21 Things You Didn't Know About The Nightmare Before Christmas

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

Christmas is a time for donning festive garb, singing holiday songs, festooning your home in decorations, and giving thoughtful gifts. Of course, all those tasks turn out a bit more twisted when assigned to the denizens of Halloween Town. The Nightmare Before Christmas, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago, mixes light and dark with jolly and macabre with great success. Even if this Halloween/Christmas movie mash-up movie is part of your regular holiday tradition, we'd roll Oogie Boogie's dice that you don't know all of these secrets from behind the scenes.

1. TIM BURTON DID NOT DIRECT THE MOVIE.

It is a common misconception spurred by the film's alternate title: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton was busy with Batman Returns and handed this hefty responsibility to his old Disney Animation colleague Henry Selick, who made his feature directorial debut here. Burton's name goes above the title for serving as producer, creating the story, and coming up with the look and the characters for The Nightmare Before Christmas. It probably doesn't hurt that his name was much bigger than Selick's at the time, thanks to the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman.

2. JACK SKELLINGTON RESURFACED IN HENRY SELICK'S LATER FILMS.

1996 saw the release of Selick's follow-up, a stop-motion/live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. It also saw the resurrection of The Nightmare Before Christmas's bare bones protagonist, who appears in one spooky scene as a skeletal pirate captain. He's much harder to spot in Selick's 2009 translation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, but if you look closely as the Other Mother makes breakfast, you'll see Jack's smiling skull hidden in the yolk of a cracked egg.

3. THE PLOT WAS INSPIRED BY THE RECURRING COLLISION OF HOLIDAY STORE DECORATIONS.

In the film's DVD commentary, Burton explains that his childhood in ever-sunny Burbank, California was not marked by seasonal changes, so holiday decorations were an especially important factor in the year's progression. When it came to fall and winter, there was a melding of Halloween and Christmas in stores eager to make the most of both shopping seasons. This, he claimed, planted the seed for his tale of the king of Halloween intruding on Christmas.

4. A BURTON POEM PREDATED THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

While Burton was working as an animator at Disney on productions like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, he began toying with cartoon projects of his own. This eventually led to animated shorts like "Vincent," as well as the penning of a poem called "The Nightmare Before Christmas." A sort of parody of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas"), this poem focused on Jack Skellington's inescapable ennui and featured his ghost dog Zero as well as Santa.

5. RANKIN/BASS WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR THE STOP-MOTION APPROACH.


Walt Disney Pictures

In the same DVD commentary, Burton admits the animated Christmas specials from Rankin/Bass Productions were hugely influential.

6. BURTON ORIGINALLY IMAGINED THE FILM AS A TELEVISION SPECIAL.

Like Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, Burton envisioned his take on Christmas could play well on television annually. This turned out to be true, but in a way he had not expected. He initially pitched the animated effort to TV studios. When that failed, he tried book publishers. No one bit until he pitched it as a full-length feature film. On the commentary track, Burton estimates that roughly 20 years passed between the project's earliest inception and its theatrical debut on October 29, 1993.

7. RONALD SEARLE AND EDWARD GOREY WERE ALSO INFLUENTIAL.

In a behind-the-scenes video about The Nightmare Before Christmas's backbreaking creation, a narrator notes that the production design team took a page from the pen and ink drawings of these two memorable artists, aiming to create in the physical set designs the kinds of cross-hatching and textures found within their works. Selick explains that they'd smear sets in plaster or clay, then scratch lines into this material "to give it that sort of etched texture or feel to make it look like a living illustration."

8. SHOOTING BEGAN BEFORE THE SCRIPT WAS COMPLETED.

Stop-motion demands a great deal of time, so when Danny Elfman had mastered most of the film's songs, Selick plus a team of 13 specially trained animators and an army of prop makers, set builders, and camera operators got to work without a final screenplay. Animators began by crafting Jack's big moment of discovery with "What's This?" Shooting 24 frames per second meant the animators had to create unique motions for 110,000 frames total. One minute of the movie took about a week to shoot, and The Nightmare Before Christmas took 3 years to complete.

9. SELICK IS RESPONSIBLE FOR JACK'S SIGNATURE SUIT.

In Burton's original sketches, Jack was dressed all in black. It is revealed in the film's commentary track that it was director Selick who gave Jack a marvelous makeover that added white stripes to his slim-fit suit. More than a smart sartorial choice, the addition of the pinstripes was needed to help Jack pop. In early camera tests, it became a major concern when Jack's flat black suit blended in to the dark backdrops of Halloween Town.

10. DISNEY FOUGHT FOR JACK TO HAVE EYES.

Because of the dark and deeply weird nature of Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, Walt Disney Studios decided it was too off-brand to be released under their banner. So the film was made through their branch Touchstone Pictures. But this didn't keep Disney from dropping some serious studio notes, including the insistence that Jack Skellington's empty sockets be filled with a pair of friendly eyes. A common guideline in animation and puppet-creation is that eyes are crucial to having an audience connect to a character, but Selick and Burton wouldn't budge, and ultimately proved their anti-hero didn't need oculars to connect.

