The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Sellick and based on the vision of Tim Burton, is truly one of the most beloved films in recent history. With a style all its own and characters recognizable all to folks all over the world, it’s an understatement to call the feature iconic, as well as innovative. It’s fit for any time of year, and why we’re showing it at The Frida yet again– it’ll be a particularly special one as our first drive-in screening of the film, as well as the spooky occurrence of a full moon on October 31st.
Personally, Nightmare was the spark that ignited a long-fueled blaze of admiration for animation– stop-motion in particular– and began a spiral into all (well, most) things Burton. A chronic stan since my age was still a single digit, I know very well that there’s a myriad of mind-blowing, entertaining facts and stories surrounding the film’s production. You’ll have no trouble finding listicles or other resources breaking down Nightmare by the numbers, or videos sharing the many Easter Eggs placed in the movie itself– heck, I even talked a bit about the project’s many years in limbo and poem origins in a previous blog.
While this is all awesome to know and prime stuff I’d happily gush about to anyone who’d listen, there’s something not discussed nearly enough, if at all: the deleted scenes, alternate endings, and overall “lost” lore that lives beyond the canon in the special features of DVDs or special edition anniversary soundtracks.
Here are just a few of the many, many astounding facts to get the uninitiated caught up on this absolute marvel:
- The film took three years to make, with a full week needed to complete about one minute of the movie. The final runtime is a modest 76 minutes, comprised of about 103, 440 frames in total. There are several fully-animated segments which were “cut for time” or other reasons.
- This was accomplished by filming multiple sequences at the same time, utilizing 19 sound stages, 230 sets, and 8 camera crews. However, of the 100+ individual crew members working on the film, only 13 of them were the animators tasked with physically moving each puppet 24 times for every second of animation.
- Every puppet is hand-sculpted, assembled, detailed, and dressed. There are about 60 characters total, with 3-4 duplicates of each.
- Since it was shot on actual film and technology being limited, animators could only see whether a frame was incorrect upon receiving the portion back from processing. If even a single frame was out of place, the entire scene or sequence had to be redone.
- Animating began before the script was finalized, beginning with the musical sequences since the songs were finished before the story anyway. Danny Elfman accomplished this by talking with Tim Burton and having him explain scenes and dictating ideas, even drawing visual references; from this, Elfman would begin writing they song over a couple days before bringing it to Burton, and making edits until satisfied. Caroline Thompson’s screenplay is the means by which these centerpieces were seamlessly brought together.
It’s this type of dedication, labor, and attention to detail that makes for animation masterpieces. Like any creative process however, there are plenty of bumps and formative challenges along the way, with various iterations that change from pitch to finished product. More than anything, The Nightmare Before Christmas maintains a sort of purity, leaving fans’ minds to wander, theorize, and expand to get another taste of the magic. It’s rare for a film to have both a saturated personality and the perfect amount of mystery for its world to be wondrous as well as grand. The gift that keeps on giving even after a quarter of a century, here are some hidden gems from Sellick’s titan of a film.
- Extended Narration
Those who own the soundtrack to Nightmare have likely heard the extended version of the opening narration played during the introduction to the holiday doors:
‘Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems
In a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.
For the story that you are about to be told
Took place with the holiday worlds of old.
Now, you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from.
If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.”
Not only is the soundtrack version performed by Sir Patrick Stewart, but it adds a little more world-building through rhyme, and establishes that the events of the film have already occurred in whatever world the speaker inhabits.
“For holidays are the result of much fuss
And hard work for the worlds that create them for us.
Well, you see now, quite simply that’s all that they do–
Making one unique holiday, especially for you.
But once, a calamity ever so great occurred
When two holidays met by mistake.”
While not strictly necessary, the full poem is more satisfying from a cadence perspective thanks to the repetition of the rhyme scheme, but it’s read quickly enough that it doesn’t drag on too long. It also really gets that child-like wonder in just enough before the ghosts and ghouls steal the show for a bit.
