Tim Burton's
The Nightmare before Christmas

USA 1993, 76 mins
Director: Henry Selick

Director Henry Selick on ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’

The film has been marketed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas , but you’re the director. What do you think is distinctively yours about the film?

It’s as though he laid the egg, but I sat on it and hatched it, so it came out looking a bit like both of us. He wasn’t involved in a hands-on way, but his hand is in it. It was my job in a way to make it look like a ‘Tim Burton film’, which is not so different from my own films. We can collaborate because we often think of the same solution to a problem. It’s why we hit it off at Disney – we were not having fun drawing cute foxes and little animals. But I would wager that in The Nightmare before Christmas most of the lines you laugh at are mine. I did most sequences like the battle, or any action sequences – Tim always gives live action to a second-unit director. Every shot of the movie is something I looked at through a camera and composed.

I don’t want to take away from Tim, but he was not here in San Francisco when we made it. He came up five times over two years, and spent no more than eight or ten days here in total. It’s more like he wrote a children’s book and gave it to us and we went from there. But the bottom line was that Tim Burton’s name before the title was going to bring in more people than mine would.

Nightmare centres on three different worlds: those of Halloweentown, Christmastown and the ‘real world’. You have the same contrast of worlds in one of your earlier films, Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions . Is this a concern of yours?

It’s pure coincidence – in fact, the idea of different holiday worlds came from Tim. But most of my other personal work, including several short films, is about the collision of worlds. For example, a 9-minute film I made in 1981, Seepage, depicts stop-motion animated life-size figures by a pool who experience a collision between their world and an imaginary world they speak of.

What kind of visual influences went into the design of Nightmare before Christmas apart from Tim Burton’s original drawings? Did you draw on the gothic tradition for ways of expressing nightmarishness?

I drew on some of my favourite films, including The Night of the Hunter, the only Hollywood feature Charles Laughton directed. It was a low-budget film but it had a lot of high-contrast imagery, a fairy-tale quality. Then there were illustrators who were Tim’s inspirations, including Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. We tried to put a lot of Gorey-type textures on our sets.

That sort of knobbly quality…

Yes, though the set for Christmastown was more Dr Seuss inspired, much softer, rounder, a fluffy look.

Were you inspired by any earlier artists?

Rick Heinrichs was the visual consultant on the film – he has worked with Tim on every film Tim has made, he’s Tim’s hidden partner. He exposed us to a Russian animator, one of the earliest… Starevich. We looked at Starevich’s films not so much for style but because he would use real material, real cloth, hair, insects, things that shudder and shake and pixilate and catch your attention needlessly that most animators would avoid. It loosened us up a little.

Anyone else?

There are a lot of painters I’ve been affected by – for instance Francis Bacon, and some of Kandinsky’s·work before he went abstract. He would do these Russian fables, quite beautiful, fairytale paintings, very simple with colour on what he wants, light on what he wants, then the rest just disappears into a medium ground. Also the Polish animator and poster designer Jan Lenica crept in.

To return to nightmares and the gothic, do you think animation is especially good at expressing these?

I think animation lends itself to illustrating dreams of any sort. As a kid I was deeply impressed by the ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia. That felt like nightmare and dreams to me, and was very powerful. Another important influence was Lotte Reiniger. I saw a lot of her films as a kid on a local television station. All her films are primarily silhouettes. They are very dreamlike, you have to use a lot of imagination to make them work. These two influences plugged into a kind of dream imagery where you don’t fill in all the blanks, just as you’ll get isolated figures in limbo in dreams, moving at unnatural speeds, usually in slow motion but sometimes faster, falling, exaggeration.

How did that feed into the design of the nightmare landscape in the film?

One of our criteria was to make the Halloween characters look really scary, though they weren’t bad people except for Oogie Boogie, and even with him it was just his nature to be voracious. When Tim was a lad he watched a lot of films like the original Frankenstein or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Those creatures weren’t inherently bad, they were just misunderstood and people were terrified of them and tried to destroy them. Tim had sympathy for them and it’s something he wanted to carry through to the denizens of Halloween town.

Did you break new ground technically with Nightmare ?

