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

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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In last week's column, I shared some of the origins of the cult classic Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Today, I finish that story.

The songs were written before the final script. Burton brought in composer Danny Elfman. The former member of the band Oingo Boingo had already provided the scores for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands.

In USA Today and Adweek in October 1993, Elfman stated:

"The first thing I told Disney is that there weren't going to be any pop songs. 'You're not going to get a pop ballad out of this' I told them. That was exactly what we wanted to get away from.

"The songs are more classical musical. For this film, my influences are Kurt Weill to Rodgers and Hammerstein with a little bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. The music was written before the script. I wanted to turn the clock backward and forward at the same time so that musically it feels fresh but is rooted in certain traditional styles. I was trying to write something you have heard now or 20 or 40 years ago, a quality that makes it very hard to identify when and where they came from.

"Tim and I would just start to talk through a scene and I'd start to hear a melody in my head. Then I'd shoo him out of the room because I didn't want to lose it. I'd call him three days later and play him the new songs. My daughter Molly (who was 7 years old at the time) heard all of them first. She had to sign off on all of them. My test was if she could sing the melody back. In any good musical that I respected, the melodies carry with you.

"Nightmare could never work by trying to squeeze it into the Beauty and the Beast framework–you know, a six-song, contemporary Broadway-ish Disney musical. None of us had done a musical. Tim sent me a whole series of color drawings of Jack Skellington, the sleigh and the reindeer. The drawings really got me going.

"It became a clean, pure process of my beginning writing from the first song and working chronologically. I'd call Tim every three or four days and he'd come and we'd talk about where the story went next. He'd leave and I'd already be hearing the next song in my head. I started demo-ing them all up, singing them, until eventually, we were really excited to be telling the whole story and fleshing out the characters in music.

"It was our dismal sides that first brought us together. The only difference between us is that Tim's hero growing up was Vincent Price. Mine was Peter Lorre. Price was always the torturer; Lorre was the persecuted."

Elfman at that point had collected skeleton imagery for 22 years. His home was adorned with Day of the Dead artifacts and images, as well as a real shrunken head from Ecuador.

"So it was not like a major stretch for me to relate to Jack Skellington," Elfman said.

"Danny and I would go through my little outline and I'd say 'Jack does this and then he does that and then he falls into Christmastown,'" Burton remembered. "We'd worked together so much that it didn't matter that we didn't know what we were doing. We just took a stab at it. We worked very quickly which was good because we needed the songs so we could do the script. There's Henry. There's me. There's Danny. There's Caroline [scripter Caroline Thompson] and that's a lot to deal with."

In a way, Elfman was responsible for much of the story. When writer Caroline, who had written Edward Scissorhands, was brought in to write the screenplay, the already almost completed 10 songs took up most of the plot and running time of the film.

One of the reasons that Thompson was brought in was not just her previous collaboration with Burton, but that at the time she was living with Elfman and had heard the songs over and over, even before Burton had heard them, so she was quite familiar with the story and the characters.

"I never even saw the original script," Thompson said. "They just gave me Danny's lyrics. I remember saying to Tim 'Just let me take it away for a week and I'll see what I can bring back'. So I went up north for a week, rented a house on the beach, wrote 50 pages, came back, and he was happy. The script would go to the storyboard artists, and they would basically tear it apart. Then I would see the drawings they had done and incorporate it and wing it back. Even with all the changes, the basic structure of the script remained what I gave them after that initial week of work."

Storyboard artist Joe Ranft said, "Caroline would rewrite based on our drawings and we would re-board from her latest draft. Or we'd have an idea and do some drawings and fax them to her, and she'd write it into the script. It was a fun collaboration.

"We'd do thumbnails (small, quick drawings) and pin these up in rough order and Henry would come back and say 'This is great' or 'This isn't what I wanted at all' or 'Just make a couple of changes here and there'."

One of Thompson's significant contributions was with the fuller development of the character of Sally, resulting in Elfman writing a song for the character. Thompson never saw the first unfinished adaptation done by writer Michael McDowell, who had written Beetlejuice, but was let go because Burton decided it was best to work on the songs first.

"The original draft had some good ideas but it was not completely successful," Selick recalled. "There are very few lines of dialogue in the final movie that are Caroline's. We worked with her but we were constantly rewriting, reconfiguring, developing the film visually."

Skellington Productions (named after the main character) opened up in a warehouse in San Francisco's South of Market district in July 1991 and filming began the following October, even though there was no final script. They began with animating the song "What's This?"


The Disney Studios opted to release Nightmare Before Christmas under the Touchstone label, as it was felt the film was too removed from Disney's family brand.

Selick lived and worked in the San Francisco area previously, but it was primarily chosen as the location because it was so far removed from Burbank that it was felt there would be less tampering by the Disney Studios.

