The Concept: Jack-o’-Santa : Tim Burton’s new movie for Disney isn’t exactly a steal-Christmas-kind-of-thing. It’s more like a borrow-it-and-give-it-a-weird-twist-kind-of-thing

<i> Blaise Simpson is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco</i>

“Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas” is different from the Walt Disney Studios’ previous animated movies in just about every way. Where they were cute, “Nightmare” owes its arty pizazz more to German Expressionism than to Mickey Mouse. Where they dazzled the eye with color, “Nightmare’s” subdued palette showcases texture and depth. Where they featured Broadway-style show tunes, “Nightmare” has a musical score that’s more “Three Penny Opera” than “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah.” Where their humor was ingenuous and their protagonists warm and cuddly, “Nightmare” has an off-center, adult wit and some truly grotesque creations.

The film’s most important difference is the animation itself. “Nightmare” is not a cartoon. Instead of drawings, its characters are three-dimensional articulated figures that move and emote like live actors, thanks to a process called stop-motion animation. Stop-motion is best known from commercials--think Speedy Alka Seltzer or the Pillsbury Doughboy and you’ve got the idea.

But the level of stop-motion animation in the 72-minute “Nightmare” has never been attempted before. Only George Pal, a stop-motion pioneer who produced a series of shorts called “Puppetoons” for Paramount in the late ‘40s, came close in terms of innovation. Pal’s technique of substituting different faces and limbs on characters in each frame of film to give them more streamlined movement has been borrowed and expanded upon by the “Nightmare” crew.


Burton, the creator and producer of the movie, talked about it early one morning on the set of his latest picture, “The Ed Wood Story.”

What possessed the studio to take such a leap of faith on “Nightmare Before Christmas”? The answer slouches--rumpled, yawning, trying to wake up--on a couch in the director’s trailer. With his unruly mop of black hair, wrinkled clothes and long striped Pippi Longstocking socks, Burton looks like an overgrown illustration from a children’s book. Who better to lead Disney into a different style of animation?

In fact, “Nightmare Before Christmas” began at the studio more than 10 years ago, long before Burton became the director of such box-office bonanzas as “Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Batman Returns.” At that time, he was still toiling as an apprentice in Disney’s animation department and had just made his first film, a six-minute short about a 7-year-old who reads Edgar Allen Poe and wants to be Vincent Price. “Vincent,” one of Burton’s most personal films, used stop-motion animation, and it inspired the filmmaker to write and design a more ambitious story.

For Burton, who had been a lonely child growing up in Burbank, holidays were a time of wonder and escape. “Anytime there was Christmas or Halloween, you’d go to Thrifty’s and buy stuff and it was great,” he recalls. “It gave you some sort of texture all of a sudden that wasn’t there before.”

With his favorite children’s TV special, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (also made with crude stop-motion techniques), and other holiday literature in mind, Burton wrote and drew illustrations for his own rhyming television classic. Stimulated by Clement Clarke Moore’s traditional holiday poem, he added a twist: this time, “Twas the night mare before Christmas. . . .”

Although as a movie it has been embellished--it is now a musical, with a lush score by Danny Elfman, the Oingo Boingo musician who has created music for Burton’s five previous films, and a script by Carolyn Thompson, who wrote “Edward Scissorhands”--the basic story is still much the same as Burton’s original tale.

In a world where all the holidays have their own kingdoms, the elegantly tall king of Halloween Jack Skellington is a tormented artist who is bored with putting on the same old holiday each year. One day, Jack stumbles into Christmastown and is captivated by the bright colors and happiness of the place. He rushes back to tell the ghoulish citizens of Halloweentown that they will produce Christmas this year. They’re excited by the idea but a little unclear on the concept, and of course they get it all wrong. Pandemonium ensues after Santa Claus is kidnaped and little children all over the world wake up to find nasty presents, gleefully created by the Halloweenies, under their Christmas trees.


Elfman voiced all the parts as he wrote the music, and in the process, became so fond of Jack Skellington that he remains his singing voice in the film. (Actor Chris Sarandon does Jack’s speaking voice.) Catherine O’Hara, who had worked with Burton on “Beetlejuice,” did the voice of Sally, Jack’s rag-doll girlfriend. William Hickey (“Prizzi’s Honor”) was cast as the voice of Sally’s creator, a mad scientist. Two other voices, a two-faced mayor and a naughty trick-or-treater, were supplied by past Burton collaborators Glenn Shadix (“Beetlejuice”) and Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-wee Herman).

“I find the mix of Halloween and Christmas beautiful, and I just liked the idea where it’s like a reversed ‘Grinch’ character. Where Jack’s not a bad character,” Burton says, referring to another influence, Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” “I like that kind of character that’s passionate but doesn’t know what he’s doing. I think it’s a reaction against the kind of society you grow up with, where people don’t feel a lot or go out on a limb a lot and just kind of remain in the shadows and judge others. What’s nice about these characters is they just get swept up into something, even if they don’t know what they’re doing.

“This was written right around the time I did ‘Vincent,’ and I thought it would be nice to do it stop-motion. . . . I think at the time I was trying to do anything. Maybe get Vincent Price to narrate it, maybe like a 20-minute film. I went around to the networks and pitched it as a half-hour special--Home Shopping Network, anything. I just wanted to make it.”

But the project didn’t get off the ground until about three years ago, when Burton quietly made some inquiries about the story and found out that Disney owned it. Alerted to what it had, the studio jumped at the chance to produce it. But there were lingering doubts on Burton’s part. There was the question of his other commitments--among other things, he was working on “Batman Returns,” which didn’t allow him the three years needed to direct a stop-motion feature. And he worried that Disney wouldn’t give the film the creative freedom Burton demanded.

The dilemma was solved by Henry Selick, an animator and former colleague of Burton at Disney, who signed on as the film’s director. Like Burton, Selick had been something of an outsider at Disney and had left in the early ‘80s to pursue his own projects in San Francisco. While Burton became famous in Hollywood, Selick navigated the byways of the Bay Area’s special-effects community, directing “Doughboy” commercials, some animated MTV channel-ID spots and contributions to the channel’s “Liquid TV,” among them an award-winning stop-motion short called “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions.” Selick and Burton were reunited through their mutual friend Rick Heinrichs, “Nightmare’s” visual consultant, who had sculpted Burton’s first designs for the film.

In essence, Selick created a complete highly specialized studio in San Francisco for the movie. The city was chosen for production, he says, because “I was here and a lot of the animators come from here. George Lucas had Industrial Light & Magic, and a lot of stop-motion professionals were up here because of that--like Tom St. Amand, who makes the little metal armatures, the ‘bones’ for all the characters. You can’t underestimate the skill that guy has. It makes our characters move fluidly and able to hold fantastic poses.


“The other side of it was that it was important to me to stay away from Los Angeles,” Selick said. “I think that if Disney and even Tim had too much access to us, they would have gotten too nervous and gummed up the works.”

Over the past three years, Skellington Productions, situated in a 40,000-square-foot former studio space, has been a kind of parallel universe for the 120 employees who have spent most of their waking hours putting Burton’s vision on film. Its otherworldly air begins with the sidewalk outside, where the late Herve Villechaize’s handprints are embedded, for some reason, in the sidewalk.

The mostly youthful crew of men and women within the cavernous space--animators, puppet and prop-makers, set builders, art directors, camera operators, lighting designers, editors--all have one thing in common: a ghostly pallor induced by too many hours indoors. And unlike most movie sets, this one is unsettlingly quiet. It is dark around the actual stages (there are 20 of them, each like a miniature version of a typical Hollywood sound stage) with long black curtains enclosing each set.

Stop-motion is a time-consuming process that requires the animators to move their characters (usually called puppets) one frame of film at a time. It takes several days to do what might be a couple of seconds on film. Fourteen of the top stop-motion animators in the world, working simultaneously on all of the sets, manage to complete about 70 seconds of film a week.

With his phosphorescent skin, black clothing and rats-nest hair dyed candy-apple red, Paul Barry is a fairly typical “Nightmare” crew member in both looks and talent. A stop-motion animator who was nominated for an Academy Award this year for his own short film, “Sandman,” Barry is animating a scene in which Jack tries to explain Christmas to Halloweentown. “The film’s definitely been cast in terms of each animator has a particular character they work with,” he says. “There’s some major acting involved in my scene--singing, dancing, jumping around--trying to make Christmas sound so exciting.”

Even a short scene can take a week to do because the animators start from scratch, with only the character’s prerecorded voice and the storyboard drawings. “It might be a really simple shot where Jack picks up a square present with a bow on top and he says, ‘This is a thing called a present, it all comes wrapped up in a box . . .’ and it’s five seconds long,” Barry explains. “But there are so many ways you can pick a present up. Do you do it with both hands, or one hand and then describe it with the other? The cameraman will be involved as to what kind of shot it’s going to be, whether it’s a close-up or a wide shot. Do we tilt down on him when he bends over? All these things happen during the shot.”


