‘What’s This?’: 30 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ on Its 30th Anniversary
The story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who lives for holidays and show tunes, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas does a double-tightrope walk, trying to be both a Halloween and a Christmas movie and balancing scares with comedy. It’s a classic and one of Burton’s finest, even though he didn’t direct it and was hardly ever on set. Let’s unwrap some
treats presents trivia on the classic’s 30th anniversary...
A Musical First
“The great thing about the experience of creating Nightmare is neither of us had any idea how you create a musical,” the film’s composer and Jack’s singing voice, Danny Elfman, told Time. “Most animated musicals of that era — this era, really — the songs feel like they come from pop or Broadway. I felt very strongly, and Tim agreed, that these songs should try to find a kind of timeless place that’s not contemporary, even though I knew critics would skewer me for it.”
“My influences were going from Kurt Weill to Gilbert and Sullivan to early Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Elfman continued. “(Burton) would come over and tell me a little bit of the story and show me some drawings, and I’d go write a song, and three days later, he’d listen. We were completely on our own, and there wasn’t a script yet, so we just started telling the story in songs. We were feeling our way through it without knowing what we were doing, and of course, that always makes for the best experiences.”
Why Burton Didn’t Direct the Movie
Burton, who came up with the premise while still working at Disney, “realized he didn’t want to direct Nightmare because the stop-motion would be too slow and painful for him,” director Henry Selick explained in an interview with Cartoon Brew. Burton, who worked with Selick at Disney, decided the pair were a good fit and chose to produce the film instead.
Putting the Comedy in Horror
In the same interview, Selick explained treading carefully to make the film accessible to their younger target audience. “There’s a scene where Jack’s love interest Sally tires of being holed up with the evil scientists; she wants out,” Selick said. “The evil scientist grabs her by the arm, and she pulls away until the arm actually tears off. Well, that could have been horrific. But instead of flesh and blood inside her, I had her stuffed with leaves, and then as she runs away, we see her arm being held by the scientist waving goodbye to her, which ends up being pretty funny.”
The Earlier (And Scarier) Version of the Clown
Instead of a black hole when he strips off his own face, that clown was going to have “a horrible bloody mess” staring back at us. “While I realized I might like this, it didn’t fit the tone,” Selick admitted. “So we just made it a black hollow. It’s about pulling punches and winking — death in this world is not really possible.”
Burton, who had only done two short films at Disney before Nightmare (the stop-motion horror Vincent and his 1984 live-action short Frankenweenie), came up with the pitch for Jack and Halloween Town after being inspired by holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
It Came From a Nightmare
“Well, I was hallucinating,” Burton said about the night he created Jack Skellington and his crew. “I had a 108-temperature fever that night. I think that’s where you get your best ideas, the ones that kind of come out of your subconscious. They always have more power that way.”
A Television Special
Burton originally pitched Nightmare as a television special to Disney. However, their aesthetics didn’t match up, and the project was shelved until he found success with Batman and Beetlejuice, prompting the mouse house to cash in.
The Many Heads of Jack Skellington
The King of Halloween Town 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!”
Disney’s Almost CGI Sequel
In 2002, Disney started toying with the idea of a new installment of their money-maker but wanted to ditch stop-motion for computer animation. Burton convinced them to abandon the project. “I was always very protective of (the movie), not to do sequels or things of that kind,” Burton told MTV. “You know, Jack visits Thanksgiving world or other kinds of things just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it because it’s a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it.”
There Is a Sequel, However
The 2004 video game The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge is regarded as the movie’s sequel.
Oh, and There’ s Another Sequel, Too…
In February 2021, Disney Publishing announced a sequel to the film in the form of a young adult novel titled Long Live the Pumpkin Queen. The book has Sally as the main character in events following the film.
Songs First, Scenes Later
“The truth is, we blindly started making the film with ‘What’s This?’ as the first song and no finished script,” Selick said via Cartoon Brew. “That meant the songs were like cornerstones to build the film around. And then screenwriter Caroline Thompson was brought in to fill the spaces of story between the songs.”
A DOP from Lucasfilms
Selick hired director of photography Pete Kozachik to work on Nightmare. Kozachik was working for Lucasfilms’ visual effects house, Industrial Light & Magic, at the time and, per A.Frame, he “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.”
So Many Books
The film has spawned a vast collection of books to consume. There’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Party Cookbook, a Pop-Up Book and Advent Calendar and a behind-the-scenes art book. Others include comic books, a graphic novel and a Disney Animated Classics novel, along with its follow-up. There’s even a manga adaptation by TOKYOPOP.
It was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
People Didn’t Know What to Do with It at First
Elfman recalls, following a peculiar preview screening, “a producer saying afterward, ‘Well, kids hate it.’ Then I did a junket, and every person would ask me, ‘So if this isn’t for kids, who is this for?’ I’d say, ‘If your kids aren’t afraid of Halloween, they won’t be afraid of Nightmare.’ It came and went pretty quickly and didn’t do very well. Nobody understood what it was or how to market it. I put so much into this project, including so much of my own personality, that it really hurt. At the time, I was really depressed after it came out. I put so much into it, and it was gone.”
A Hit on VHS
As with several films in the pre-digital age, The Nightmare Before Christmas blew up on home video, shaping it into the cult film it is today.
