Nightmare Before Christmas: Revisiting (conclusion)

This is part 2 of "Revisiting an Old Bony Friend." Click here for Part 1.

More about the Design: (I'm such a geek for this film.)

Listening to the audio commentary on the film, director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik talk about what movies they watched for lighting reference, as well as overall feel for the film, and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the biggie mentioned. Watching old black & white film noir was also a must, as well as classic horror films of the 1930's and 40's. And with this being stop-motion, the classic 1933 film KING KONG was mentioned as being practically a requirement to watch at least once a year for anybody within that particular industry.

And the influences show. The black shadows are a deep, dark BLACK, and the sets come across as some sort of German Expressionistic-meets-Tim Burton-meets-classic-Frankenstein amalgam. The lighting is sparce, but effective and very personal, as each character has their own lighting effect.

One thing I noticed, too, about the composition of the shots, was that they really played around with the camera, which was unheard of for stop-motion at the time. You watch Rankin Bass Christmas specials from the 60's and you'll see that the camera is very static, if not stationary at all times. Here, Selick and Co. moved the camera with almost ballet-like moves (thanks to motion-control cameras where the camera moves are programmed into the computer - this process was developed in the 70's, starting with Star Wars). The camera swings with great fluidity around characters, swooping up and over sets, gliding gracefully through this fantastical environment, with nary a glitch or snag in the movement. The camera itself becomes a character.

They also placed characters in extreme set-ups, like placing one character very close to the camera, with another far in the back. (See Sally and Jack above.) Sometimes hands or heads may move towards the camera in extreme close-ups, giving a very dynamic feel to the scene. You forget that you are watching puppets on a man-made set. (Although Ava did say at one point, "They look like Play-Doh, Daddy.")

There are a lot of up-shots, too, where the camera is looking up at the characters. To achieve this effect, sometimes they used forced perspective in the backgrounds, where they "cheated" the look by making the tops of the buildings seem farther from the camera than they really are.

The Characters.

(I just love that guy shown above. He's one of my favorite characters in the movie. Who is he? Why, he's the Harlequin Demon, voiced by Greg Proops, he of "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" fame.)

Bony skeletons, patched-together rag dolls, vampires, evil scientists, werewolves, demons, ghouls, all somehow coexist in this fantastical Halloween Town, and they all somehow feel like real flesh-and-blood people - like the creepiest neighbors that you've ever had. And that is very important for the filmmakers to establish here - that these fabricated puppets with latex foam and clay actually act and feel like your closest neighbor. And these neighbors are of the sweet, misunderstood monsters kind, similar to the monsters of those old Hollywood horror films from the 30's and 40's. They don't mean any harm, just like to scare, that's all.

And this is where it gets good.

One of the strongest story arcs in this movie is with Sally's love towards Jack. I've hardly found a more intense relationhip in an animated movie, and the fact that the characters are not drawn speaks volumes about the skill and hard work done by the animators. Now, we've all experienced a secret crush towards someone, haven't we? But would you actually jump out of window for this person? Before she commits this act, we see Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) standing at her window, staring out at Jack's house. You can sense her yearning for her unrequited love, by her eyes and that certain tilt of the head. The animator for this scene did an excellent job in conveying this emotion, as Sally stands there, without a word. (Danny Elman's score adds excellent support to this scene as well.)

Once she jumps, there a macabre shot of Sally on the ground, broken in pieces. Quite a morbid visual, but since we know that she's a rag doll, Selick says that it was important for the camera to pull down rather quickly so we could see her eyes open and realize that she's okay. But that initial shot, of Sally broken apart, is a particularly strong image, as it is almost a literal interpretation of someone who experiences a crush and realizes that her love may not be reciprocated. We all go through personal moments in our lives where we "fall to pieces" over someone special, whether it be a simple crush or a whole 9-yards type of relationship.

The most intriguing character in NIGHTMARE is, without a doubt, Jack. From his opening woes about being tired of doing the "same old thing," to finding Christmas Town and getting a rush of excitement from that magical place, Jack Skellington is the one character who goes through the most emotional issues. I love it in the town meeting sequence where he tries to get to the "heart of the matter," as Selick describes, to explain Christmas to the townspeople. He wants them to feel the same sweet, warm emotions that he felt while in that special town, but, alas, they do not get it. And when he envisions himself as Santa, Selick says that "he doesn't have to understand it, he just has to do it." He wants to take over Christmas and do it better than Santa.

Well, we all know that it doesn't go as planned. Oh sure, Jack has the best intentions - he gets all the people into it with the decorations, the musicians, making the presents, going through all the right motions to provide the best Christmas ever. And what a great sequence that is, "Making Christmas," eh? Great gags of the Halloween Town inhabitants getting ready for the Big Holiday intercut with the busy-bee workers of Christmas Town. It's in the townspeople's nature to make those presents scary - they don't know any other way! Henry Selick said that Burton's original intention regarding the Halloween Town characters was that they are well-meaning, but misguided individuals. Much like the movie monsters of old.

But Jack is blind to the reactions of the "real" world to their special Christmas gifts. After he is shot down by the military as an "imposter," we see Jack draped across a graveyard statue in a cemetery, providing the film with the most poignant image. Here, he laments about his failure as the New Santa, that he just wanted to give them something great. And who doesn't have this desire for themselves? We all want to do our best in life, whether it be at work, at home, personal goals, or whatever. Here, Jack is bared and beaten and he's not used to such feelings. After all, in Halloween, he's the best, the king, and he always delivers. Here, he's been humbled and now open, he lets it all out, questioning himself, "What have I done?" I love this scene. It is my favorite of the film after all these years because of Jack's vulnerability and the ability to figure out what he did wrong and to get back out there and do better. What great pathos and turmoil for a "mere" cartoon character. I love his "moment of truth," as he realizes that after going through this fiasco, that he now can give it all his might for next year. It's all a part of the artistic process that no matter what you go through during the process, it will greatly impact the final outcome. It's all about learning from your mistakes, and to gain knowledge and to forge through any machinations of creativity, whether it be doubt or fear of failing, and then producing something that lays testament to your experience. Jack is now a "new" Jack, not at all bored with he being just the Pumpkin King, but filled with new ideas that will scare the pants off the people for next year. What a great invigorating testimony.

I hope you enjoyed enduring my long discourse on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It's been something that I've always wanted to write about and now hopefully you'll be able to watch the movie in a new, if not different, light. If you haven't seen the film recently, it's always worth revisiting an old bony friend.


  1. I too, love the Harlequin demon. He's such a unique and original character design. The fact that he has no jaw joint simultaneously intrigues and unsettles me. I referenced him for my animated short, "The Pot and The Kettle".

  2. Yes, I love how he's so super confident about his abilities at making hats: "I am a gen-i-ous!" But then Jack comes around and gives him some constructive criticism and an alternative to his Rat Hat. Ah, good times.

  3. ward~
    i had to search through some of your archives to find this post and i am glad i did. this is such an amazing review and intrepretation of the film. you have a brillant mind, i like how it works. i know that i will be reading this post over and over, it has so much information in it that i never knew and can't believe i never took notice of. It's nice to get an illustrators point of view. I thank you!