Once the animator has figured out his puppet’s performance, he auditions it for Selick, who directs both the action and the cinematography much as he would on a live-action film. The sequence is then shot in trial runs at several frames a second, and “loops” are made of the film so that the bit can be viewed over and over and the bugs worked out before the final shot is done in one take.

On another Halloweentown set, animator Justin Kohn is preparing a scene in which a vampire is about to make a point by pulling one of his eyes out of his head. (The scene was the most popular in the movie among a class of fifth graders who saw the storyboards.) As Kohn and cameraman David Hanks work, it’s almost impossible to see anything actually happen.

In order to do this kind of animation, Kohn explains, “you have to be able to just touch the puppet and move it a small amount you can’t even see--that a gauge wouldn’t even see.”

A 10-foot-tall metal apparatus called a motion-control device surrounds the cameras on most of the sets. Although the technology was popularized by “Star Wars,” it is being used in new ways for this film, in combination with computers that allow technicians to lock in camera movements in advance. So instead of the static fixed cameras of traditional stop-motion pieces where the puppets did all the moving, “Nightmare’s” cameras soar.

A stop-motion wizard who made his own “King Kong” at the age of 10, director of photography Pete Kozachik invented and made much of the equipment used to film “Nightmare.” After cornering the market on old Mitchell Standard cameras he designed mounts and computer hookups that would allow the technicians to film without disturbing the animators.

“Stop-motion has traditionally put the camera far from the puppet so there’s plenty of room and the puppet doesn’t have to be conscious of hitting marks. We did just the opposite thing. That’s a dramatic tool that the live-action crowd gets to use and we wanted it. Had to have it. Kind of jealous in a way,” he said, deadpan.


Though gruesome--there’s a happy family of corpses and a pleasant zombie who walks around with an ax in his skull--the puppets themselves are quite delicate in their construction. At almost 10 inches of articulated steel covered with foam and cloth, Jack pushes the envelope for thinness with his Fred Astaire-style grace. The villain, Oogie Boogie, on the other hand, is literally a sackful of mechanical insects who does a Cab Calloway-like dance in his black-lit inner sanctum. Jack has 400 different heads that are replaced each time he changes expression, but Oogie’s innards required 3,000 different mechanical bugs.

“I’d get shocked every week when the film would be sent to me. It would be like a burst of energy because it was so beautiful,” Burton says. “The animators did a brilliant job of taking a lot of hardships that people don’t understand in doing this kind of work. Besides the movements, the puppets’ designs are such”--he giggles, thinking about this--”that the characters don’t have eyeballs and most of the things that people traditionally use in animation to convey emotion. We’ve either decided to sew their eyes shut or remove them.”

Some are concerned parents will think the film is too scary for their young children. “I have a real thing about that,” Burton complains. “Maybe I was different from other kids, but I don’t think so. Like from day one, I was never scared of monster movies. People forget that kids are intelligent. The other thing is that (“Nightmare”) isn’t really scary, and thematically, this story is about perception. These characters are not bad at heart, they just look a certain way and things shouldn’t be judged by the way they look. That’s something I’ve resisted all my life.”

David Hoberman, the president of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division, calls the story “heartfelt.” But even he seems unsure about who, exactly, the film’s audience will be. “I’m hoping, and I think we’re going after that sort of 15-to-25 age group and then also a more sophisticated kind of upscale group,” he says. “But I think it’ll go down well below that, frankly. We’ve had screenings for everybody, and at a certain point--age 4, 5 and 6--some kids have been scared and yet some of them have loved it. (The audience has) been very difficult to ascertain.”

However it turns out at the box office, making the movie has been anything but a nightmare for Burton. “I was really glad it wasn’t made 10 years ago because I don’t think it would have been done that well. . . . Animation’s pretty specialized as it is, but this is even more so because it’s kind of a lost art, in a way. There are not that many people to do it, and there’s not that many good people who do it. So the timing was just right.

“It’s so weird in Hollywood,” Burton notes. “There’s always this gray area I can’t predict. What’s weird is that people think if you’re lucky enough to be successful that you can predict what’s successful. And the thing is, any movie I’ve ever worked on could have been the biggest bomb and up until the day it opens, you never know.”*