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Henry Selick Interview

The Director of The Nightmare Before Christmas
Reflects on His Biggest Hit and Discusses Next Film

The film's full title is Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and Burton is a well-known director, so it's only natural that more than a few people have been surprised to see "Directed by Henry Selick" pop up after the closing shot of Disney's holiday cult classic.
Director Henry Selick talks about "The Nightmare Before Christmas" in a 1993 making-of featurette preserved on the new DVD and Blu-ray.
Selick specializes in animation, particularly the stop-motion kind.

Like Burton, Selick's career began with films like Pete's Dragon and The Fox and the Hound as uncredited animation trainee and in-between artist. Like many freelance animators, several fruits of Selick's meticulous labors aren't things you'll find at your local DVD store. His stop-motion shorts include two student films made at CalArts, 1981's Seepage, commercials for Pillsbury and Ritz crackers, a pilot, and MTV station identifications.

Upon resurrecting his decade-old Nightmare project at Disney, Burton sought Selick to direct. This launched Selick into helming a major studio film every few years. He followed Nightmare (1993) with Disney's James and the Giant Peach (1996) and the part-live-action flop Monkeybone (2001) starring Brendan Frasier. He then collaborated with the acclaimed Wes Anderson on The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou (2004), bringing the ocean to life with colorful, stop-motion creatures. Selick has spent the last few years adapting Neil Gaiman's novella Coraline into a feature film to be released in 2009.

Recently, with The Nightmare Before Christmas returning to DVD and debuting on Blu-ray, Selick took a couple of hours on a Saturday morning
to chat with journalists from around the globe about the production and legacy of his 15-year-old breakthrough film, his passion for stop-motion, and Coraline's progress.

Q: Does a film like Nightmare naturally look amazing in high definition or do the translation and remastering take a lot of work?

Henry Selick: The fact is the film was originally shot in 35mm film. Each image is pristine with no blur, so the source material is already high def, more so than a standard film. So the mastering is less of a challenge.

Q: The DVD already makes the animation look so clear. What new details will we notice in Blu-ray?

H.S.: Some of the details that may become apparent in Blu-ray are that we tried to add texture to all the characters and backgrounds as if they were an engraving. For example, you'll see that Jack's stripes on his suit are hand-drawn, and the hills behind also have handmade textures built into them. Additional details would be things like the leaves that Sallie is stuffed with, the bugs inside Oogie Boogie. Look into the shadow areas, there are hidden details there that have never shown up on the previous DVD but will show up on the Blu-ray.

Q: As a kid, I was mesmerized by the old 7th Voyage of Sinbad Harryhausen film. What stop-motion film got you as a kid and inspired your career path?

H.S.: The early [Ray] Harryhausen, Jason and the Argonauts in particular. I also love the Seventh Voyage, the best Cyclops that will ever be done. There was just this wonderful sense that Harryhausen's monsters were real. Despite the sort of lurching quality they had, they had an undeniable reality to them.

Q: I read Nightmare took over three years of your life, and involved a small army of ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) artists. Can you share with fans just how labor-intensive this was for you, and what was the hardest element in finishing the film? Also, did you use any other effects houses than ILM?

H.S.: ILM are the ones who did the [2006] 3-D adaption, not the original film. We hired several ILM veterans to work on the original film however. Virtually all animation is labor-intensive. Since it was what I do, it did not seem any harder than others. The small army topped out at under 200 people. Because of the range of talents and abilities, there was always something amazing and wonderful to see virtually every day, so that the long journey of production was reinspired regularly.
Disney Villains Collectible Halloween Village
We used Disney's fledgling effects unit in Burbank and they created the very simple snow that falls at the end of the film. Other than that, it was all pretty much done by hand in house.

Q: Has it surprised you how much Nightmare has been absorbed into the pop culture stratosphere -- Goth kids at Hot Topic wearing Jack belts and arm bands and the like?

H.S.: At this point, 15 years later after the original release, I've grown used to seeing Jack and Sally turn up all over the place. But this did not happen right away. It has taken years for our initial cult audience to grow into a pop culture phenomenon. Just this past Halloween, we had some girls show up at the house in Nightmare Before Christmas costumes and my wife and I pointed out one of the original Jack Skellington and the Skellington Reindeer which was in our office. It blew their minds and they screamed with joy, taking their handfuls of candy and [going] away just full of life.

Q: What is it about stop-motion that originally captured your attention?

H.S.: I love all sorts of animation.
After "Nightmare", Disney enlisted Henry Selick to direct an adaptation of Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach." Tim Burton produced the mostly stop-motion 1996 feature, whose pictured trailer appeared on the old Nightmare Special Edition DVD.
Probably the most beautiful would be the traditional hand-drawn animation that Disney is known for. Stop-motion has a certain "grittiness" and is filled with imperfections. And yet there is an undeniable truth, that what you see really exists, even it if is posed by hand, 24 times a second. This truth is what I find most attractive about stop-motion animation.

Q: What was the biggest lesson you carried away from the Nightmare Before Christmas experience?

H.S.: When possible, always work with geniuses like Tim Burton, who are not only creatively inspiring but in his case, also have the clout to protect the film from the studio system.

Q: What makes stop-motion worth all the effort in a CGI-obsessed industry?

