The Making of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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There are many Disney anniversaries this year, including the 25th of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Burton said, "This film has all the elements I wanted for it: the holidays (I love both Halloween and Christmas), beautiful but misunderstood characters, drama, sadness, optimism. When I watch it now, after having had it in me for so long…I love it."

Born in Burbank on August 25, 1958, Timothy William Burton grew up near the Disney Studios and for him drawing was a sanctuary from his perceived horrors of everyday life and school.

"I came [to Disney] when I was 13, just to visit and ask what I would have to do to work here," Burton recalled. "They told me the standard stuff about going to school. I hated school."

Encouraged by his high school art teacher and wanting a career for which he wouldn't need too much more schooling, Burton got an artistic scholarship to attend California Institute of the Arts in 1976 where he studied animation.

His final class project in 1979 was a short student animated film about a creepy dentist named Dr. Maxwell Payne and his assistant titled Stalk of the Celery Monster.

Looking for potential new talent with new ideas, Disney always reviewed the students' final projects and liked Burton's short. They offered him a job at the Disney Studios. He was teamed with veteran animator Glen Keane to work on the animated feature The Fox and the Hound (1981).

"I couldn't draw those four-legged Disney foxes. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't even fake the Disney style. Mine looked like roadkills," Burton remembered.

Burton found himself assigned to drawing the distance shots where his lack of ability in the approved "Disney-style" of cute drawing would be less noticeable.

Burton became visibly depressed at work, demonstrating erratic behavior including sleeping in a closet, and he was teamed with another new animator Andreas Deja in the hopes that Deja might be able to make Burton's unusual sketchy, angular artwork more "Disney-esque" for film. They worked as concept artists for the fantasy animated feature The Black Cauldron (1985), where it was felt that Burton's gothic sensibilities might be better utilized.

"They were very nice to me," Burton later said. "They said, 'We're doing this movie, The Black Cauldron', so I just sat in a room for a year and came up with ideas and stuff, just drew any idea I wanted to, and it was great. It was like weird characters, weird props, weird furniture, just sitting in a room doing whatever I wanted. But at some point I realized they had no intention of using any of it."


The stop-motion look, which Tim Burton insisted upon using for Nightmare Before Christmas, was inspired by the Rankin-Bass holiday specials.

However, Burton's work caught the attention of producer Julie Hickson and the head of creative development at Disney at the time, Tom Wilhite. They sensed that Burton's originality might be worth exploring on non-traditional Disney projects.

It was Wilhite who got the funding to make the animated short Burton had written and would direct titled Vincent (1982) about a boy who wanted to grow up to be Vincent Price.

Disney liked the final five minute short that had been done in stop-motion rather than standard cel animation, but had no idea what to do with it. It garnered several critical accolades when it played at film festivals in London, Chicago and Seattle, winning two awards in Chicago and the Critics' Prize at the Annecy Film Festival in France.

In addition, Disney suggested changing the ending to be more upbeat with the previously unseen father showing up and taking little Vincent to a ball game and the boy becoming more "normal" as a result. Burton refused and the melancholy ending remained. An early version of the Jack Skellington character appears briefly in the upper-left corner of the screen from 1:18-1:25.

In 1982, Burton worked on another poem story like Vincent, but this time about a Halloweenland. It was three pages long and featured Jack Skellington; his ghost dog Zero, who had a tiny glowing orange jack-o-lantern as a nose; and Santa Claus. It was called The Nightmare Before Christmas as a take-off on the famous Christmas poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas that is commonly known as The Night Before Christmas.

Animator Henry Selick was also working at the Disney Studio sand was also disillusioned that none of his unique proposals had developed because they were just not the "Disney way."

He first encountered Burton and his The Nightmare Before Christmas project at this time and was supportive when Burton proposed it as a half-hour television holiday special, perhaps narrated by Vincent Price. Burton also proposed it as a possible children's book—again, Disney was uninterested.

Selick later said, "I thought people, especially kids, would love his work in the way that they loved [cartoonist] Charles Addams. But nobody recognized that at Disney. They thought, 'Oh, this is just too weird. It's not commercial at all'. His ideas were really exciting, like a breath of fresh air coming out of the studio but management at that time was just terrified of taking any risks whatsoever."

"I took it around the networks, did storyboards and sketches and Rick Heinrichs did a little model of Jack," Burton said. "Everybody said they liked it, but not enough to do it at that time. I guess that was my first real taste of show business mentality – a nice big smile and an 'Oh, yeah, we're going to do this'. But as you proceed it becomes less and less of a reality."

"There was even some talk about doing it as a feature film but as drawn cel animation," he said. "But I didn't want to do that. I decided to try to hide it away but always with that feeling that I would do it some time but do it right."

Before he left Disney, Burton also directed a black-and-white live-action short titled Frankenweenie (1984), a twist on the classic Frankenstein horror film, where a young boy brings his stitched-together dead dog, Sparky, back to life through electricity.

Selick also left the studio around the same time as Burton. In 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had just been put in charge and the old regime that had tried to support Burton was gone. Burton recalled, "By that point I was really tired of Disney. It was a case of doing a bunch of stuff that nobody would ever see. It was kind of weird. I was like the weird relative that they'd let out occasionally and then lock back up in my room."

Luckily, also in 1984, actor Paul Reubens was looking for a director for a film idea he had been developing for many years called Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, based on a character he had been portraying in various live shows.

Reubens was asking around for suggestions from his friends in the business, and actress Shelly Duval, who had appeared in Frankenweenie, recommended the film and its director. Reubens screened the film and liked what he saw. He hired Burton which began a new career for the young animator.

Directing four critically and financially successful live-action feature films in a row that grossed more than $400 million dollars: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990) made Burton a hot commodity.

Instead of enjoying this notoriety, Burton was overwhelmed and wanted to return to a more personal project about which he was truly passionate. Burton had his agent quietly check into the status of The Nightmare Before Christmas, hoping he might be able to get it back, but wasn't really surprised to discover that Disney owned it completely and had no intention of releasing it.

"They own everything," Burton said. "There's this thing you sign when you work there which states that any thoughts you have during your employment are owned by the thought police. You signed your soul away in blood when you worked there. They owned your first born. I kind of gently asked, 'Could I have it back?'"

David Hoberman, then president of Disney/Touchstone, said that he "sent researchers down into the files to see what we had and they came back with The Nightmare Before Christmas material."

Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had become the executive who had spearheaded the renaissance of animation at Disney with The Little Mermaid (1989). He saw the request as being an opportunity to get into business with Burton and continue to reinforce Disney's domination of feature animation.

Burton himself had expressed concern that all of his films were being done at Warner Brothers and he didn't want to align himself too closely with just one studio, but he didn't want his film, as Burton said, "to fit in to the same type of cartoon movies Disney have been having so much success with."

"This was an opportunity for us to do business with Tim Burton and to say, 'We can think outside the envelope. We can do different and unusual things.'" Hoberman said. "I hope it goes out and makes a fortune. If it doesn't, that doesn't negate the validity of the process."

And it would create a working relationship and goodwill with Burton that might spawn other future projects.

Disney offered Burton a contractual promise of creative autonomy, but insisted that the film be officially titled Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas to capitalize on his name recognition, as well as to distance it from a standard Disney film.

While a small handful of other filmmakers, including Fellini and Ken Russell, had their names tied to the title of a film, Burton was the first and only filmmaker to have his name incorporated into the title of a film he did not make himself. He did not write the script nor direct the film, although he was intimately involved in the style.

Of course, Burton was unable to direct the film himself because he was already committed to the feature film Batman Returns (1992) that was going into production at the same time, and he was already doing pre-production for Ed Wood (1994). In addition, Burton did not want to be involved with the painstaking and time-consuming process of doing stop-motion animation where maybe a minute's worth of footage could be produced in a single week.

"When I was in animation, I had to get out because I didn't have the patience for it," Burton said. "To me, the artistic spirit is very spontaneous—when you get a thought that's very creative or exhilarating, and then you apply it to this long drawn out process, it's very difficult. And this type of animation (stop motion) is even more difficult because it takes so long."

However, Burton was adamant that the film would be done in stop motion just like the Rankin-Bass holiday specials he loved:

"In so many ways, drawn animation is easier because you can draw anything. Three-dimensional animation has limitations because you're moving puppets around, but for me, it is more effective because it feels like it is actually there.

"It's the handmade aspect of things, part of an energy you can't explain. When the animators move the figures, there's an energy that is captured. It's something that computers will never be able to replace because they are missing that one element.

"I grew up watching Ray Harryhausen movies and King Kong. I feel there's a real power to stop motion and a kind of nostalgic feeling as well. There is more risk involved. You can move and move and not know exactly where you are going sometimes or what you might end up with.

"It's so different from the more traditional cel animation where people have a perception about it. I think it's a harder barrier to break for people to relate to puppets. Yet, there is something about the fact that the human hand is moving these things that's special. It's got primal impact.

"The first rule of drawn animation is that you have to have eyes for expression. I thought it would be great to give life to these characters that have no eyes. Disney really fought for us to give Jack these friendly eyes instead of dark holes but we wouldn't budge."

Burton's story came from very specific inspirations:

"The initial impulse for doing it was the love of Dr. Seuss and those holiday specials that I grew up watching like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).

"Those crude stop-motion animation holiday things [done by Rankin-Bass] that were on year in, year out make an impact on you early and stay with you. I had grown up with those and had a real feeling for them, and I think, without being too direct, the impulse was to do something like that and with somebody like a Grinch who is perceived as scary but isn't.