A number of special effects and commercial production companies with experience in stop motion, like Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), already existed in the San Francisco area, as well as a veteran talent pool and those were also factors in the final choice.

The goal was to produce roughly 70 seconds of usable animation every week, so it took a crew of nearly 120 workers, utilizing 20 individual sound stages, close to three years of constant working to create more than 100,000 single frames for the final 74-minute film. If something was off, even just a fraction of an inch, the entire shot was ruined and had to be re-shot. There were 15 animators manipulating the character figures.

Nightmare ended up being the most complex and longest stop-motion project in history up to that point in time. Many scenes required numerous characters, special lighting effects and it was approached as if it were a live-action film.

The film utilized a motion-control camera (known as a "mocon") technology controlled by a computer that allowed elaborate crane and tracking shots. The biggest and most awkward one was dubbed Luxo Sr. as a tribute to John Lasseter's Luxo Jr. character.

To allow animators easy access to the puppets, the sets had pathways behind and beneath them so that the armatures inside puppets could always be manipulated by the puppeteers or allow them to swap out faces for a wide range of expressions. Jack Skellington had more than 700 different replacement heads for mouth and eye shapes. Only his nostrils remained unchanged on each face to maintain some consistency.

Supervising animator Eric Leighton stated, "On this film, the animators and camera crews constantly found themselves having to crawl around just to reach the puppet. The physical labor aspect of this project challenged even the best of our animators. We went through kneepads quickly. A masseuse came weekly to rub sore backs, cramped necks and aching shoulders. An on-set ping pong table and punching bag helped keep hands and wrists limber."

The film contains 74 characters, requiring several-hundred fully-armatured puppets. Oogie Boogie needed 173 separate parts. They all had to be built strong enough to withstand the long shooting and hold a pose. Most of the puppets were built 12-15 inches tall with Oogie Boogie being 2-feet tall. That made the puppets larger and heavier than in other stop-motion animation films and required the sets to be reinforced.

"We took an old technique and did the highest quality stop motion that has been done for that many minutes." Selick explained. "I think we moved stop motion up to a high level of performance in timing, lighting and computer-aided camera moves. We made it a serious contender rather than things that look like toys on a table toy with two glaring lights. The flaws [in the film] are still painful but what's good about it is excellent. I had an amazing group of people to work with, including Tim Burton, who basically passed creative control to me for most of the project."

Joe Ranft was hired from Disney as a storyboard supervisor, while Eric Leighton was hired to supervise animation. Deane Taylor designed the sets.

Leighton told USA Today in 1993 that a circus clown was hired to work with the animators on movement. The idea "was to get the animators to free up their bodies and learn to express themselves through mime and then transfer that skill into the puppets. In addition, to capture the elegant movements needed for Jack, we watched tapes of [elegant dancers] Fred Astaire, Ray Bolger and Tommy Tune."

Rick Heinrichs, who also had developed a friendship with Burton when they worked at Disney, was the visual consultant on the film as he had been on previous Burton feature films and sometimes acted as a liaison between Burton and the San Francisco crew.

Ranft, who would later become legendary for his story work on Pixar animated feature films, is caricatured in the film as Igor, Dr. Finkelstein's assistant, and supplies the character's only line in the film.

Burton himself was to appear briefly in another cameo. When the ice-skating vampires are playing hockey, originally they were batting around a decapitated pale head with spiky black hair and bags under its eyes that resembled Burton. It was considered a little too gruesome and was replaced in the final film with a jack-o-lantern.

Selick later had Jack Skellington cameo as a skeletal pirate captain in his film James and the Giant Peach (1996) and Jack's smiling skull in the yolk of a cracked egg in his version of Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2009).

Elfman provided the singing voice for Jack Skellington. He remarked, "I had a lot in common with Jack. I felt with Jack's character that I had nailed it and no one else would be ale to do a better job than I had."

He also provided the voices for Barrel, one of the mischievous trio, and the Clown with the Tear-Away Face. He was also given a caricature cameo as the redheaded corpse face tucked in the upright bass of the Halloween Town band.

However, it was felt that it might be better to have a professional actor to do the speaking voice, one of the things that caused a rift between Elfman and Burton for a while.

"We basically had to find an actor who matched my voice," Elfman recalled. "Normally, it is the other way around but this is the reverse. Jack sings more than he speaks. Usually they'd find the actor and then someone to match their voice to sing."

The actor who speaks Jack's lines was Chris Sarandon who had already played the vampire in Fright Night (1985) and Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride (1987) among many other memorable roles. Sarandon went on to reprise the role of Jack in video games like Kingdom Hearts, Oogie's Revenge and for several Disneyland Halloween projects, like Halloween Screams, Frightfully Fun Parade and Haunted Mansion Holiday.

Burton had wanted his idol, actor Vincent Price, to provide the opening narration for the film as he had for Burton's short Vincent. Later, he decided he preferred to have the actor voice the part of Santa. Unfortunately, Price's wife Coral Browne died in 1991, and the grief-stricken Price was too distraught. He was replaced by Edward Ivory in the role.

Burton also considered actors Don Ameche and James Earl Jones to provide the narration for the film's prologue and closing, but settled on the stately voice of actor Patrick Stewart instead. As the film neared completion those monologs were pared down considerably and once again given to Edward Ivory.

For casting, Burton relied on actors with whom he had worked previously, like Glenn Shadix (as the two-faced mayor), Catherine O'Hara (as Sally and Shock) and Paul Reubens (as Lock).

While Oogie Boogie is not black in color or has any design aspects to suggest a particular race, his speech, environment and behavior suggested to some people an unintended "black male criminality" as argued by at least one vocal critic.

The Disney Studios was also uncomfortable and asked Burton to trim the scene. However, upon reflection, Burton chose to exercise his contractual guarantee of having the "final cut" and kept it as it was intended much to the chagrin of Katzenberg.

Selick remarked:

"In some parts of the world, like in Alabama where my mother is from, a 'boogie man' is a monstrous black person, so the name had racial connotations. The character really came from (the Fleischer Studio) Betty Boop cartoons though, which would have Cab Calloway, the jazz band leader and a great singer serve as the basis of what they would call 'specialty numbers'.

"He would dance his inimitable jazz dance and sing Minnie the Moocher or Old Man of the Mountain and they would rotoscope him, trace him, turn him into a cartoon character like a walrus. I think those were some of the most inventive moments in cartoon history, in no way racist, even though he was sometimes a villain.

"It's not completely resolved in myself. I've got a twinge of guilt. But in the end we went with Ken Page, who is a black singer, because he was the best guy to sing the song. He had no problems with it."

The last sequence to be shot in August 1993 was Oogie Boogie coming apart at the seams and it was one of the most complicated because of the numerous moving insects.

At one point, instead of Oogie Boogie being torn up and reduced to bugs, it was discussed that he be unmasked as the evil scientist Dr. Finkelstein who was in disguise. His whole scheme was revenge because Sally loved Jack, even though Finkelstein made her to be his mate. Burton rejected the idea.

The film includes many tributes that a general audience usually misses, like the two children attacked by one of Skellington's toys has the girl wearing a Mickey Mouse print nightgown, while her brother's pajamas are covered in Donald Duck faces. The snake looks exactly like a Sandworm from Beetlejuice and a shrunken head resembles one from the waiting room in the same film. There is a duck that resembles one in the film Batman Returns.

While the film has become a beloved holiday classic, when it was first released, the reviews were decidedly mixed even from executives at the Disney Studios. Looking at the final film, Disney decided it was too far removed from its family friendly brand and decided to release it through its more adult Touchstone Pictures branch.

The film certainly never became the blockbuster that the Disney Studios hoped, but it grossed nearly $49 million during its first 16 weeks of domestic release on an initial budge of $18 million for the film. That profit increased with foreign distribution and video sales, which were all strong, as well as with further re-releases.

With the attention for the film and Burton's popularity, Disney looked at possible ways to integrate Burton's vision into the Disney theme park experience. In 1996, Imagineer Chris Merritt submitted a proposal for a traditional Disney dark ride that was inspired by Nightmare.

Visitors would enter through the tree/portal to Halloween Town, and board a coffin sleigh for a trip that would take them through the land of Halloween, into the Professor's laboratory and through Oogie Boogie's lair, resulting in a whirlwind trip through a familiar snow-covered graveyard where Jack finally gets his girl before the sleighs return to the world of the living.

While that concept never got off the drawing board, another one about combining the Haunted Mansion attraction with an overlay of elements from the Nightmare film took almost three years to get approval. The original concept had been to theme the iconic Haunted Mansion to Dickens' Christmas Carol and its Christmas ghosts, but another idea supplanted it.

On October 3, 2001, Haunted Mansion Holiday opened and quickly became popular with many guests. The storyline is that this experience takes place after the events in the film. Jack Skellington discovers the home of the Happy Haunts and to spread some holiday joy, he shares some of his original "dark" Christmas presents and decorations.

At the NFFC/Disneyana Fan Club convention in 2003, Burton was asked on whether there were plans for a Broadway version of his film.

"No," replied Burton with a straight face. "We thought we'd go right to the ice show."

He later expanded, "I was always very protective of the film not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, 'Jack visits Thanksgiving world' or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it's not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible."