Bossert Behind-the-Scenes
September 21, 2020 posted by Dave Bossert

7 Things You Didn’t Know About “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”

The seminal stop-motion animated film Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas originally started as a poem written by Tim Burton while he worked at the Walt Disney Studios. He had always intended that the poem to be turned into a film like his stop-motion short Vincent. But instead, the poem and Burton’s drawings for it were relegated to the Animation Research Library (ARL). Ten years later, after Burton’s successes with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Batman Returns (1992), he still had a deep longing to do something with Nightmare.

Burton’s agent reached out to Disney to see if they still owned the Nightmare project. Of course, the studio did, and as Burton points out because his agent was inquiring about it, “all of a sudden, Disney wanted to do it, after ten years of not wanting to do it.” In essence, the studio wanted to make the film because they wanted to be in business with Tim Burton. Nightmare was resurrected from the ARL to let Burton make the film and to reestablish the studio’s relationship with him. It was also an opportunity to expand the studio’s animation boundaries and explore other styles and techniques.

I have done much research and writing on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and there was plenty of fascinating behind the scenes information that came to light. Here are seven things that you probably didn’t know about Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas:

1. Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was one of the first cinematic experiences Tim Burton remembers from his childhood. It is a film that resonated and has stayed with him since he first watched it. This memory is one of the reasons why Burton gravitates back to crafting stop-motion animated films and why Nightmare got made in the first place.

2. The Walt Disney Studios initially considered setting up a new division called Touchstone Animation to make Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Instead, the film was made and released under the Touchstone banner because it was thought to be too scary for the typical Disney animation audience.

3. The first test animation was done in office space rented at Tippett Studio, owned by stop-motion animation legend Phil Tippett. They had recently scaled back production after losing out on the dinosaur animation for Jurassic Park (1993) to nearby ILM’s newly blossoming computer-generated animation department.

4. Zero, Jack’s little ghost dog, was going to be animated in traditional hand-drawn 2-D animation, with the plan of adding the characters on top of the stop-motion footage at a percent to effect a transparent look. Ultimately, that idea was abandoned in favor of Zero being animated in stop-motion and added in at a percentage to each scene to give it the ghostly look.

5. The Mitchell cameras were the preferred choice for filming stop-motion animation and needed to be purchase for the production. The main element for a good stop-motion camera was the ability to do “pin registration.” This term simply means that each film frame that was exposed was in the same position as the previous frame using placement pins in the camera. This registration assured that the image from frame to frame was in perfect alignment and eliminated the weaving and bobbing up and down that could occur when films were projected.

6. All ten songs composed by Danny Elfman were written first before there was a finished script. Typically, the script is completed first, and then music is written for the film, but Elfman and Tim Burton collaborated on the songs as if it was an operetta. Only then did Caroline Thompson come on board to write the screenplay.

7. The character Oogie Boogie was not in Burton’s original poem but was added as the villain for the film. Oogie Boogie, an imposing character, is one of the largest stop-motion puppets ever created. Due to his size, the fabricators could not cast solid foam latex around the armature. Instead, a latex exterior “skin” was cast and then slipped down around the metal armature, which provided an open empty area around the armature. That open space was then packed with light fiber filled cloth balls that provided the illusion of substance to the body of this puppets. Then the exterior was painted and prepped for animation. An iridescent green version of the Oogie Boogie puppet was made for the ultraviolet song sequence, and a one-off gruesome bug-infested version was created for the unraveling of Oogie in the film’s finale.

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a perennial holiday classic that the entire family can enjoy. It had now made a generational leap with children who watched it when it was first released now grown and sharing the film with their children. At the time it was made, it was a groundbreaking achievement in stop-motion animation. It now carries the Walt Disney Pictures logo and is released every year for special theater screenings.

It is a film that has stood the test of time—becoming even more popular year after year. After more than twenty-five years, Nightmare has become a fan favorite with regularly released merchandise and the annual overlay at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The film has been converted into 3D—4D if you count the practical effects during screenings at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood—and there have been live concerts of the film at the Hollywood Bowl. Nightmare is a film that will live on in perpetuity, much like Bambi, Cinderella, and countless other Disney animated classics.

© David Bossert

14 Comments

  • “all of a sudden, Disney wanted to do it, after ten years of not wanting to do it” says Tim Burton.

    Disney rejected Nightmare in 1982.
    a) that was a different administration (under Ron Miller)
    b) I can understand their hesitancy at giving him a feature, based purely on Vincent – a quirky OK short film.

    And I suspect even if the Michael Eisner regime had been in charge, and his disdain of animation pre 1989, the situation would not have been different .

    In addition, The Puppetoon Movie (1987) with stop motion animation did not exactly set the box office on fire.

    By 1992, it was not all of a sudden.

    Burton had proven he was capable of making live action feature films which made money.
    So maybe he could handle an animated movie.

    After Nightmare, Disney rewarded him with a live action movie –
    And he produced Cabin Boy, one of the biggest flops of the year, and remembered chiefly because of David Letterman continually referencing it.