H.S.: People are always going to be drawn to something that is shaped by the human hand in an undeniable way. So while Ray Harryhausen was going for perfectly smooth animation, it is the unavoidable imperfections in his work that give it soul and make it memorable.

Q: Have you ever considered returning to the world of Nightmare Before Christmas?

H.S.: There have been discussions over the years about a possible sequel. When those discussions came up about 7 years ago it was unsettling that it was suggested this time it would have to be done in CG.
I'm glad that did not happen. But as far as coming up ideas for a sequel, you have to admit there are a lot of other great holidays for Jack Skellington to take over.

Q: How was your working relationship with Tim Burton?

H.S.: Working with Tim was great. He came up with a brilliant idea, designed the main characters, fleshed out the story, got Danny Elfman to write a bunch of great songs. He got the project on its feet and then stood back and watched us fly with it. Tim, who made two live-action features in L.A. while we were in San Francisco making Nightmare, was kept in the loop throughout the process, reviewing storyboards and animation. When we completed the film, Tim came in with his editor Chris to pace up the film and make a particular story adjust to make Lock, Shock and Barrel just a touch nicer.

Q: What was the most intricate scene (stop-motion wise) to complete?

H.S.: While virtually every bit of the stop-motion animation was challenging, there were several particularly difficult scenes to pull off. One began where Jack is shot out of the sky with his Skellington Reindeer flying overhead. [He] lands in the arms of the angel statue in a graveyard and goes on to sing a song there while the camera continuously circles him. The opening song of the film, "This is Halloween", was monstrously challenging as it introduced all the Halloween Town monsters to the audience.

Q: Do you find it ironic that Nightmare has become a Disney property, when it was originally released as a Touchstone Picture? When did you start seeing the shift with Disney embracing the film?

H.S.: Yes. Nightmare was just too different from what Disney was having success with. Although I don't think Walt Disney himself would have had a problem with it being labeled a Disney film. Just check out some of the sequences from Fantasia, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ward Kimball's goons and monsters in Sleeping Beauty, etc., and you'll see Nightmare and its characters were carrying on in the same tradition. While it took sometime, about 7 years ago when the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was transformed into a Nightmare extravaganza, we then felt we were truly loved by the Disney label.

Q: How did you originally come on board to this project?

H.S.: I was working with Tim at Disney in the early 1980s when he first conceived the poem and idea of Jack Skellington taking over Christmas. Sculptor Rick Heinrichs took the original characters designed by Tim -- Jack, Zero and Sandy Claws -- and created beautiful maquettes that showed what they'd be like as stop-motion characters. It was originally pitched to Disney as a TV special but was rejected. I had moved to Northern California where I worked as storyboard artist and a stop-motion filmmaker with short films, TV commercials and MTV. While Tim went on to achieve great success in live action. I got a call from Rick and he said there was something important we must talk about in person. He flew to San Francisco and said Tim is making Nightmare Before Christmas and wants you to direct it.
Jack Skellington introduces Christmas to Halloween Town residents with a red ball in Tim Burton's original poem, presented for the first time on Nightmare Before Christmas' new Collector's Edition DVD.
I met with Tim and Danny Elfman and my small crew that I had been working with immediately became supervisors on a feature film.

Q: How early in the process was Oogie Boogie developed? After seeing the original poem, Jack certainly is borderline on the evil side, so I'm assuming having Oogie was there to expand things, but to also take the edge off of Jack?

H.S.: Oogie started out as the size of a pillowcase and not that scary or evil or important. But as the story developed I felt the need to grow him in both his scale and his role. Ultimately, Danny Elfman's Oogie Boogie song is what truly defined his character as THE villain and Jack's role was fully defined as a misguided hero.

Q: Do you think it benefited you and your team being in that San Francisco warehouse creating Nightmare instead of in Burbank where you might have people standing over your shoulder and freaking out at what you were creating? Or were you given autonomy because of Tim Burton's track record at the time?

H.S.: Being in San Francisco helped protect the film from "lookie loos."

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Q: How did you get such a fluidity in the animation? Did you use any complementary technology/tool in addition to traditional stop-motion/hand animation?

H.S.: We don't think we actually achieved a very fluid motion, so thanks for the compliment. It was basically made the same way the original King Kong was made or any of Ray Harryhausen's creatures.

Q: Was there a character created for Nightmare that you loved,
The Nightmare Before Christmas 11 x 17 masterprint poster - click for larger view and to buy The Nightmare Before Christmas 22 x 34 movie poster - click for larger view and to buy Jack and Sally discount poster - click for larger view and to buy
Browse more available Nightmare Before Christmas
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that never made it past the conceptual stage?

H.S.: No, we were desperate to flesh out the town. After you go through the mummies and vampires, etc., it gets slim. We used everything we came up with.

Q: Do you intend to pursue working in other mediums of animation or will stop-motion remain your field?

H.S.: I was a 2-D animator at Disney and I've done some CG work, but I'd prefer to keep with stop-motion animation.

Onto Page 2 >>
Selick discusses Coraline and his penchant for stop-motion

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition DVD - click to read our review.
More on The Nightmare Before Christmas...
Click here to read our The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition DVD review.
Buy the new release from Amazon.com: DVD, Blu-ray, Limited Edition Ultimate Collector's DVD Set.
Click here to read our 2006 interview with Don Hahn on the movie's 3-D theatrical reissues.

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Interview posted August 26, 2008. Conducted August 16, 2008.