"Boys and girls of every age, wouldn’t you like to see something strange?" These lines from the iconic opening song of The Nightmare Before Christmas set the stage of a wonderfully strange adventure. A perennial seasonal favorite, the story follows the residents of Halloween Town, fresh off the ending of another triumphant Halloween. Jack Skellington, known and revered by residents as the Pumpkin King, feels tired of his monotonous routine and he yearns for something new. When Jack accidentally finds his way in Christmas Town, he becomes enchanted by the magical holiday cheer, and devises a plan to make his own version of the holiday. After kidnapping Santa Claus and planning a newly inspired Christmas with the residents of Halloween town, Jack decides to take on the holiday into his own hands.
The end result is a film filled with wickedly delightful charm, featuring infectious music, and songs that are each more catchy than the last. Since then, we’ve seen musical renditions of the classic songs year after year, along with freshly unveiled Honest Trailer. With visually stunning images and a highly unprecedented animation style, The Nightmare Before Christmas remains a beloved holiday tale for generations to enjoy. Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Tim Burton is practically synonymous with The Nightmare Before Christmas, but contrary to popular belief, he wasn't the actual director of the film. Burton created the concept of the film, but the movie was directed by Henry Selick. At the time, Burton was hard at work with Batman Returns (1992) and the beginning stages of Ed Wood (1994).
When it comes to animation, Selick boasts years of experience in the industry. In the Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas documentary, Selick explained how he’s from the same planet as Burton, expressing that he’s familiar with Burton’s point of view. Burton agreed, stating that Selick has passion and he knows that he could trust him to bring his vision to life. Before working on A Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick worked as an inbetween artist on films like Pete's Dragon, The Small One, and as an animator for The Fox and the Hound. Later, he worked on a television short called Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, which he directed, wrote, and produced. Selick was at the helm for The Nightmare Before Christmas, and afterwards went on to direct James and the Giant Peach and, more recently, Coraline in 2009. Coraline was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year.
Any stop-motion aficionado can attest to the fact that attention to detail and ultimate precision is paramount. According to The Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas, a single minute took an entire week to film. Talk about patience! Seeking to create a high level of detailed and accurate shots, every shot required the utmost in terms of concentration and focus. If a background prop was accidentally bumped, or a puppet was moved out of place, the whole scene would be ruined and they would have to start over. Working with a hand-selected team of animators and over 200 camera operators, the film took over three years to create.
On an average day, they would have twenty stages going on at once, with fifteen different animators working at the same time. The stop-motion animation used in the film created a truly dazzling effect, and the film set the standard in terms of its scope and the techniques used for its creation. In more traditional animation, such as a hand-drawn cel animated film, if an artist spotted a mistake, they could simply go to that section, erase it, redraw it, and then rephotograph the scene. With The Nightmare Before Christmas, if they happened to spot a tiny error, they would have to refilm the whole thing, which added to the pressure and encourage their high attention to detail.
You might assume that the Pumpkin King himself, Mr. Jack Skellington, had his time to shine in The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, Disney has slipped Jack in a few hidden cameos in other films. In the recent reboot of Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp sports a bowtie with a faint print of Jack Skellington. In Selick's James and the Giant Peach, Jack is shown opposite to Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker as Captain Jack in a memorable pirate scene. Jack is shown in complete pirate garb, with an oversized hat, a long fuzzy beard, and even a skeleton parrot on his shoulder. When he is shown, the Centipede character remarks, "Captain Skellington?" The swashbuckling skeleton looks pretty comfortable in pirate attire-- we’d even say that Captain Jack Sparrow would approve. Savvy?
In The Princess and the Frog, a quick silhouette of Jack is shown when the sinister Dr. Facilier begins to summon shadows. One frame shows an unmistakable shadow of Jack Skellington, appearing in the real world from the other side. Another of Selick's films, Coraline, features Jack very briefly, so don’t even blink. In one scene, the Pumpkin King’s grinning face is shown within the inside of an egg yolk. Yes, it’s very quick, but it’s a quite a good easter egg, literally!
Oogie Boogie, the villain of the film, was designed to represent an impossibly scary nightmare, thus being filled to the brim with creepy, crawly bugs. In another version of the film, Oogie Boogie's identity would be revealed towards the end, and he would remove his disguise to reveal himself as being Dr. Finkelstein in a costume. Burton didn't like it, so the idea was scrapped.
Director Henry Selick told the Daily Beast that Oogie Boogie was one of the toughest characters to bring to life. The main steps were drawing his character, sculpting it, and then actually building it. Because of his wobbly, almost formless type of shape, it was difficult to create. Oogie Boogie's final scene is a dramatic one, his cotton sack is ripped off his back and it reveals that he's filled with bugs. Selick said that those three to four shots took about four months to create.
When it comes to the stop-motion animation in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the placement of each prop piece had to be exact. In order to achieve a near-flawless effect, there were actual trap doors installed so that the animators could move freely beneath the stage where they were filming. Each of the puppets had to be moved very carefully, and if they were bumped, it would have a disastrous effect. The doors gave the animators a way to travel beneath the set and leave the puppets undisturbed. This way, the animators could move certain puppet without accidentally bumping into any of the others. The team included over one hundred artists who spent over three years working on the finished film.