    • When I was invited to visit the set in San Francisco of “Nightmare” by Howard Green (Director of Publicity at the time at the Walt Disney Studios), I was greeted quite warmly by many of the stop-motion animators, series puppet and model makers as many had my film “The Puppetoon Move” and used it as a reference for the replacement figure puppet animation they were working on. George Pal was highly regarded as a great influence for a film like “Nightmare” just as Harryhausen to Tim Burton as referenced by Dave. And of course many of your readers and followers of stop-motion animation know that Ray Harryhausen got his first job in Hollywood working for the George Pal on the Puppetoons. Ray related many stories to me about that experience and how influential and important they were and Pal in general. Several of the films Ray worked on appear in both “The Puppetoon Movie” and in the new upcoming historic restoration release in December this year of “The Puppetoon Movie Volume 2” http://www.puppetoon.net

  • You managed to write a text about this movie without mentioning the actual director even once. Truly impressive

    • Like it says, 7 Things You DIDN’T Know About…

  • Really enjoyed this article especially since later this week my book VAULT OF WALT: HALLOWEEN EDITION will be coming out with a chapter on Nightmare and other Disney Halloween stories like about Night on Bald Mountain, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Trick or Treat, Lonesome Ghosts and much more like ghost sightings of Walt at Disneyland.. Wish I had read this article before I wrote my chapter on Burton’s film.

    The original Burton poem was three pages long and only featured Jack, Zero and Santa. He actively tried to pitch it as a holiday half hour television special with Rick Heinrichs making a figure of Jack (in an all black outfit…it was Henry Selick who later realized that a pinstripe suit would “read” better against a dark background). Disney did very briefly consider making it but wanted to do so in cel animation and Burton did not care for that idea. Henry Selick who was also there at the studio at the time was a huge supporter of the project.

    Actually after Thompson was brought on to write the script, another song was added for Sally since she made that character more important. Thompson had been living with Elfman so was very familiar with the songs and general story and characters before being brought in to script. Joe Ranft also worked on storyboards from that script and added some touches.

    “I loved Halloween,” said Burton. “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.” Growing up in Burbank, California, Burton said he saw merchandisers trying to extend the holiday sales season by advertising Christmas during Halloween so it seemed natural to him to combine the two holidays.

    What I would love to hear from you Dave is that while at Disney Burton contributed to a project called TRICK OR TREAT about kids at Halloween and a Haunted House. I assume it might have been a live action project but don’t know.

    • Hi Jim, thanks for reading the piece. I did extensive interviews with most of the key players associated with the film, including director Henry Selick, Tim Burton, Dany Elfman, Caroline Thompson, Rick Heinrichs, many animators, artists, etc., for my book on the film. I have no idea if and when that book will be released as it is in the hands of Disney Editions. I talk about VINCENT, TRICK OR TREAT, and HANSEL AND GRETEL in the book as a precursor to Burton directing FRANKENWEENIE before Disney fired him. It was while he was working on TRICK OR TREAT that he got some development funding for VINCENT. BTW, here is what Henry Selick said about my book on TNBC, “Dave Bossert has created a wonderful book to commemorate Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, more than twenty-five years on. He masterfully blends interviews with Tim Burton, Danny Elman, and myself—along with many of the talented artists who worked on the film—into a very nuanced and personal picture of how the movie actually came together, was made, and went from a cult favorite to a holiday classic. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable, one-of-a-kind renegade project that has stood the test of time.”

  • The greatest movie of the 1990s (or since), and–despite its debt to Rankin-Bass (can’t you just see 11-year-old Tim Burton watching “Mad Monster Party?” and taking notes?)–one of the most original. There’s more warmth, wit, charm, and (oddly, for an animated novelty about Halloween monsters) human feeling in that 75-minute movie than in any other feted live-action blockbuster of the era. There’s certainly more expression in Jack Skellington’s empty sockets than in the eyes, however sparkly, of any of today’s so-called stars.

    Gee, ya think I like the movie a little?

    • Hans, thanks for reading. I appreciate and share your enthusiasm for this film.

  • Also “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 4D also play on the DCL’s Halloween Cruises. Great treat to watch, hear, and feel the effects. Wind blows, singing, lights dancing, and it “snows” on the boat. Great fun for the whole family.

    • Dave, I haven’t experienced TNBC on the cruise ships yet. But I have experienced the 4D at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, as recently as last year, and it is spectactular! It’s always a treat when it snows in the theater.

  • Wait, Disney actually considered forming a division called Touchstone Animation? Imagine if they actually went through with it, and if they made more than just Nightmare; what kind of films would they have made? We may never know.

    • Yes, Touchstone Animation would have released animated films that were not of the “Disney House Style.” Films in the vein of Nightmare and James and the Giant Peach. It was a short lived idea as they ultimately decided against it.

    • Wild Life and Fraidy Cat maybe?

    • I think that those are two films that would have likely fit into a Touchstone Animation brand. Indeed, if Disney decided to ride the more adult-oriented animation train that has proliferated on the streaming platforms, having another banner for those types of shows would be one option. But, that runs the risk of damaging the existing Disney Animation brand by mere association. It was smart of them to look at a Touchstone Animation banner, and I think that they made the right decision to pass on it.

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