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Film

The painstakingly long production of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'

The Nightmare Before Christmas is an absolute classic. A collaborative effort between Tim Burton and Henry Selick, since its 1993 release, the hauntingly charming tale has been one of the most enduring not-so-Christmas-Christmas-movies ever released. 

It follows the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who, through his own clumsiness, stumbles upon Christmas Town, and then becomes obsessed with trying to celebrate the Yuletide holiday. A deliciously wicked tale featuring bogeymen, mad scientists and Frankstein’s monster’s, this is one of Tim Burton’s most vibrant efforts to date.

Featuring the voices of Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey and Paul Reubens, The Nightmare Before Christmas would not have been the success that it was without the music of Oingo Boingo’s noisemaker, Danny Elfman. Writing the musical score, and performing Jack’s singing parts, Elfman’s work really brought the script and dark fantasy world out of BUrton’s creative library and into life. He and Burton had already shown that they were a winning combination on 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, but Elfman’s score on Nightmare trumps his work soundtracking the caped crusader.  

It wasn’t a simple journey bringing Burton’s fantastical ideas to life. Production was a long and arduous journey that took over three years. The initial idea came from a three-page poem that Burton had written back in 1982 after finishing his short, Vincent

At the time, Burton was an employee of Walt Disney Feature Animation. His poem drew inspiration from the TV specials Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas

Burton created his own art and storyboard for the project alongside friend Rick Heinrichs, who sculpted character models. Someway along with their ideas, Burton showed what the pair had to Henry Selick, who was also an animator for Disney at the time. Initially, Disney considered developing The Nightmare Before Christmas into a short film or 30-minute holiday TV special like the successful Vincent

However, the company then made a u-turn and said it was “too weird” for their name. In 1984, Burton was fired by the studio as they were unwilling to offer “his nocturnal loners enough scope”. This wouldn’t matter as soon the director would find success with his own projects such as Beetlejuice

Burton would continuously think about the film over the following years. Then in 1990, he found out that Disney still owned the rights to the project. He and Selick made the decision to produce a full-length feature with Selick as the director, and now, due to the fact that Burton had enjoyed major success with his live-action films, Disney viewed the project as a means of finding more success in the realm of animated feature lengths. 

Disney wanted Nightmare to show and replicate the brilliance of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and company president David Hoberman believed that Burton’s vision would show that “we can think outside the envelope. We can do different and unusual things.”

The reason Burton did not direct the film is because of his directorial duties on 1992’s Batman Returns, and that he didn’t want to be involved in the “painstakingly slow” process of directing the stop motion. He enlisted Michael McDowell to turn the poem into a screenplay, hoping to emulate their shared success on Beetlejuice

However, the pair soon ran into creative conflict, which prompted Burton to change the film into a musical. He turned to Danny Elfman for help, who found it easy to write lyrics and songs for the story, and together the pair created a rough narrative as the songs “took on a life of their own”. Elfman even said that writing the songs was “one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I had a lot in common with Jack Skellington.”

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The size of the production was quite frankly enormous. Animation began in July 1991 with a crew of over 120 and 230 sets. 20 individual sound stages were used during the busiest part of the production schedules. After filming had been completed, over 109,440 frames had been taken, a whopping amount by anyone’s standards.

In addition to this, over 227 puppets were constructed for the film’s characters. Protagonist Skellington had over 400 heads that represented every conceivable emotion. Interestingly, Skellington’s figurine was reused for Selick’s 1996 outing, James and the Giant Peach and Captain Jack.

Another significant part of the film is the variety of creative’s it drew inspiration from. These included Ray Harryhausen, Francis Bacon, Wassily Kandinsky and Ladislas Starevich, to name but a few, and trying to implement the influence of so many greats was no easy feat. 

Selick recalled: “When we reach Halloween Town, it’s entirely German Expressionism. When Jack enters Christmas Town, it’s an outrageous Dr. Seuss-esque setpiece. Finally, when Jack is delivering presents in the ‘Real World’, everything is plain, simple and perfectly aligned.”

Finding a suitable narrator was also a cause of much frustration and deliberation. Greats such as Vincent Price, Don Ameche and the unmistakable James Earl Jones were all considered for the role, but eventually, none of them fit the role completely, so relatively unknown voice actor Ed Ivory was chosen. 

Of the working relationship between him and Burton, Selick opined: “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.”

When you realise just how little involvement Tim Burton had in the production, you’ll feel that that the long title Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, actually does a huge injustice to Selick, who did the majority of the groundwork. 

Burton spent five days on the San Francisco set over two years, and in total, spent no more than ten days there over the production’s total duration. Wrapped up with being a lauded auteur at that point, Burton was also working on Batman Returns and Ed Wood. Talk about biting off more than you can chew, huh?

Nightmare is one of the clearest examples that something enduring can be borne out of real struggle. Taking over ten years to come to fruition, from the moment when Burton first wrote his ideas down as a long-form poem, to become the dazzling wonderland we know and love today, the production has to be one of the most protracted in all of history. Next time you watch it, you’ll see it in a completely different light, given just how much time and effort went into it. 

Watch The Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas below.