This week, The Nightmare Before Christmas turns 27 years old. The beloved film has withstood the test through which time runs all movies, its stop-motion animation and iconic, infectious songs holding up as well today as they did almost three decades ago. The success of the movie was created by an entire team of hardworking people, but the genius of it is down to three men: Producer Tim Burton, who supplied the initial idea and was the creative genius behind it, composer Danny Elfman, whose iconic soundtrack is inextricable from the narrative itself, and director Henry Selick, whose technical wizardry took Burton’s theoretical ideas and made them work in reality.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is back in theaters this Thursday for a limited time to celebrate the Halloween season. In honor of its big-screen return and its anniversary, here are some fun facts and fascinating trivia about one of the most-loved movies of all time.
1. It invented brand-new filming techniques still used today.
When The Nightmare Before Christmas was being made, no stop-motion feature film on that scale had ever been tried before so it required director Henry Selick and his team to get creative and invent completely new technology and methods of filming. This included setting up “light alarms” which alerted them with a lightbulb blew so complex shots wouldn’t be ruined if a bulb burned out and went unnoticed. Their biggest breakthrough was inventing “frame-grabbers” which allowed them to store two digital frames simultaneously, which saved them enormous amounts of time when a puppet broke and had to be reset.
2. They used camerawork tricks first used by Star Wars: A New Hope.
Nightmare is cinematic in a way no stop-motion movie had ever been before, with open shots that swirled, dipped, dove, and moved around the town in tracking shots that had to that point only been seen in live-action movies. As it turns out, the production borrowed tools first invented by the team on Star Wars, but they had the idea to repurpose the motion-control equipment for stop-motion, enabling the cameras to be freed up rather than locked in place.
3. All three locations were each modeled on distinctly different, specific design styles.
- Halloween Town – German Expressionism: spooky feel, spiky skyline, done in blacks, oranges, greens and grays, and 2D textures hand-painted right onto the sets
- Christmas Town – Doctor Seuss: fanciful buildings like gingerbread houses, soft landscapes, Christmas colors and warm, friendly lighting
- Real World – Muted Reality: boxy, repetitive houses, everything having a slightly flattened look, even people, colors were muted and pastels
4. The entire film was a challenge but three scenes were harder to shoot than others for different reasons.
- Shot where Jack’s hand is reaching for the knob to Christmas Town – the entire forest had to be reflected in a surround image on the doorknob
- Jack setting out on Christmas Eve in his sleigh – as every resident of Halloween Town was in that scene to see Jack off, dozens of trapdoors had to be cut in the set to give animators access to the puppets
- The character of Oogie Boogie – his bulky shape and huge size made him cumbersome to move, and the scene where he unravels and drops thousands of individual bugs was a nightmare to animate
5. It took 100 people three years to finish the film.
Originally, Disney pushed for the film to be completed in 1992 but Selick insisted they needed an extra year to finish it. He was right. For each second of film, 12 different stop-motion moves had to be set up and shot.
6. Disney almost did a sequel in 2001.
Walt Disney Studios wanted to do a sequel to Nightmare in 2001, with one giant change: Making it CG instead of stop-motion. Luckily, Tim Burton talked them out of this idea. In general, neither he nor Selick have interest in doing a sequel as they feel the original stands on its own.
7. The legendary Vincent Price almost voiced Santa Claus.
Legendary horror maestro and actor Vincent Price was originally cast to voice Santa Claus. But Price’s health began to fail after the death of his wife and by the time he recorded his lines, his voice was so frail and weak his audio recordings were unusable. Edward Ivory was cast instead and Vincent Price died just four days before The Nightmare Before Christmas had its wide release.
8. It was based on a 3-page poem Tim Burton wrote in the 1980s.
When he was an animator working for Disney in the 1980s, Tim Burton wrote a three-page poem titled “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” He was inspired by seeing a Halloween display in a store window being taken down and replaced with a Christmas display; the combination of the Christmas and Halloween decorations fired up his imagination.
9. There’s an Oingo Boingo Easter egg in the lyrics.
Those young enough to only know Danny Elfman as a movie composer may not know that Elfman actually got his start fronting ’80s New Wave band Oingo Boingo. They weren’t just one-hit wonders, either. Oingo Boingo had a number of hits including “Weird Science,” “Only a Lad,” and my personal favorite, “Dead Man’s Party,” with their songs also appearing in over a dozen soundtracks to classic 80s movies including Sixteen Candles, Ghostbusters II, Weird Science and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among others. A cheeky nod to Oingo Boingo is in the lyrics to “This is Halloween”: The line “tender lumplings everywhere…” is a reference to Oingo Boingo’s song “Tender Lumplings.”
10. There are a total of seven holiday doors in the enchanted forest.
Moving clockwise, those doors are:
- Halloween – a pumpkin
- Christmas – a Christmas tree
- Thanksgiving – a turkey
- Easter – an Easter egg
- St. Patrick’s Day – a four-leafed clover
- Valentine’s Day – a red heart
- Independence Day – red, white and blue firework
11. Danny Elfman not only composed but also provided Jack Skellington’s singing voice.
Chris Sarandon was cast as Jack Skellington’s speaking voice, but was open about having a poor singing voice. So Danny Elfman signed on to also sing Jack’s parts, with Sarandon slightly modifying his speaking voice so that it more believably matched Elfman’s singing.
12. It was the first-ever stop-motion animation movie to get a PG rating by the MPAA.
Normally being extremely family-friendly affairs, stop-motion movies prior to Nightmare had always gotten a G rating. But Nightmare Before Christmas was rated PG for its slightly scary images. It was only the second movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios to get a PG rating, the first being 1985’s The Black Cauldron – for which, coincidentally, Tim Burton worked on concept artwork.
13. A total of 109,440 frames were taken.
At the height of production, Selick’s team consisted of over 120 people with a whopping 20 different sound stages being used simultaneously to complete the film.
14. The toys given to human children are all references from previous Tim Burton movies.
- The snake – the sandworm from Beetlejuice
- The shrunken head – the man with the shrunken head in the afterlife waiting room in Beetlejuice
- The vampire cat – Shreck department store mascot in Batman Returns
- The fanged duck – resembles a vehicle driven by the Penguin in Batman Returns
15. There are only three adult human faces shown in the movie.
Only three adults are fully shown: Santa Claus, a police officer and a mother reading a book to the elves in Christmas Town. All the other human adults are shown from the neck down.
With The Nightmare Before Christmas back in theaters for a limited time, now’s your chance to see it for the first time or to relive the magic. Get tickets to The Nightmare Before Christmas.