"With Jack (Skellington) I love people when they're passionate about something. And there is something so sad, but so endearing, when that passion is misguided."

In addition, Burton explained that his childhood in ever-sunny Burbank, California, was not marked by the usual visual seasonal changes elsewhere in the country like the changing color of leaves, so holiday decorations were an especially important factor in determining the time of year.

He recalled that local merchants were so eager to increase sales that there was a melding of Halloween and Christmas decorations and advertisements in some stores to lengthen the shopping season.

As a result, in his mind, it seemed natural for Halloween to intrude on Christmas and become a combination of his two favorite holidays. His hometown of Burbank looked as bland as any other small town but during the holidays, the lights and decorations made it seem a place of wonder.

"I loved Halloween," Burton said. "I wanted to do a story that would put [Halloween and Christmas] together. Somehow I thought of a Halloween Town to match the North Pole and took images and just sort of twisted them together."

One of the few friendships that Burton had made at Disney was with Henry Selick, who had carved out a niche for himself after leaving Disney with his stop motion animation for MTV and some short films.

In addition he had done some storyboarding for the Will Vinton claymation scenes in Disney's Return to Oz (1985). The two shared a similar artistic sensibility. He had been an early supporter for the Nightmare idea a decade earlier and Burton offered him a huge measure of creative freedom to direct the film. Visual consultant Rich Heinrichs originally recommended Selick to Burton as the on set director.

Selick realized it was his opportunity to direct his first feature-length film, but didn't suspect how much he would be overshadowed by Burton's celebrity not only in the title itself but during the publicity during the release for the finished film.

Burton served as producer, had created the original idea and came up with initial designs for the film and some of its main characters. Even 25 years after it was first released, people still consider it an official part of Burton's impressive filmography with Selick's significant work often forgotten.

Selick said, "It's as though he [Burton] laid the egg, and I sat on it and hatched it. He wasn't involved in a hands-on way, but his hand is in it. It was my job to make it look like 'a Tim Burton film', which is not so different from my own films. We can collaborate because we often think of the same solution to a problem. It's why we hit it off at Disney."

"I don't want to take away from Tim, but he was not in San Francisco when we made it," Selick said. "He came up five times over two years, and spent no more than eight or 10 days in total. We did communicate while he was filming in Los Angeles and he offered suggestions. It's more like he wrote a children's book and gave it to us and we went from there. But the bottom line was that Tim Burton's name before the title was going to bring in more people than mine would."

Selick was even responsible for the final design of Jack's suit. Burton's original design was that Jack was dressed all in black, but Selick saw that would be a major concern because the one color suit would blend into the dark backgrounds and disappear. He added the white stripes to make it a pinstripe suit that helped the figure stand out.

He explained that they'd smear sets in plaster or clay, then scratch lines into this material "to give it that sort of etched texture or feel to make it look like a living illustration." Selick tried to capture the unique cross-hatching design style of Burton and thought of the characters performing as if they were in a giant pop-up book.

The final result also shows influences of cartoonists Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey as well. Background characters created for the movie had to seem "Burtonesque," like the corpse kid with his eyes sewn shut.

The film is filled with many of Burton's ideas including having the different Holiday Doors in the forest. These doors were the iconic images of a pumpkin (for Halloween), a decorated Christmas Tree (for Christmas), a turkey (for Thanksgiving), a brightly colored egg (for Easter), a green four leafed clover (for St. Patrick's Day), a red heart (for Valentine's Day), and a red and white firework (for July 4th).

To his credit, Burton was always effusive in giving Selick credit:

"Henry is a real artist. He's truly the best. When I wasn't shooting [Batman Returns], I would go up there [to the studio] because I loved it, but most of the time, Henry would just send me stuff – there'd be a few shots during the week – and so over the period of a couple of years, it all came together.

"Anyway, I would get a reel and I had an editing room and I would edit some shots. It was the hardest thing I ever worked on, in a way, because it just took so long, and there were a lot of people involved, a lot of artists. I would try to keep it all on a certain track.

"I could still affect things as I needed to. When I saw the first shots, I knew that Halloween Town had to be darker and blacker. I felt very comfortable with my role and I knew Henry and how talented he is. I knew what was going on.

"It is more beautiful than I imagined it would be thanks to Henry and his talented crew of artists, animators and designers."

Actor Glenn Shadix, who supplied the voice of the two-faced mayor and had appeared in Burton's Beetlejuice film, pointed out "Tim oversaw every detail of that film. Henry Selick was wonderful as a hands-on director of the stop-motion and an incredible group of animators, but the heart and soul of that movie is Tim Burton. He made decisions all along the way. He wasn't at Skellington Productions in San Francisco all that often, but Tim was certainly at the helm creatively and in on all the decisions."

Next week: the story of the making of this cult classic continues.