In the Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the animators explained that the film was shot using 24 frames per second, meaning that each puppet needed to be posed 24 different times per second. To create the puppets or items used in the film, the artists would first create a sketch of a scale drawing, which then was used to create a model. Although the sets were miniature, the type of lighting used was exactly like a full scale movie set, only for a smaller range. The film incorporated cameras that were pre-programmed to film certain scenes, such as a sweeping shot that moves through a scene during a musical performance.
What’s a Disney movie without a quick cameo every now and then? Fans of the legendary Mouse can get a peek at a Mickey cameo during the Christmas scene. When two of the children wake up to receive their presents, if you look carefully, one is wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse pajamas and the other is sporting a pair of Donald Duck pajamas. There's also another quick reference to one of Burton’s other revered films, Beetlejuice. When one of the toys explodes and reveals a giant striped snake… surprise! It’s a subtle Beetlejuice reference. It's also said that Danny Elfman has a cameo in the film, appearing as a miniature head within the upright bass played by one of the street musicians.
Burton had a cameo as well but it was cut from the final version for being too graphic. In the deleted scene, a team of undead zombie skeletons were playing a brutal game of hockey with a decapitated head. Well, whose head exactly? None other than Burton himself. Headless hockey in a '90s Disney film? We can see why they decided to cut it, but it doesn't make it any less delightful.
Speaking of a dark theme, Disney actually felt the film was too dark for their target audience. Burton had originally pitched his ideas as a television movie, but it was rejected. Instead, it took close to twenty years from its inception to its final release, and Disney decided to produce the film under Touchstone. Despite some initial doubts, the film grew to be a tremendous success. Although the limited opening weekend may have brought in a meagre $191,232, Box Office Mojo says the movie has an approximate lifetime gross of $75,082,668.
In Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion is decked out each year with a chilling makeover inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas and prominently featuring leading man Jack Skellington. The seasonal attraction is open to the public from September through early January and incorporates some of Danny Elfman's original score. The original voice actors were brought in to reprise their roles for characters in the ride, and some new music was created for the attraction by John Debney. In terms of merchandise, the Disney Store boasts everything you can think of, from Lock, Shock and Barrel ornaments, holiday stockings and tote bags. Hot Topic is also known for selling The Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise, with Halloween costumes like Jack and Sally being a popular choice, year after year. Disney might have been skeptical of the film’s reception in the beginning, but it’s clear that their efforts were well worth it over the years.
Over 200 different puppets used in the process of creating the film. Jack Skellington had 400 different faces alone to show his vast range of emotions. In the documentary, The Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the animators revealed the lengthy process used to help make him blink. It involved adding several types of eyelids and shooting numerous frames in order to bring the character to life. This added touch definitely gave an element of realism to the character. Sally, who looks wistful and filled with longing throughout the movie, had at least 10 other faces. Sally’s character was intended to look unbalanced, and you can notice the effect when she moves around the film. As soon as you watch the sequences for “What's This?” or “Making Christmas”, the magic of the story begins to unfold and it's easy assume that the making of process was just as effortless. But, it's important to remember that stop-motion animation is really a labor of love.
One of the animators confessed that there’s not a lot of glamor in it, and there’s a lot of hard work where you repeat what you’re doing. Another compared the experience to making a live-action movie, but in slow-motion. As many fans can attest, when you see the finished product in all its glory, you can definitely understand why people do it. From the mischievous trio of Lock, Shock and Barrel to Jack’s rollercoaster of emotions, it’s easy to see how the film amassed a cult-like following over the years.
In The Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton talks about how he was first inspired by classic holiday films like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Rudolph was a 1964 stop-motion classic often played on television during the holidays. Burton was thrilled by the animation style, and also was enchanted by the grim characterization of the Grinch. It's also said the Burton was inspired to create the story after seeing Halloween decorations replaced by Christmas decorations on the shelves. The idea of mashing up ghouls and goblins with little elves and Santa sparked his imagination, thus creating the framework for Halloween and Christmas Town.
In fact, he was feeling so inspired, he penned an original poem. Here's an animated clip to accompany the poem, featuring the iconic voice of Christopher Lee. We love the mash up of Saruman’s authoritative voice reading the poem. Many of the elements from the poem made their way into the final version of the film.
Sir Patrick Stewart voiced the original introduction for The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it was not used in the final cut of the film. Instead, you can hear his rendition on the film’s soundtrack. Stewart is most commonly known for his roles as Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men films.
Another well-known actor was originally selected to voice Santa Claus for the film, but due to unfortunate circumstances, it didn’t work out for the final version. Vincent Price, who took on the role of François Delambre in The Fly (1958), Roderick Usher for Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher (1960), and The Inventor for Edward Scissorhands (1990) alongside Burton. However, due to the death of his wife and deteriorating health, Price couldn’t perform. After the film was released, Price passed away two years later in 1993.
