Monday, December 6, 2010

The Nightmare Before Christmas: A Burton Holiday Feast

Yep, you guessed it!  Another holiday movie for you today as we creep closer and closer to Christmas.  (Did I mention I have a LOT of holiday favorites?)  Today's film is actually the one Christmas film it's okay to start watching at Halloween, but I usually wait til now because what is Christmas in my house without...Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)!

"Nightmare," the great stop-motion animation tale, tells the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloweentown.  After another successful Halloween, Jack wanders out into the forest and comes across a set of fancy doors, one for each holiday.  He accidentally falls through the Christmastown door and discovers a world (and holiday) completely unlike his own.  So on his return to Halloweentown, he decides to take over Christmas this year and be "Sandy Claws" himself.  Will Christmas survive this town's idea of joy?  Will the real Santa survive the evil Oogie Boogie?

Tim Burton, like so many of us, grew up loving the old Christmas specials on television, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."  While he was an animator at Disney in the 80s (yep, that's right.  Burton, the Goth king, used to work for Disney), he wrote a three-page poem entitled "The Nightmare Before Christmas."  After the success of his first two shorts "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie," the studio sought to make the poem into another short or television special.  But it never got off the ground, and Burton left Disney when his disillusionment in the studio he grew up wanting to be a part of grew to its peak.  He then went on to his own success with "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," "Batman," "Beetlejuice," and "Edward Scissorhands."  Yet he never forgot about his "Nightmare" idea and, in 1990, decided to ask for the rights back from Disney (all creative ideas imagined while working at Disney become Disney property).  Luckily, Jeffrey Katzenberg was running the studio at the time and, being a Burton fan, agreed to finance a film version under the Disney banner.

So without a script and only the poem and Burton's own original sketches, the production was setup in San Francisco.  Burton hired Henry Selick to direct because he himself was too busy with pre-production on "Batman Returns" at the time.  He then hired Michael McDowell, his collaborator with "Beetlejuice," to write the script.  Unfortunately, they had creative problems, so Burton focused instead on the music first with his constant composer Danny Elfman.  McDowell was then replaced by Caroline Thompson, and the team was set.  As for casting, Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdink himself) was cast as the speaking voice of Jack.  (Chris didn't like the way he sang, so Danny Elfman did the singing for Jack.)  Catherine O'Hara was hired for Sally and Shock after working with Burton before on "Beetlejuice."  Paul Reubens played Lock.  And William Hickey played mad scientist Dr. Finklestein. 

The production took over 19 sound stages in San Francisco to build and shoot the sets and puppets for "Nightmare."  227 puppets, both multiple characters and multiple copies of each (especially the leads), were made using metal armatures for skeletons.  This wasn't claymation were animators could change the facial expressions on the spot; the puppets were made of foam latex.  For Jack, Sally and others, all their expressions had to be pre-made.  Jack himself had over 400 interchangeable heads for every expression and emotion.  Sally, because of her long hair, had a series of masks that could be snapped on and off.

Because it's stop-motion animation, they were shooting at 24 frames per second, which means they had to pose each puppet 24 times for just a second of film, leading to many scenes taking a full week or more to complete.  So thanks to duplicate puppets, one animator could be working on one scene at the same time another scene was being filmed on another set.  There are a few scenes in the film that were filmed at regular speed though.  See if you can figure them out and drop me a comment.

When "Nightmare" was released in October 1993, Disney had changed its mind and released it under Touchstone Pictures instead of Walt Disney Studios.  This was because Disney felt the film was a little too dark for children, so it was put under their more adult banner.  Of course time has told that they were very wrong in their assumption.  "Nightmare" became a huge success and is now a cult favorite, loved by both old and very young.  It has spawned a slew of merchandise, many theatrical re-releases including in 3D and 4D, and since 2001, has been the theme of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland for its Haunted Mansion Holiday attraction that runs from October through December (my absolute favorite time to go to Disneyland!!).  Disney even started working on a sequel in 2001, but Burton put a stop to it, saying he liked to "try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible."  A sequel was made in video game version though ("The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge").

So, wake up your inner child and enjoy the beautiful animation of the holiday classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas."  Have a wonderful week, everyone!  Be back Friday with some more great films.

(Post-tidbit:  In the final scene, when the vampires are playing ice hockey, instead of using the pumpkin you see for their puck, they used to be playing with Tim Burton's severed head.)

(Post-post-tidbit:  Originally there was narration at both the beginning and end of the film, and it was recorded by Sir Patrick Stewart.  Unfortunately that recording didn't make it to the final flick, but you can still hear it on the soundtrack.)

1 comment:

  1. Nightmare Before Xmas is my favorite! Great retrospective - there were actually several things that I totally did not know - like the fact that it was based on an original poem of Burtons. I would love to read that!