It's hard to imagine Halloween season without the citizens of Halloween Town. Characters like Jack Skellington, Sally, and Oogie Boogie are the result of the unlikely collaboration between the imagination of Tim Burton and the direction of Henry Selick, who used his mastery of stop-motion animation to deliver the holiday classic we know and love today, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Based on a poem and the early drawings created by Burton while working at Disney, The Nightmare Before Christmas became the first feature-length stop-motion animated film. Now, 30 years later, Walt Disney Studios has restored this cinematic milestone in sublime 4K Ultra High Definition, complete with a new High Dynamic Range (HDR) color grade for faithful fans and new viewers alike.
"Tim's a genius for the ideas, the designs, and all the things that really do matter, but he wanted somebody else to direct it," Selick shares in a sitdown with A.frame. "I'd done some hand-drawn animation. And later I've done some computer [animation], but I just love stop-motion. I love moving those puppets around."
Selick and Burton first became friends while enrolled in CalArts' animation program, and later found themselves working together at Walt Disney Animation Studios in the early '80s. "We bonded, because we weren't the typical Disney people," says Selick. "We couldn't draw their characters perfectly."
In his early days at Disney, Burton helmed two short films: Vincent (1982), a stop-motion animated horror film featuring the mellifluous voice of Vincent Price, and 1984's original, live-action Frankenweenie. Inspired by holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Burton pitched Nightmare as a television special, but his aesthetic was not the Disney aesthetic. And so, the project was shelved.
Years later, Selick would get a call from Rick Heinrichs, Burton's set designer on Edward Scissorhands. Turns out, after the success of hits like Beetlejuice and Batman, Disney was eager to get Burton back at the studio. Burton was offered the chance to turn his original drawings into a feature film. But, having already signed on to direct Batman Returns, Burton's schedule was full. Plus, "Tim learned, directing Vincent, it was a little too nerve-wracking for him to be around while it's being made," Selick says.
One of the most intricate and painstaking cinematic art forms, stop-motion animation involves physical puppets being posed and manipulated in very small increments, photographed frame by frame so that, upon playback, the puppet characters appear to be moving independently. On a project like Nightmare, with its extensive miniature sets and vast array of characters, it would take up to an entire week to complete just one minute of finished film.
In terms of the puppets themselves, the production required thousands of different heads with different facial expressions for Jack Skellington alone. "Oh, the legend grows!" Selick quips. "He had 300 distinct expressions. And then, there's in-between expressions and multiple copies, so multiple scenes could be shot at once. Over 3,000!"
To push the boundaries of the art form, Selick wanted to move away from the "tabletop" style audiences had come to expect, where the camera was locked into one position. For Nightmare, Selick enlisted director of photography Pete Kozachik, then working at Lucasfilms' famed visual effects house, Industrial Light & Magic. Kozachik designed motion control rigs especially for the film, allowing the camera to move freely around the set and giving the movie an even more cinematic and three-dimensional feel.
Along with the distinctive visual style, another of the film's biggest risks was the original score and the ten original songs written by Burton's long-time collaborator, Danny Elfman. At the time, audiences were used to about five original songs in a Disney animated film, but Nightmare was conceptualized as something of an operetta, in which most of the story would be conveyed through song. Elfman even provided the singing voice for Jack Skellington.
"Danny contributed so much to the film," says Selick. "Those songs are a big part as to why it's had such a long life."
After three and a half years, The Nightmare Before Christmas was finally completed. Early screenings for Disney's top brass seemed promising, but there were initial fears from the studio that the film might not be suitable for children due to its ghoulish characters.
"There's nothing really scary about the film," objects Selick. “Some of the characters might look grotesque, but except for Oogie Boogie, they're all good-hearted. And when Halloween Town tries to make presents for Christmas, they're doing their best!" Which is why the film wasn't originally released as a proper Disney movie. "It was never going to be released as a Disney film, because they thought it could damage the brand. So, they had a subsidiary label, Touchstone Pictures, and released it as a Touchstone film."
The Nightmare Before Christmas was released on Oct. 13, 1993, to rave reviews. The film became a sleeper hit at the box office and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects — the first-ever for an animated film. Over the years, as Selick's own two children were growing up, he noticed that more and more trick-or-treaters were showing up at his front door dressed as characters from the film.
"It slowly but surely turned into this cultural phenomenon," he says. "Disney didn't know what they had, but eventually they figured it out."
For Disney, that created an opportunity. In 2006, The Nightmare Before Christmas was re-released in 3D but and rebranded as a fully-fledged Disney film, complete with a plethora of merchandise, live concerts, and even a yearly Nightmare themed re-dressing of Disneyland's iconic Haunted Mansion ride.
For Nightmare's 30th anniversary, Disney's restoration team has completed a new 4K transfer of the film, sourced from the original film elements that the studio had stored in their archives. With the increased resolution revealing the finest details of the sets and the puppets, the anniversary restoration allows for an even greater appreciation for what is literally a hand-crafted piece of art.
"Because they had the original negative in 35mm, I knew that there was that much more visual information to be had," Selick explains, "and I'm really pleased it'll now be available in this highest quality version."
Following the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton continued his relationship with Disney, directing 1994's Oscar-winning Ed Wood and 2010's live-action Alice in Wonderland; meanwhile, Selick went on to direct a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach for Disney, the Oscar-nominated Coraline for LAIKA, and most recently, Wendell & Wild for Netflix. But his feature debut will always hold a very special place in his heart.
"Its cultural legacy, I couldn't have predicted it," Selick says of The Nightmare Before Christmas. "It struck the right balance of being very original and being done in stop motion. And I think a film done well in stop motion animation leaves its mark. I'm grateful that it lives on, and I suspect it'll be around for decades to come."
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on 4K Ultra-HD Blu-Ray.
By Adam J. Yeend.