Watch This DVD: The Nightmare Before Christmas Special Edition

Wikipedia imageThe season of pumpkins and haunted houses is upon us and at my house that means an annual viewing of the Tim Burton classic The Nightmare Before Christmas.  

My original DVD, purshased a few years ago, was a moving casualty but that gave me an excuse to go out and buy the new Collectors Edition (Amazon, Netflix), which contains a pretty awesome audio commentary detailing the highly collaborative and iterative process used to create the film.  While not exactly invoking a well defined methodoligy like Agile, as we might use on a software product these days, Burton, director Henry Selick, and composer/’80s icon Danny Elfman working model had some interesting twists to it that anybody can learn from.

Tim Burton started his career as a front line animator for Disney during the early 80s.  It was at this time that he had the idea that ultimately became The Nightmare Before Christmas.  As a lowly animator, though, the idea of a holiday story mashup shot in the expensive stop motion style of the beloved Rankin/Bass holiday specials didn’t exactly resonate with the folks in power.  But a funny thing happens to you when you go on to direct money makers like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman: people listen to you.

And so the idea was revived in the early 90s, but without a script.  One thing Burton knew, though, was that he wanted it to be a musical in the same way that the Rankin/Bass stories were, so he turned to his frequent collaborator Elfman.  The story would be told through the music, so Burton wanted to start there before any other writing took place.

In the audio commentary, Elfman describes how the two would work:

  • Starting at the beginning, Burton, in a very animated and passionate way, would describe the story while frequently referring to the concept art he drew.
  • As the sole audience member for this performance, Elfman would find the genesis of a song in the presentation and at the end of a story segment would kick Burton out of the room.
  • Before he could lose his inspiration, Elfman wrote down the rough song components that popped into his head while hearing Burton’s rendition of the events.
  • After 2 or 3 days of refining, Elfman would invite Burton back to hear a rough cut of a song for that segment, which would get refined slightly, and the process would continue for the next segment of the film.
Elfman was an experienced enough song writer to know that he didn’t want his inspirational momentum ruined by hearing too much of the story at once.  Instead, he channeled his immiedate reactions into a potential song.  That allowed him to capture his creative energies in a way that just wouldn’t have worked had he been exposed to the entire story at once.

Meanhile, director Selick was overseeing the development of the sets and the puppets to be used during the stop action filming, again without a script.  Instead, he would get delivery of full songs with the final actor singing voices in them from Elfman so that character mouths could be synchronized correctly.  Occasionally, a production need would necessitate Elfman doing some rewriting and rerecording, so the cycle would iterate back to the songwriter again.

The best example of this can be found in the “Making Christmas” scene, where the Halloween town characters, used to a world where scaring people is the norm, are comically bad at creating Christmas presents like hats made out of fresh roadkill and toy bullet ridden toy ducks.  Selick felt the rediculousness of the scene would be heigthened if he could edit the segment so that the well intentioned but poorly executed efforts of the Halloween town crowd was juxtaposed against the more familiar preparations of North Pole elves by intercutting the two.  The orignal song was completely comprised of Halloweentown characters, though, and such an enhancement to the final product required reworking of the song that acompanied the sequence.

And so this dual phase iterative process, with different players pushing on and inspiring each other, continued throughout the making of the film.  The Nightmare Before Chirstmas went on to be a critical and box office (it has profited over $50 million to date) success with an annual following, puntuated by a seasonal makeover of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion (a ride-through of which is also part of the Collector’s Edition bonus features).


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