2. A Different Portal Into Halloweentown
The storybook-style narration provided by Ed Ivory ushers viewers into a mysterious fairy-tale land where holidays originate from their very own worlds. “You’ve probably wondered where holidays come from,” the voice says, “if you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun”. The land of Halloween swallows us up, and shows off exactly what we’ve been missing with the unforgettable “This Is Halloween”– when you go off with a bang like that, it’s hard not to be
completely swept up in the enthusiasm of the setting.
So can you imagine a version of /Nightmare/ that doesn’t simply dive right into the Elfman romp that is the film’s soundtrack? We have the workprint of an alternate opening sequence that would’ve given the film a very different tone.
It’s no secret that one of Nightmare was inspired by previous iconic Christmas films, with Burton describing Jack Skellington’s story as “The Grinch in reverse”, and the initial goal of short poem’s screen adaptation to follow the format of Ranken/Bass’ quintessential stop-motion television specials of the 60s and 70s.
Like the newspaper headlines and snow-swept credits of 1964’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, these boards focus on a paper calendar with pages flying off to display dates and illustrations of different holidays before landing on the Jack-O-Lantern-marked 31st of October. Upon disappearing into the darkness of its eyes, we’re met with stop-motion candy corn coming together to form the title and credits before dropping in on Halloweentown. Though this version certainly evokes Rudolph’s own opening featuring presents and ornaments to spell out the crew members’ names, it’s not nearly as immersive or intense. Perhaps it would have worked as end credits decoration, though.
3. The Many Deaths of Oogie Boogie
Alright, so this is where things get really wild– understandably so considering the secondary importance of plot points in the early stages. There were plenty of ideas throughout the writing and storyboarding process surrounding the antagonist’s defeat.
As this video kindly compiles, storyboards show a longer confrontation between Jack and Oogie, whose sack separates from his internal bugs– which quickly form a flying swarm, from which Jack has to run. Meanwhile, Oogie lies as a pile of fabric and laughs. Another version has the two facing off with maces, and yet another has the very anti-climactic conclusion of Boogie tripping into the hot vat.
By far the most challenging plot concept is one wherein Sally’s creator, Dr. Finkelstein, was Oogie Boogie all along! In typical Scooby-Doo fashion, he’s unmasked and confronted by the main lead.
He spills his dastardly plot and motivations, before making a getaway thanks to his servant Igor.
What could possibly be the reason Finkelstein nearly destroyed two holidays, and attempted to murder Santa and his own creation?
Well, he’s angry that Sally isn’t the subservient and dedicated creature he intended her to be, fed up with her continuous successful escapes. Definitely petty and likely bitter that she’s obviously much more intelligent than him, Finklestein cites her interest in Jack as the reason for her disobedience, declaring the Boogie persona was a facade to “teach her a lesson she’d never forget”.
Without a doubt, the best part of this animatic is Finkelstein exclaiming the following: “But she loves YOU Jack, you oblivious twit!”
He speaks the truth. Jack Skellington is overzealous and self-centered with a one-track mind, and clearly knows how to woo the townspeople, yet not take a hint. I’m glad he got called out for it, and wish it still somehow made it into the movie. The facial expressions are also very funny.
This ending obviously has some pretty deep flaws in the storyline, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. When did Finkelstein create Oogie? He’s in the opening of This is Halloween, and has a reputation around town, his own lair, etc… Did he plan this facade for many years beforehand? Did he somehow plan all the events of the movie, without directly causing any of them? How would Sally learn her lesson if she was melted into a vat of snake and spider stew?
It’s a hot mess and downright goofy– it really makes you appreciate just how perfect the final film’s tone is between humor and horror.
4. Oogie Boogie’s Shadow Dance
By far the sequence which I genuinely mourn is only a few seconds from the antagonist’s big number– which is exactly why I can’t believe it was cut when it was already fully animated!
Once again only featured on the soundtrack version of the songs, Oogie Boogie’s song contains a 16-second long instrumental bridge. Though the whole song is quite obviously jazz-based, this segment breaks it down with some sinful brass, while Oogie laughs indulgently. It still catches me off guard when watching the actual film to not have this portion in the song, because you just can’t help but get down right before the prolonged “Oh” that ushers in the song’s second half. You can watch a fan-edited version of the full song, complete with unused boards and animation here.
The visual aspect of these 16 seconds is a traditionally (2D) animated silhouette of Oogie Boogie dancing, vibing, and very obviously relishing his wickedness. It’s gorgeous and smooth, obviously, like all the inserted hand-drawn elements of the film (ghosts, sometimes Zero). But what’s so great about it is the extension of Oogie Boogie’s character, by referencing even darker, more morbid animation from the early half of the century.
Cab Calloway, the famed African American pioneer in the fields of music, dance, and showmanship, has been immortalized in animation for nearly a century. His music was the basis for several of Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons in the 1930s, and his dancing rotoscoped (traced over) to form some of the most important sequences in animation history. Oogie’s shadow dance directly draws influence from one short in particular, “Minnie the Moocher” from 1932, which similarly features skeleton backup singers, with additional death by drinking and electric chair– images that weren’t uncommon for animation of the time, and which Disney actually helped go out of fashion. It’s a brilliant, subtle way to show the more sinister activities Oogie Boogie likely had fun with besides gambling, but which wouldn’t get past censors (though midevil torture devices seem to be just fine).
Truly a beautiful tribute to the spooky, playfully morbid origins of animation which the Nightmare Before Christmas builds upon and revitalizes for new generations.
(Fun fact: Cab Calloway’s performances and animated dance moves continue to influence pop culture into the late 2010s and beyond, from award-winning Cartoon Network series to best-selling video games.)
5. Outro Epilogue
As you can see in the lovely illustrated accompaniment to the epilogue, the film was to end in rhyme just as it began. But, rather than an omniscient voice belonging to no one in particular as might be perceived, the poem confirms that the one telling the audience the story is none other than Santa Claus himself, reflecting on a visit to Halloweentown years after the events of the film. This makes sense given that the film’s narrator is indeed the same voice actor as Santa– Ed Ivory.
In this track, Santa mentions that after he saved Christmas from Jack’s antics that year, “each holiday now knew the other one’s name” as a result. Jack spurred an exchange of cultures that supposedly lives on, and likely makes for some interesting mash-ups.
Santa Claus doesn’t have much screen time in the film, and he’s rightfully pissed for having his holiday hi-jacked by a bag of bones. In the end though, we see the man in red doesn’t hold a grudge and is maybe a bit more forgiving than he should be so quickly. Regardless, we see him bring Christmas to the residents of Halloweentown, and shares that he’s “still quite fond of that skeleton man”– so much so, he takes a visit.
“So, many years later, I thought I’d drop in
And there was old Jack, still looking quite thin”
For fans of Jack and Sally (the ultimate goth-emo couple), the OTP-feels intensified while deviantART OCs flourished upon revealing that the undead couple started a family of their own.
“With four or five skeleton children at hand
Playing strange little tunes in their xylophone band”
Whether they adopted, performed some sort of necromancy, or simply reproduced via good old cartoon logic, it’s an adorable visual. The outro goes on with such sincerity and a relatable, nostalgic sentimentality that older listeners can greatly appreciate. Every time I hear that final line, my heartstrings are thoroughly tugged at, and I know I can’t be the only one. It’s lovely, I can’t possibly paraphrase it.
“And I asked old Jack, “Do you remember the night
When the sky was so dark and the moon shone so bright?
When a million small children pretending to sleep
Nearly didn’t have Christmas at all, so to speak?
And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back
To that long, fateful night, now, think carefully, Jack
Would you do the whole thing all over again
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?”
And he smiled, like the old Pumpkin King that I knew
Then turned and asked softly to me: “Wouldn’t you?”
Is that not so much sweeter than it has any right to be, and the perfect end to the fairy tale, epic opereta that is The Nightmare Before Christmas?
Now, while there are dozens more scenes and treats to be found and discussed, I’m going to take a note from the film and leave a little left for the audience to figure out on their own.
After all, prime Nightmare season for those keeping it on a schedule has only just begun! With a year scarier than anyone could’ve predicted, why not stretch out the charming, good-natured frights as much as you’d like? It’s certainly one of my ultimate comfort movies, regardless of the month.
Have a very merry Halloween, and dig through your old DVDs and Blu-Rays! You never know what awesome features you can revisit that will breathe new life into an old favorite.