ennui and alienation, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

In the early 1980s Disney features were about as safe and unadventurous as one could imagine; fortunately, the studio had a tradition of allowing for more experimentation in their short films. Young artist Tim Burton attended Disney's California Institute of the Arts (aka Cal Arts) after High School, and during his fellowship at the studio he completed two wildly eccentric personal projects. Vincent (1982) was a 6-minute black-and-white stop-motion animated short about a young suburban-dwelling boy with a macabre fascination for Vincent Price. Narrated in verse by Price himself, this was clearly a personal and autobiographical work of the type that rarely gets made in a studio environment. Burton's next film was an even more unlikely product from the "Mouse House": the 29-minute live-action Frankenweenie (1984), in which another suburban boy brings his dead dog back to life in the grand tradition of the Universal Horror films of the 1930s. It is to Disney's credit that these two Gothic and un-Disney films were produced at all; it should not be surprising that many other Burton ideas, designs, and scribbles went unproduced. Among those was an idea inspired by the classic 1960s TV specials of Burton's youth, like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). In the form of a poem, Burton told the story of Jack, the Pumpkin King of Halloween, visiting Christmastown and naively deciding that he would like to take a stab at playing Santa Claus just once. Burton designed three characters for this pitch idea – Jack, in his pin-striped pencil-thin suit with a bat for a bow tie; a ridiculously mountainous Santa Claus; and Jack's loyal dog Zero, a ghost sporting a pointy nose with a Rudolph-sized bulb at the end.

Following the success of Burton's first three feature-length films, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), and Batman (1989), the director was being courted by numerous studios. Burton himself was anxious to prove his worth outside of Warner Bros., where he had made these early hits. He rather naively asked Disney Studios for his Nightmare property, forgetting their claim on all ideas and artwork (i.e. "intellectual property") created while in their employ. "They signed your soul away in blood when you worked there," Burton later said. "They owned your firstborn." Fortunately, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was prepared to champion the project – he was a Burton fan. Burton was finishing Edward Scissorhands (1990) and was deep into preproduction for Batman Returns (1992), so he knew he would have to hand over the direction and hands-on work to another. He had the perfect person in mind – Henry Selick, a fellow survivor of the Disney development team from the early 1980s. As Burton later observed, "Henry was also working on a lot of projects [at Disney] that never got made. He couldn't take it there anymore. So we struck up a friendship. A 'Where the hell are we?' sort of thing." Following his initial stint at Disney, Selick became known for his eccentric stop-motion animation for film festival shorts and "bumpers" for the MTV cable network.

Burton also recruited Danny Elfman for The Nightmare Before Christmas; the Oingo Boingo frontman-turned film composer had already written the scores for all of Burton's features. All three principals – Burton, Selick, and Elfman – felt that the music in the film should be inseparable from the story, so the songs were written before the screenplay was finalized. A first draft screenplay was written (by Michael McDowell, credited in the final film for "adaptation"), and a final script was done by Caroline Thompson, who had written Edward Scissorhands. Armed with a budget of $22 Million, a script, and a soundtrack, Selick and Burton then had to accomplish something never before done in motion pictures – produce a feature film fully animated in stop-motion, with multiple characters and settings and live-action style camera movements.

Production was set up in a warehouse in San Francisco, Selick's home base, where more than 120 artists were assembled. Nineteen miniature sets were built, and multiple copies of each character had to be manufactured (beginning with an intricate custom-machined metal armature) so that animators could work simultaneously on multiple scenes with the same character. This crew, at maximum efficiency, turned out 70 seconds of finished film in a week. Animators working on The Nightmare Before Christmas employed techniques both old and new. Sweeping, intricate camera moves were programmed on computerized motion-control rigs which resulted in dazzling shots never before seen in a stop-motion film. At the same time, animators performed lip-synch on the puppets through use of replacement animation, a method that dated back to George Pal's Puppetoons of the 1940s. In replacement animation, a head is sculpted for every possible mouth position AND in every possible mood or expression. Each head is given a number and the animator must pop the appropriate head in place for each frame of film. For Jack, the animators had 700 different heads to choose from.

