The Nightmare Before Christmas

How the ghosts, ghouls, and goblins of The Nightmare Before Christmas came alive

Contributed by
Oct 29, 2018

For boys and girls of every age who would like to see something strange, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the ultimate every-day-is-Halloween movie.

The movie explains that Halloween is the chief export of a creepy little village called Halloweentown, which is teeming with stop-motion life. The movie was a revelation for young audiences, with artwork that stands the test of time. In an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE, sculptors Shelley Daniels Levken and Greg Dykstra and model maker Jerome Ranft reveal some of the secrets behind what still makes the Pumpkin King's realm and his ultimate Santa fail so enchanting 25 years later.

"You just got this feeling that it was going to be something special something you needed to say yes to, and Nightmare was one of those kinds of films," Dykstra says.

Jack, Sally, Zero and the other denizens of Halloweentown and Christmastown emerged from Tim Burton's imagination and came to haunt the screen under the direction of Henry Selick, but many more hands were needed to breathe life into his vision of spook town. The puppets were skeletons of wire armatures that were then fleshed out in foam rubber and clay, while the bones of the town itself — its creaky houses, walking bathtubs, and the bed under which lurked The One Hiding Under Your Bed — were mostly crafted of steel.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Credit: Disney

"There's that sequence in the beginning of the movie with giant force perspective lanky looking bed, and it zooms in to the eyes and the teeth singing the song underneath. I built that bed," Ranft says. "That was just this big thing made out of steel and wood and epoxy, and then someone did the sheets and someone else did the final paint on it. It was, I guess, unusual."

Unusual is probably an understatement for a movie in which Santa Claus gets shoved down a chute as a potential snack for a walking, talking burlap sack filled with bugs. Ranft admits that one of his toughest challenges was making that appear like it was actually happening.

"You know when Lock, Shock, and Barrel shot Santa down the pipe of Oogie Boogie's lair and there's that bulge in the pipe that animates for maybe 4 seconds? That took me a month to do," he says. "That was the most difficult thing I had to do. I had to make those profiles, make them out of something that you could take on and off that pipe and have enough of them that changed shape so it actually created the animation as they filmed it."

But that wasn't the only kind of magic that made things move as they would in the human world. Sally's hair didn't blow around so effortlessly as it appears, either. Was there something in the wind?

"With Sally's hair, the hair was molded over lead sheets that had to be cut into strips," Dykstra says. "In some cases where the lead was cut, the sculpture and the lead were cut at the same time. When I did Sally's hair, that had to be blowing in the wind without showing the sides, so you wouldn't see the lead on the inside."

Zero's ghostly body was made of the same lead sheets, which makes sense since it was supposed to look like a sheet.

That wasn't the only thing that was deceptively breezy about Sally. Ever wonder why she wears those stockings? It isn't to go with her Bohemian ragdoll vibe.

"Sally's body was a little too heavy, and it couldn't be made light enough to handle the size ankles that were originally designed for it," Levken says. "The bigger the ankle is, the more surface area it has to grip and the bigger the screws can be so it can support itself on those feet, but Sally was just a little too much. We had to create stockings to put around her ankles so we could enlarge that ankle joint—otherwise, it would have been sticking out."

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Credit: Disney

Jack and Sally were simply meant to be because Levken remembers him having a similar problem. "Jack had tiny little feet and these tiny little wrists," he says. "The animators had trouble because when you'd bend his hand, the armature would pop out, and I think they had to wrap it in foam and paint it that way because the foam just didn't hold the armature."

Jack also had more faces than the Mayor. Every main character needed at least 15 separate heads for every expression and even more alternate faces, which is how Jack went from showing off this thing called Christmas to making the face that would one day be one of the most viral GIFs on the internet.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Credit: Disney

"There were in-betweens where you shifted between expression changes and you needed maybe three mouths to go from eeee to oooo," Levken explains. "Every head was different. Every movement of his head, every change in his eye sockets or his mouth was a different head, and they all had to flow seamlessly so it would look like he was talking."

Sally might have never bared her teeth at Oogie Boogie's trick-or-treat mafia, but she also needed a makeover every time her expression changed, which is why there were always so many disembodied heads around the studio. When dailies — or daily animation progressions — were shown, Levken had done such precise work on Jack and Sally that she was able to lip-read all their lines, which is why actually hearing them in the movie theater was so strange.

It wasn't just the faces that needed an unreal amount of attention. Dykstra, who sculpted the detail on Oogie Boogie, needed to think up a way to cover the bug-eating ghoul in a burlap texture that was actually believable.

"I quickly had to figure out how that would happen," he says, "and for that one I created a roller out of polymer clay. I just rolled out this cylinder shape and rolled it over real burlap so it would give that effect."

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Credit: Disney

The process took three weeks, but at least Dykstra knew exactly what he had to do. When he was handed the concept art for the Easter Bunny, which, before reaching its pink and fluffy final form, had been imagined by several different artists. Trying to find the connections between the drawings which could create a character was something of an egg hunt.

"None of them matched; it was more like the brainstorming you would do before you would figure out the final design," he says. "And in this case, we just needed it really quickly... I believe it was Henry Selick who came in and said, 'Sorry, this is what we have, and the design we want is in there somewhere', so I would just have to try to do it."

Scary enough, but some of the scariest times were when the lights went out, though not why you might think. Dying bulbs meant that the entire scene had to be re-shot from the beginning. Levken remembers animators eventually needing to get massages. You would too if you had to hold incredibly awkward positions for double the time because of all those unexpected reshoots.

"I remember a light went out and they had to start completely over because you couldn't replace that light," she says. "As lights age, they fade and their color changes, so when you put a new light in, there would be a pop and they couldn't do it. They'd have to start completely over. I can't imagine how terribly frustrating that was to an animator."

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Credit: Disney

Maybe the most terrifying part of making Nightmare was the risk of getting stabbed. Sort of. The gates for Halloweentown had to be sharp enough for all those grimacing pumpkins to land on them, but Ranft realized he might have made them too sharp when the sequence was animated.

"I remember making them so sharp that the animator actually cut his arm on them," he said. For a different notoriously heavy-handed animator, Ranft also had to test his creations by dropping them on the floor to be sure they were what he called "animator-proof".

These weren't just stick figures and dollhouses. Since Jack was 18 inches tall — more than your average Barbie doll — his house was at least eight times that. Actual creepy creatures could have easily lived in there.

The endless hours of work that went into making The Nightmare Before Christmas would pay off in an unexpected way. The film, which received mixed reviews upon its 1993 release, gradually evolved into something of a cult phenomenon that found later generations unearthing the magic that left so many '90s kids spellbound, even if some critics called it one of that year's worst films.

Never mind those reviews — you can now see Jack Skellington's face on everything from mugs to slippers to Funkos and, of course, Spiral Hill snowglobes.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Credit: Disney

"However old I get, it will always be cool," Levken says. "I'll be long dead and it will still be cool!"

Everyone hail to the pumpkin song.

Make Your Inbox Important

Get our newsletter and you’ll be delivered the most interesting stories, videos and interviews weekly.

Sign-up breaker
Sign out: