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'Nightmare Before Christmas' at 25: Discover the surprising origins of Halloweentown's iconic characters

Gwynne Watkins
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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When Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick first started bringing Tim Burton’s character designs to life, he had no idea that by 2018, they’d be everywhere. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment for the film’s 25th anniversary, Selick shared the secrets behind the creation of some of Halloweentown’s iconic residents. To see the surprising origins of your favorite characters, watch the video above.

Christmas-stealing protagonist Jack Skellington, whose design was influenced by the work of Charles Addams, was originally dressed in solid black. “But he was disappearing,” Selick told Yahoo Entertainment, “so I had to find a way to get him to read. And putting stripes on him was the best look.”

Jack’s elegant movements were modeled, in part, on the similarly long-limbed Fred Astaire, but mostly they were inspired by Selick himself, who often acted out Jack’s motions for the animators during production. “Honestly, if you ever meet me, he kind of moves like me,” Selick said.

Disney had one initial concern about the character: his lack of eyeballs. “It was something raised by a few people at Disney, they were frightened of this notion,” Selick acknowledged. “But we made the sockets of his eyes sort of this dark, soft, reflective surface, so there’s almost like a glow … and nobody really misses him having eyeballs.”

But Jack’s eyes did present one challenge for the animators. “If he’s going to look at something, he needs to turn his head,” said Selick. “He can’t shift his eyeballs over.”

In contrast to toothpick-skinny Jack, Sally is so curvaceous that at first, the ankles on the sculpture couldn’t hold up her body. Selick gave her larger ankles — and stockings to hide them. At one point, the Frankenstein doll’s arm gets ripped off, and Selick had to figure out what exactly she was stuffed with. “Ultimately flesh, blood, it just felt wrong, awful, and I stuffed her full of fall leaves,” he explained.

Oogie Boogie, the film’s literal boogeyman, was first designed to be the size of a child. Selick went in the opposite direction, making him twice as big as the other characters. “There wasn’t an issue with that size change except it made it very, very difficult to animate,” said the director. “If Jack Skellington is a stick, 14 inches tall, and Oogie Boogie is 2 feet tall. … It’s like a wrestling match to animate a puppet that size.”

For the shot of Oogie falling apart, revealing that he’s just a sack full of bugs, Selick and his team individually animated every bug over the course of a week. “That was one of the toughest moments,” he said. “And everybody in the studio had to make Oogie bugs, because we needed hundreds.”

Jack’s dog, Zero, was made out of flexible lead sheeting covered in cloth tape. The ghost effect was achieved with the same 19th-century illusion used to create the disappearing ghosts in Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. As Selick explained: “If there’s Jack in the scene and Zero is being petted — he’s actually animated at the same time, but he’s not in the scene, he’s off to the side being reflected through a mirror, a half-silvered mirror. It’s a just great old trick that we used in every shot that has Zero. (Incidentally, Selick says that this scene with Jack and Zero performing “Poor Jack” by the stone angel was the toughest in the film, having taken four months to animate.)

So who’s Selick’s personal favorite Nightmare Before Christmas character? “My favorite is the corpse boy,” Selick said. “His eyes are sewn shut. By any normal reckoning you’d just say he’s disgusting and horrible, but he’s very sweet and appealing. … He’s the kid who at the end, this little boy just holds on to Jack’s leg while he’s walking. That’s the one for me. Corpse boy.”

To this day, Selick is amazed that The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a classic, especially since he wasn’t sure his stop-motion animated musical would even find an audience. “The crew and I were just so happy to be working on something we loved. … It just felt like, well, we’re going to love it, and we hope other people do,” Selick told Yahoo Entertainment. “But honestly, we didn’t care! We just wanted to make something great. The fact that it has lived on is inexplicable to me, but we’re really happy.”

Read the complete Yahoo Entertainment interview with Henry Selick for the 25th anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

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