11. THE MOST DIFFICULT SHOT WAS OPENING A DOOR.


Walt Disney Pictures

Because of the filmmakers' dedication to be as true to shooting like live-action as possible, one Nightmare Before Christmas shot proved especially challenging. When Jack discovers the part of the forest with pathways to other holiday worlds, he looks longingly at the Christmas tree door. A close-up of its shiny golden knob reflects this mournful skeleton as well as the trees behind him as he advances to open it. Getting the reflection just right took a great deal of time, care, and attention.

12. VINCENT PRICE WAS NEARLY NIGHTMARE'S SANTA.

Burton had previously worked with the renowned horror icon on Edward Scissorhands and "Vincent." From there, Price had agreed to give voice to the plump and flustered Santa who is kidnapped by treacherous trick 'r treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel. However, this plan was derailed when Price's wife Coral Browne passed in 1991. Selick explained in the commentary track that the actor was so grief-stricken that the director felt he sounded too sad for Santa. Edward Ivory was then brought in to replace him.

13. PATRICK STEWART WAS CUT FROM THE FILM.

Early on, The Nightmare Before Christmas planned to rely heavily on its poetic inspiration. As such, Star Trek: The Next Generation star Patrick Stewart was called in to read poetry that was intended for the film's opening and closing narration. The lengthy monologues were eventually pared down to a few lines, and those were reassigned to the film's Santa, Edward Ivory. However, Stewart's version can be found in full on the film's soundtrack.

14. TIM BURTON WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE A CAMEO.

Unearthed in cut footage is an alternate version of the vampires playing hockey. In the theatrical and all subsequent releases, the ice-skating vampires swat a jack-o-lantern. However, the original version of this scene had them batting about a recognizable decapitated head. With its ghostly pallor, black spiky hair, angular shape, and deep bags under its eyes, the creepy creation is clearly Burton. But this seems to have been deemed too grisly for a kids' movie.

15. THERE ARE SOME HIDDEN MICKEYS.


Walt Disney Pictures

Since the film became a success, Disney has become less shy about their association with Nightmare Before Christmas. But the commentary track reveals that, despite their reluctance, Disney allowed Selick and Burton to include a hidden Mickey in the form of a menacing toy. In the scene where Jack's Christmas gifts attack, there's a flying stuffed animal with a sharp-toothed grin that's meant to be the Burton version of Mickey Mouse. Also, the girl it attacks is wearing a Mickey print nightgown, while her brother's pajamas are covered in Donald Duck faces.

16. THERE'S A HIDDEN ED WOOD REFERENCE.

While The Nightmare Before Christmas was in production, Burton not only completed Batman Returns but also dug into pre-production on Ed Wood, a biopic about the notoriously untalented filmmaker. A nod to Wood's works is found tucked into the fearsome folk of Halloween Town—the burly, bald Behemoth is a sweet-natured brute who bears a striking resemblance—down to the scars on his face—to Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as seen in Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space.

17. THERE'S A HIDDEN DANNY ELFMAN CAMEO.

The former Oingo Boingo front man began collaborating with Burton back in the early 1980s when he composed the score for Burton's feature directorial debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The pair reteamed for Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands before Elfman was called to write the music and lyrics for The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also lent his singing voice to Jack Skellington, and for all this he gets the dubious distinction of a cameo as the redheaded corpse tucked away in the upright bass of the ghastly Halloween Town band.

18. BURTON CALLED ON OTHER PAST COLLABORATORS TO BE HEARD.

Aside from Jack's singing voice, Elfman also lent his pipes to mischievous Barrel as well as the menacing clown with the tear-away face. Filling out the trio of trick 'r treaters was Pee-Wee's Big Adventure star Paul Reubens as Lock, and Beetlejuice's Catherine O'Hara as Shock. O'Hara also voiced the stitched up and besotted Sally, while her former co-star Glenn Shadix played the two-faced mayor of Halloween Town.

19. DELETED SCENES INCLUDED BEHEMOTH'S SOLO AND AN ALTERNATE OOGIE BOOGIE REVEAL.

On the DVD, storyboard presentations reveal deleted scenes that never made it to production. One of these has Behemoth belting beautifully about "pretty" presents during "Making Christmas." Another shows an abandoned concept of Oogie Boogie boogeying with the bugs that fill his stitched up form, and a third clip displays a very different finale. Instead of Boogie being torn up and reduced to bugs, he's unmasked to be evil scientist Dr. Finkelstein in disguise! In this version, his whole scheme was revenge-fueled because Sally loved Jack, even though Finkelstein made her to be his mate.

20. THE SET WAS BUILT WITH SECRET PASSAGES FOR ANIMATORS.

Reminiscent of the cut-out pathways used by Muppeteers, the animators behind and beneath The Nightmare Before Christmas had special trapdoors cut into the 19 sound stages worth of 230 model sets so they could more easily reach in and manipulate their peculiar puppets. From these vantage points, they can move the armatures hidden within the creatures or swap their faces out for one of hundreds made to allow for a wide range of emotion. Jack Skellington alone had more than 400 heads.

21. BURTON REJECTED A CGI SEQUEL.

Though Disney has found success pumping out straight-to-DVD sequels of their animated hits, Burton has no interest in making The Nightmare Before Christmas 2. He told MTV, “I was always very protective of [Nightmare Before Christmas], not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER