The Nightmare Before Christmas

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ DVD Commentary a Real Gift

What’s this? What’s this?

An awesome DVD.

What’s this?

“Why” you ask to me?

What’s this?

I can’t believe my ears

I must be dreaming

You haven’t seen this movie?

What’s this?


What’s this? What’s this?

That’s something very wrong.

What’s this?

It has puppets singing songs.

What’s this?

The screen is filled with

Little creatures laughing

Nothing here’s remotely crappy

Have you possibly gone daffy?

What is this?


What’s this?

It’s a wonderful surprise,

Full of the undead,

But you should have no fear

Cuz there’s not an ounce of dread.

It’s an original idea,

It truly is unique;

It always makes me smile, and

With such high praise I rarely speak.


But wait,

What’s this?

What about the comment’ry?

I’m very glad you asked; of course,

The focus of my task is to expound

On any wonders to be found.

What’s this?


What’s this?

The Nightmare Before Christmas, front cover

The Nightmare Before Christmasmas, front coverThe Nightmare Before Christmas, front cover

In here they’ve got a couple hidden gems

About some things you wouldn’t think,

Like why

This film could get its start

When no one else could give a fart

Because they didn’t think that this stop-motion

Would ever cause such a commotion

But they were wrong

They were so wrong

And now I have to move along.

What else?


Oh my, what now?

Tim and Dan are quite a pair,

And how, they’re a couple of old pros

With long careers of ups and downs

Working together and solo.

So how, you ask, did they collaborate

On this, a film that was so hard to animate?

Here I simply must confess

It’s cool to hear them talk about

Details of the creative process.


And I have to give some credit

To Henry Selick too;

He gives some information

Re: successful animation

Which could be some help to amateurs,

Even just a little bit.


That’s it, that’s all,

The Nightmare Before Christmas, back cover

The Nightmare Before Christmas, back cover

I’ve nothing more to say,

I quit, I’ve been rhyming all damn day.

In sum, all I have to say is this:

This comment’ry’s somewhat insightful

And this movie’s just delightful

It is one you cannot miss

Oh, what is this?

(I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case…. SPOILER ALERT!!)

The idea for the film came when Burton started working at Disney around 1980. For a few years he was able to draw whatever he wanted, and during that time he developed the ideas for Vincent, Frankenweenie, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Burton grew up loving the Rankin and Bass version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!; he looked forward to watching them every year. They had an influence on Nightmare.

Burton grew up in Burbank, where the changing of the seasons was only evident through the holiday decorations in stores.

To Burton, the idea of worlds colliding (including Christmas and Halloween, his two favourite holidays) was always intriguing. Every year he put Halloween decorations on his Christmas tree.

Burton started talking to Elfman even before he started writing because he always thought of it as an operatic musical.

This is Elfman’s favourite collaboration with Burton.

For a while, they weren’t sure how to start as neither had done a musical. Eventually they decided to start telling the story with songs.

Because the songs propel the story forward, Elfman was almost like a writer on the film.

Elfman chose not to make it like a musical where people talk and then break into song. Instead, he wanted dialogue in the music to keep the story going.

Burton had some lyrics for Jack’s lament and the opening number, which Elfman used in the finished songs.

Every three days or so, Burton came to Elfman’s house to tell him a part of the story. Elfman would rush him out the door as soon as he had an idea, and about three days later he’d invite Burton over to listen to the finished song. Then Burton would tell him the next part of the story. When they had all the songs, they sent Selick a demo tape so he had something to work with.

Burton had certain rules for the film. For instance, he didn’t want any magic in Halloween Town.

Burton says it took about 20 years for him to make Nightmare, and feels that his previous successes were what finally made it possible.

Burton started pitching the idea at TV stations and publishers, but he felt strongly about using stop-motion animation and nobody else wanted to do it that way.

Burton wanted Selick to do it because he knew him and knew he was talented.

“What’s This?” was the first song Selick received from Danny Elfman, so that was the first sequence he filmed.

When brainstorming ideas for “What’s This?”, Burton and Elfman made lists of all the new things Jack could see: a snowflake, a light, etc. They wanted his reaction to be that of a very enthusiastic innocent seeing everything for the first time.

Elfman wanted “What’s This?” to be a bit of a tongue-twister, in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Selick started making the movie without a script, only a few songs. Burton was busy making Batman Returns, so they couldn’t really talk about how it would work out. However, Selick never really worried about it.

Selick had worked with his core team a lot on station identifications for MTV and Pillsbury Doughboy commercials.

Voices were recorded before the animation was completed, and the puppet’s mouths were synced to the recording.

There’s a difference between making a puppet move and bringing it to life. Having someone act out the scenes makes all the difference.

The look of the character somewhat dictates the way they move. For instance, Jack’s stick-figure inspired Selick and his crew to incorporate elements of stick insects, spiders, and Fred Astaire.

Originally, Jack’s clothes were all black, but they had to put pin stripes on him because they couldn’t see him on film.

Danny Elfman became really attached to Jack and his plight. Jack was the king of Halloween Town, but wanted something more; Elfman was going through something similar with the band Oingo Boingo. His encounter with scoring films was comparable to Jack’s discovery of Christmas Town.

“Jack’s Obsession” and “Poor Jack” were always going to be sister songs, in which Jack started off feeling sorry for himself, then worked himself up into a frenzy. Nobody ever convinces Jack of anything; he convinces himself.

Storyboarding is an essential part of animation because you can’t get the same kind of coverage that you get with live-action.

The Mayor represents the two-faced nature of politics. It’s simple, but it works and it adds humour.

Lock, Shock and Barrel were inspired by an old episode of The Twilight Zone in which people wore masks, but their faces resembled the masks they wore. Burton found it really unsettling. In preparation for composing the song “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”, Burton and Elfman again created a list of all the things the kids could do to him.

Selick rarely asked Elfman to rework a song, but he did request changes for “Making Christmas” because he wanted to cut back and forth between Christmas Town and Halloween Town to juxtapose their differing Christmas preparations.

They used a hot air blower between frames to make the Melting Man droop.

They went for a classic, archetypal look for Santa, but his extremely tiny feet left something off about him, which they liked.

Originally, Vincent Price was cast as the voice of Santa, but he’d lost his wife recently and there was a deep sadness in his voice, so it just didn’t work.

Zero the dog’s body was made of lead, which could be animated very fluidly because it’s a very malleable metal, and his head was a puppet head, same as Jack and Sally.

The best stop-motion animators have a lot of patience and some technical knowledge. They study acting and dance, and pay attention to how animals move. They distill all of these things and simplify them when they bring their puppets to life.

Some animators were stronger with certain characters or certain types of scenes (for example, action scenes versus emotional scenes).

Anyone who had extra time on set used it to make bugs for Oogie Boogie.

A number of things had to be worked out in terms of the film’s internal logic. For example, if Jack is a skeleton, that means he’s already dead, so why does it matter if he gets shot out of the sky? That’s why characters react to that news by saying “Jack’s gone” or “Jack’s double-dead.”

For eight years after the film’s release, Selick couldn’t watch the movie without seeing its faults. Then those faults just faded the way and he couldn’t imagine the film any other way.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) | Directed by Henry Selick | Screenplay by Caroline Thompson | Music, Lyrics and Score by Danny Elfman | Based on a Story and Characters by Tim Burton | Voices by Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara | DVD Release Date: 2008 | Commentary by Producer Tim Burton, Director Henry Selick, and composer Danny Elfman

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