8 Things I Learned from The Nightmare Before Christmas Commentary Track

October 6, 2011 — Even if I hadn’t recently attended the Tim Burton Exhibit and seen firsthand the puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas, I’d still be impelled to watch the stop-motion masterpiece this month. After all, October without The Nightmare Before Christmas is, well, every October before 1993. Still, it’s now so much a part of the holiday that going through one without seeing Jack’s ping-pong ball face or hearing a gallows tree belt out “Everybody scream” would feel like sleeping through the trick-or-treaters.

I’ve already written about the movie itself, last year. But what I had yet to do, in all the years of watching this almost 20-year-old flick, is listen to the audio commentary track. So I figured this would be a good excuse to revisit the content for this Halloween blog.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I‘d learn anything new. Sure, there is tons of interesting trivia about the movie, but most if it is well-known to anybody who has ever watched a behind-the-scenes feature, listened to an interview, or just done some Internet trawling. For instance, that the idea was birthed during Tim Burton’s time as an animator at Disney working on films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. That they had no script when they started working on songs and filming. That it took about 100 animators working for three years to pull off the movie. That Dr. Finklestein, the flip-top-headed, wheelchair-bound, fleshy-beaked mad scientist, was supposed to be the villain behind the canvas sack that was Oogie Boogie until they sagely decided not to go that route.

The commentary track to the movie features creator Tim Burton, director Henry Selick, and composer Danny Elfman. Unfortunately, they recorded their commentaries separately, so there’s no candid conversations, which is always the best part of any commentary track. The three tracks are woven together well, though, and somehow I was able to hear some stuff I hadn’t before, although only one was of crazy interest to me, which I’ve stuck in the last spot on this otherwise randomly ordered list.

1. San Francisco (Trick or) Treat: All the puppet bending was done in San Francisco, California. That’s not the most Christmas-y or Halloween-y of places, but I suppose in a closed studio with no windows and surrounded by the miniature sets of Christmas Town and Halloween Town, you can get yourself in either mood pretty easily.

2. Christmas Comes Before Halloween: The What’s this? Christmas Town scene was shot first. Selick mentions it’s the most painful scene for the animators to watch since over the course of three years of animating they were really able to refine their techniques. Of course, to us laymen blind to the details of the craft, it’s one of the more delightful.

3. Oingo Boingo is Halloween Town. During one strange bit of introspection, Elfman, who provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington in addition to writing the music, lyrics, and score, explains that he really identified with the character of Jack because at the time he was in the popular rock band Oingo Boingo, and he just wasn’t satisfied. He said that he hadn’t yet found his Christmas Land at the time (assumedly movie soundtrack composing would eventually fill that void), but he was certain that Oingo Boingo was his Halloween Town and he needed something else. So if you follow through with the analogy, I guess the moral of the story is that Elfman should go back to being in a new wave rock band? I’m confused.

4. My Girlfriend Needs a Job. When they finally did put a script together, it was Caroline Thompson who wrote it…because she was Elfman’s live-in girlfriend at the time and had been listening to him create the songs for months. Actually, it was also because she was the scribe for Edward Scissorhands, which is where she and Elfman met. That sounds like she should have been a lock (Shock and Barrel) for the gig, but the original writer on it was actually Beetlejuice script-writer Michael McDaniel, who was too sick to work on it more than just a brief treatment.

5. Selick is Cooler than You Think He Is. Sometimes you hear the joke that Selick directed The Nightmare Before Christmas like Irvin Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back. However, over the course of the commentary, a few of Selick’s ideas for the movie surprised me. For instance, Jack’s pinstriped suit. Black and white stripes are a staple Burton feature, but apparently his original vision for Jack was a solid black suit. Apparently, Selick thought the camera would have trouble picking up Jack’s thin, black body, so he got the okay to stripe him.

Also, the idea that Sally would be filled with autumn leaves instead of entrails, that the coiled hill would unwind, and that the Christmas Town and Halloween Town scenes would be interwoven during the Making Christmas song. In addition, he was basically Jack’s body actor for the animators to use as a reference for animating him.

6. I Know He Was But What Am I? Paul Reubens, the actor best known as Pee-Wee Herman, was the voice of Lock, the devil-masked trick-or-treater who helped kidnap Santa. Honestly, I probably knew this and just forgot, but I’ll be damned if I let this list drop down to seven.

7. The Man Behind the Mask. Burton got the idea that the faces of Lock, Shock, and Barrel would match their masks from the fifth-season Twilight Zone episode, The Masks.

8. It’s Like Learning There’s No Santa Claus. I don’t know how I never came across this (apparently I’ve never visited the IMDb.com trivia page for Nightmare), but Vincent Price originally recorded the voice of Santa Claus. However, apparently his voice was too frail and too sad for the film makers to use it. In the commentary, the unfortunate performance was attributed to the effects of the recent death of Price’s wife. Price would himself die a couple years later, less than two weeks after the October 15th theatrical release of the film, in fact.

What a horribly sad way to end this piece. Here’s a picture of a baby with a pumpkin:


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