Catherine O'Hara, who voiced Sally, was also a part of Tim Burton's 1988 film, Beetlejuice as Delia Deetz. Pee-wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, voiced Lock, and Ken Page gave off serious menacing tone with Oogie Boogie. The Mayor was voiced by Glenn Shadix, whose panicked stricken voice made audiences laugh with the subtle jab, "I'm only an elected official here, I can't make decisions by myself!" Shadix was also in Beetlejuice, and he took on the role of Otho.
The film’s overall style was influenced by Tim Burton’s first short film called Vincent, which shared influences from German expressionism and Dr. Seuss. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the artists worked with contrasting color palettes. For Halloween Town, Burton was explicit in saying that they should work with black, white, and orange only. Also, the dark tones of Halloween Town incorporate a lot of silhouettes. In contrast, Christmas Town is depicted with bright, vivid colors, and the camera work is much faster to evoke the fun-filled spirit of the holiday. The real world is rather drab in comparison, shown quickly with a scene at the police station and when some children were opening presents. The colors for reality were more simplistic, and involved muted, pastel tones that were much different from the fantasy realms of Halloween and Christmas Town.
Much of the artwork in The Nightmare Before Christmas was inspired by pen and ink illustrations by Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey. Both of the artists had stylistic choices which involved elaborately detailed textures and crosshatching in their work. The animators and artists for the film decided to pay homage to these artists in the film. For example, in the background of Halloween town, they spread clay and plaster on top of the sets and scratched it to give it additional texture.
We mentioned before about how Disney initially felt that the film was too dark, but they also made notes about Jack’s overall character design, and wanted him to have eyes. His skeletal features seem such an inherent part of his character that it’s hard to imagine him with pupils or retinas. Both Burton and Selick disagreed, and Jack remained intact for the final cut. With a character as unique as Jack, his dramatic flair and bold presence prove that he doesn’t even need a set of peepers to command attention.
In the iconic performance of, “What’s This?”, Jack becomes enchanted by the snow-filled magic of Christmas Town. In one short scene, he grabs a string of Christmas lights and puts them close to his face. The contrast of the bright, colorful lights with the haunting eye sockets from his skull-like face is just one of those utterly mesmerizing and delightfully creepy moments from the film. If he had a pair of normal eyes, the whole sequence would have an entirely different effect.
Although the film is filled to the brim with action-packed sequences and stirring theatrical performances, one of the most difficult scenes to film was also one of the more subtle. After finishing his first rousing monologue, Jack spends the entire night walking in the forest with a splinter in his mind, driving him mad. Suddenly, he finds himself in the middle of a clearing, and he discovers several doors marking other noteworthy holidays. Skipping over the heart-shaped icon and four leaf clover, Jack finds himself in front of the door for Christmas town. With his curiosity piqued, he steps closer and reaches out to grab the door handle.
This pivotal scene was actually the most arduous scene to film out of the entire movie, because it required accurate lighting and precision. The shot focuses on the reflection shown in the door handle, therefore, everything in the background had to be perfect. Jack’s hand is shown reaching towards the handle, becoming more and more enlarged. It’s funny, you might think that one of the dramatic singing pieces would be more challenging, but it was this subtle shot that was the most difficult of them all.
In the Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas, composer Danny Elfman revealed that he didn’t have a script to work with when writing the music. Rather, Elfman would meet with Burton and discuss small scenes from the movie. To give him a better understanding, Burton would show him ideas that he fleshed out in his sketchbook, or even start drawing out some of the characters or scenes that he had in mind. Elfman would then begin working on song, and they would continue to have small meetings. The whole experience took on a life of its own, and the finished product resulted in some of the most iconic holiday classic songs!
Actor Chris Sarandon, who you might remember as Prince Humperdinck from the 1987 classic, The Princess Bride, was selected for the voice of Jack Skellington. However, Jack’s actual singing was provided by Danny Elfman. Sarandon was chosen because his voice was similar to Elfman’s, making it an easier transition from regular lines to his boisterous performances. When asked about his experiences with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Elfman said, “It was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I had a lot in common with Jack Skellington.”
This year, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas was featured at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The film was shown with a live concert, along with performances by Danny Elfman. An additional Friday date had to be added after the weekend dates were completely sold out due to popular demand.
The Nightmare Before Christmas has amassed a cult following, with fans of all ages and generations. In true Disney fashion, it may come as no surprise that a sequel was brewing. In 2001, they were leaning more towards using computer graphics as opposed to the stop motion animation from the original film. However, Burton has openly stated that there’s definitely no sequel in the works. "I was always very protective of [Nightmare] not to do sequels or things of that kind," Burton explained. "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."
As much as we love the film, it’s a relief to hear that there won’t be any follow up to the original story. A sequel following the adventures of Jack and Sally’s half-skeleton, half-rag doll offspring wouldn’t compare to the ‘91 classic, and frankly, wouldn’t nearly do it justice. In a world where mass market film franchises are completely the norm, it’s rather refreshing that a classic tale like The Nightmare Before Christmas doesn’t follow suit.