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Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

The original concept for 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' first came to Tim Burton when he worked as an animator for the Walt Disney Company back in the early 80's. Burton had written a poem heavily inspired by T'was the Night Before Christmas that featured a gothic character called Jack Skellington and his dog Zero. While working on his first short film Vincent, Burton designed the lead characters and started to expand the idea of backstories for them. He would spend his spare time sketching designs and coming up with an unusual cast of macabre characters. This was when he started thinking about the idea of adapting the poem into a short animated film or a TV special. He pitched the idea but it wasn't something Disney were interested in doing at that time.

Shortly after parting ways with Disney, Burton made his feature film debut with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure starring Paul Reubens as the eccentric man-child who loses his beloved bike. This got him his next job on Beetlejuice, which was a bigger budget with bigger names and it was a huge success.

At this point Tim Burton was beginning to cement himself in Hollywood as one to watch. His next film was the one that really put him on the map though. In 1989 Warner Bros released Tim Burton's version of the caped crusader and superhero movies would never be the same again. Batman was a dark, gothic tale of a vigilante trying desperately to save the criminally swept city, or what's left of it, that his deceased parents helped to build. Michael Keaton crushed it in a career defining role (he is still the best Batman y'all)

It was after his stint on Batman that Burton approached Disney again about potentially doing something with this bizarre Jack Skellington character. Disney still retained the rights to the story and character since it was created in their studio and they wanted to go ahead with the film. However they had reservations over it's darker themes so they ended up releasing under their Touchstone Pictures banner. Unfortunately the development talks lasted longer than predicted and by the time production was ordered to begin Burton had already signed on to do Batman Returns so he opted out of directing, instead working primarily as a producer on the project.

Burton had already conceptualised the project as a stop motion feature film so he hired his friend Henry Selick to direct, who had previously worked at Disney as an animator on classics like Pete's Dragon and Fox & the Hound. Selick had a close affinity with stop motion from a young age and Burton knew that he would be the perfect person for the job.

A Production company was set up within a month of the film being green-lit and mainly comprised of Burton's colleagues from his previous work. One of his first hires was composer Danny Elfman, who had scored all three of his previous feature films. Burton and Elfman had an amazing working relationship and after a few meetings Elfman had already written a number of the songs. At this point there wasn't even a script to go by and Elfman was working primarily just from some brief scene descriptions. Elfman's lyrics actually began to sway the direction of the plot and all his songs and Jack Skellington animations were recorded and shot before anything else. Burton's original idea for the film was supposed to be like the Grinch only in reverse. An unusual creature who discovers Christmas and becomes fascinated by it so much that he wants to spread the joy in his own town. Elfman expanded this idea and together with Selick and the other animators created something so unique and memorable. Selick dedicated over 3 years of his life to the project...

I was on the film for three-and-a-half years. The stop-motion animation took about 18 months, but with pre-production, where you storyboarded every single shot, it did add up. At its peak, it was about 120 people working on it, and we had between 12-17 animators on the job. It’s an insane way to make a movie, but a lot of fun. It’s joy, along with a lot of pain.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is as iconic as it gets. Truly one of the most influential animated films of the last 30 years. Since it's initial release in 1993 the film has taken on a life of it's own completely engulfing pop culture, music culture and basically every other sort of culture you can think of, becoming a field day for artists and merchandisers alike.

Tim Burton may have went all John Carpenter on this one but the film really belongs to Elfman and Selick and while the former has rightly received plenty of plaudits in the years proceeding the film's release, unfortunately I don't think Selick will ever truly get the credit he deserves.

- Gavin Logan

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