Disney was nervous enough about The Nightmare Before Christmas that it was released through its Touchstone Pictures imprint rather than under the Disney banner. One scene that had them on edge was a number performed by the villainous Oogie Boogie near the end of the film – it was designed as a tribute to the surreal Cab Calloway appearances in Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s, such as Minnie the Moocher (1932) and The Old Man of the Mountain (1933); it could have been interpreted as a racial stereotype by some not familiar with the jazz style being saluted. Tim Burton was given final cut on his film, and he allowed only a small snippet to be edited from the sequence.

The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered at the New York Film Festival in early October, 1993, and opened across the country later in the Halloween month, charming critics along the way. David Ansen of Newsweek wrote "You have to keep your eyes wide open while watching Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. This giddily imaginative stop-motion animation musical is so stuffed with visual delights you won't want to blink....Tightly written by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and propelled by the clever lyrics and Kurt Weillish music of Danny Elfman, this cautionary fable (Be True to Your Ghoulish Self) may be a little too twisted for little kids but anyone 8 or older will spot the friendly glint behind Jack's empty eye sockets." Janet Maslin in The New York Times called the film a "delectably ghoulish fairy tale [that] blends the most likable aspects of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Batman, and sends them off to Toyland. It also stamps the unmistakable Burton sensibility onto every frame....[The film] is a major step forward for both stop-motion animation, which is stunningly well used, and for Mr. Burton himself. He now moves from the level of extremely talented eccentric to that of Disney-style household word." Kenneth Turan wrote in The Los Angeles Times, "A live-action filmmaker with the soul of an animator, Burton has a taste for off-center, gruesome comedy - so off-putting when attached to real people, as it was in Batman Returns - but perfectly suited to these characters....Part avant-garde art film, part amusing but morbid fairy tale, it is a delightfully ghoulish holiday musical that displays more inventiveness in its brief 75 minutes than some studios can manage in an entire year."

The Nightmare Before Christmas grossed a respectable $48 Million on first release, but has become a cult favorite and has been reissued theatrically by Disney several times, satisfying that desire of Burton's to create a perennial holiday "special" like those that inspired him as a child. In 2006, Disney released the film in a 3D version; digital technology now allows studios with a hefty bankbook to create 3D versions of film footage that was originally shot "flat." Using CGI and a sort of reverse-engineered 3D modeling, a "left eye" view can be created to compliment the pre-existing "right eye" view. While this technique has looked awkward when applied to live-action (where the brain's innate face-recognition abilities can't be easily fooled), it works wonderfully for the abstract world of puppet animation. The original production design of The Nightmare Before Christmas is rich and dense almost to a fault, so 3D lends the film more clarity and an even greater sense of wonder.

Although it came from a huge crew of technicians, a major studio, and a creative team of three, The Nightmare Before Christmas features one of the most personal visions of any animated feature. Burton and Selick collaborated again, on the Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach (1996), but The Nightmare Before Christmas will be the film that is revived and enjoyed somewhere every year, preferably in the Autumn when the denizens of Halloweentown are let out to play.

Producer: Tim Burton, Denise DiNovi
Director: Henry Selick
Screenplay: Caroline Thompson, Michael McDowell (adaptation), Tim Burton (story and characters)
Cinematography: Pete Kozachik
Film Editing: Stan Webb
Art Direction: Deane Taylor
Music: Danny Elfman
Voice Cast: Chris Sarandon (Jack Skellington), Danny Elfman (Jack Skellington - singing), Catherine O'Hara (Sally / Shock), William Hickey (Dr. Finkelstein), Glenn Shadix (Mayor), Paul Reubens (Lock), Ken Page (Oogie Boogie), Edward Ivory (Santa).

by John M. Miller

Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker by Ken Hanke
Tim Burton: Interviews edited by Kristian Fraga
The Making of Tim Burton's 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' featurette on the deluxe Laserdisc edition