Relating to Jack Skellington
“When I wrote those songs with Tim, I felt like I was writing from my own point-of-view,” Elfman told Time. “I really related to Jack. He was completely Tim’s creation, but the personality as I was writing the songs I totally connected to. Weirdly, that’s how I felt about my band. When you’re the leader of a band, you’re like the king of a tiny world. I really longed to get out and didn’t know how. So when I was writing about Jack and Halloween Town, in a way, I was kind of writing about myself.”
The Most Challenging Scene
“Creatively, this was one of the hardest to nail down,” Selick said about the climactic battle between Jack and Oogie Boogie. “We were sending storyboards to Tim — by fax back then, no internet! He kept rejecting everything, and we were right up against the deadline. I realized we finally had to start on the animation. We had some technical challenges, too, because in that scene, it’s like a gambling den, and we had these ‘one-armed bandits’ that needed special mechanics. We also had to build a special Jack with a flexible body to dodge some of the weapons used against him.”
Selick added that they used new technology to create Oogie Boogie’s inner body wriggling with bugs. “We were shooting on film, but we had a video tap on the camera, and someone had invented this ‘frame-grabber’ device that could grab two images, and you could flip a switch between two frames of grabbed image and live image,” the director explained. “So you could look at three different things. It was a lifesaver on many occasions. Prior to that, if you were in the middle of a sequence and a character fell over, you pretty much had to start over or do a cut-away because you could never line up the character close enough to where he had been before, but with the frame grabbers, we could line it up and keep going. That helped particularly with these bugs because you’d have this chart, and you could see which direction you had animated, say, bug number 25, so that there was the right sense of rhyme or reason to the overall movement. They were still a real nightmare — I probably have a bag of those Oogie Boogie bugs somewhere in my house.”
The Oogie Boogie Debate
Both Elfman and screenwriter Caroline Thompson were worried that the character of Oogie Boogie would be regarded as racist. “First of all, he looks like a Ku Klux Klansman,” Thompson explained. “Secondly, ‘Oogie Boogie’ is an old, Southern, derogatory phrase for an African-American, and I’m from Maryland, which is just on the cusp of the South, so I’m hyper-aware of that and sensitive to it.” Thompson said she “flipped out” about the character and confronted Burton, who, according to her, said that she was being oversensitive.
Selick, on the other hand, defended the character, explaining, “Ken Page, the Broadway star who happens to be Black, was hired to do the voice, and after seeing some of the old Betty Boop cartoons where they’d use Cab Calloway to voice it, I just thought it was more of a New Orleans thing. It didn’t occur to me that it was racist.”
Page on Being Cast to Play Oogie Boogie
“At first, the filmmakers were looking for someone to just sing ‘Oogie Boogie’s Song,’ and they wanted something like a Cab Calloway-esque, Fats Waller-esque kind of vocalist,” Page remembers. “Somebody who could characterize the vocal. So my lawyer said to Danny Elfman, ‘I know the person for you — there’s nobody else that fits that description other than Ken Page. He’s done these things and embodied many critters.’”
When Elfman and Selick asked Page for his take on the character, he said he would go for “somewhere between Bert Lahr and the voice of the demon in The Exorcist, Mercedes McCambridge. Danny and Henry kind of looked at me and went, ‘Wow — that’s wild.’ So, that was the take I gave them, and said, ‘If I go too far in either direction, you can stop me.’ So, along with the Cab Calloway and Fats Waller stuff for the singing, that’s how we came up with Oogie Boogie.”
It Was Burton’s Third Christmas Movie
More specifically, it was Burton’s third consecutive film that featured a Christmas setting following Beetlejuice and Batman Returns.
Of course, besides the hallucinations and the Christmas movies floating around in his head, Burton was also inspired by the popular holiday rhyme “The Night Before Christmas.” He wrote a parody riff on it, which became the movie. Hear the late, great Christopher Lee read Burton’s poem below.
Some German Expressionism, Some Dr. Seuss
“When we reach Halloween Town, it’s entirely German Expressionism,” Selick said on the DVD’s audio commentary. “When Jack enters Christmas Town, it’s an outrageous Dr. Seuss-esque setpiece. Finally, when Jack is delivering presents in the Real World, everything is plain, simple and perfectly aligned.”
Too Many or Too Few?
At first, Selick was worried that they had way too many songs in the movie. “I complained to Tim that I thought we were going to lose the audience with 10 or 11 songs,” Selick recalled during the Cartoon Brew interview. “He said, ‘Let’s just make them and cut one if we have to.’ When we finished the movie, he said, ‘I think you’re right, there’s too many,’ and I fought like crazy and said, ‘We’re not cutting anything! They’re great!’ For some people, initially, it was too many songs, but over time they’re such an important part of the movie I couldn’t bear to have lost any of them.”
Burton Was Hardly Around During Filming
During an interview with Sight and Sound in 1994, Selick explained, “I don’t want to take away from Tim, but he was not in San Francisco when we made it. He came up five times over two years and spent no more than eight or ten days in total.” Burton, at the time, was in pre-production with Ed Wood and still filming Batman Returns.
Patrick Stewart Cameo
Captain Picard narrates the prologue on the movie’s soundtrack.
Selick Is All for a Prequel
While Burton has stated that he doesn’t feel like messing with the original and expanding on anything, Selick seems more open to another entry in the Nightmare universe. “There might be a more interesting story there about how Jack became the King of Halloween Town,” he recently quipped.
The Emoji Adaptation
In 2016, Disney released an adaptation titled The Nightmare Before Christmas As Told By Emoji on its YouTube channel.