We took an old technique and did the highest-quality stop-motion that has ever been done for that many minutes. I think we moved stop-motion up to a high level of performance in timing, lighting and computer-aided camera moves. We made it a serious contender rather than things that look like toys on a table top with two glaring lights.
Interview by Leslie Felperin, Sight and Sound, December 1994

Director: Henry Selick
©: Touchstone Pictures
Production Company: Burton/DiNovi
Presented by: Touchstone Pictures
Producers: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Co-producer: Kathleen Gavin
Associate Producers: Danny Elfman, Philip Lofaro, Jill Jacobs, Diane Minter
Stage Co-ordinator: Alia Almeida Agha
Stage Manager: Robert Anderson
Production Manager: Philip Lofaro
Production Co-ordinator: George Young
Production Co-ordinator (Art Dept): Jill Ruzicka
Production Accountant: Kevin Reher
Post-production (Supervisor): Sara Duran
Casting: Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen
Casting (San Francisco): Hayes & Van Horn Casting, Davia Nelson
Screenplay: Caroline Thompson
Adaptation: Michael McDowell
Based on a story and characters by: Tim Burton
Director of Photography: Pete Kozachik
Camera Operators: Jo Carson, Pat Sweeney, Jim Aupperle, Ray Gilberti, Richard E. Lehmann, Eric Swenson, Dave Hanks, Selwyn Eddy III
Stills Photography: Richard Downing
Visual Effects Supervisor: Pete Kozachik
Digital Effects Provided by: Walt Disney Feature Animation
Model Shop Supervisor: Mitch Romanauski
Animation Supervisor: Eric Leighton
Editor: Stan Webb
Associate Editor: Edie Ichioka
Additional Editing: Michael Kelly
Consulting Editor: Chris Lebenzon
Visual Consultant: Rick Heinrichs
Artistic Co-ordinator: Allison Abbate
Art Director: Deane Taylor
Assistant Art Directors: Kendal Cronkhite, Kelly Adam Asbury, Bill Boes
Set Designer/Dressing Supervisor: Gregg Olsson
Background Design: B.J. Fredrickson
Lead Scenic Artist: B.J. Fredrickson
Scenic Artists: Linda Overbey, Jennifer Clinard, Peggy Hrastar, Loren Hillman
Storyboard Supervisor: Joe Ranft
Sculptors: Norm Decarlo, Shelley Daniels, Greg Dykstra, Randal M. Dutra
Titles: Buena Vista Optical
Music/Lyrics/Original Score: Danny Elfman
Song Conductor: Chris Boardman
Score Conductor: J.A.C. Redford
Vocal/Song Arrangements: Steve Bartek
Re-recording Mixers: Terry Porter, Shawn Murphy, Greg P. Russell
Dubbing Recordist: Tim Webb, Tony Araki
Supervising Sound Editors: Richard L. Anderson, John Pospisil

Voice Cast
Danny Elfman (Jack Skellington singing/clown with the tear away face/Barrel)
Chris Sarandon (Jack Skellington speaking)
Catherine O’Hara (Sally/Shock)
William Hickey (Evil Scientist)
Glenn Shadix (mayor)
Paul Reubens (Lock)
Ken Page (Oogie Boogie)
Ed Ivory (Santa)
Susan McBride (Big Witch, W.W.D.)
Debi Durst (corpse kid/corpse mom/small witch)
Gregory Proops (harlequin demon/devil/sax player)
Kerry Katz (man under stairs/vampire/corpse dad)
Randy Crenshaw (Mr Hyde/behemoth/vampire)
Sherwood Ball (mummy/vampire)
Carmen Twillie (undersea gal/man under stairs)
Glenn Walters (voice of wolfman)
Doris Hess, Daamen Krall, Christina MacGregor, David McCharen, Gary Raff, David Randolph, Gary Schwartz

USA 1993©
76 mins

Elf 20th Anniversary
Mon 27 Nov 20:30 BFI IMAX
Sun 3 Dec 13:20
Fri 8 Dec 21:00; Fri 15 Dec 20:40; Fri 22 Dec 18:10
Tokyo Godfathers (Tokyo goddofazazu)
Sat 9 Dec 20:45; Thu 14 Dec 18:30 BFI IMAX (+ intro by Ghibliotheque podcast creators Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham); Wed 20 Dec 18:15; Sat 23 Dec 21:00
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
Sun 10 Dec 13:30; Wed 13 Dec 20:45 BFI IMAX
The Polar Express 3D
Sat 16 Dec 10:00; Sun 17 Dec 10:00; Sun 24 Dec 11:30 (all BFI IMAX)
Miracle on 34th Street
Sat 16 Dec 12:40; Sat 23 Dec 15:30
Die Hard
Sat 16 Dec 20:45 BFI IMAX
Thu 21 Dec 20:40; Sat 30 Dec 17:20
The Bishop’s Wife
Fri 22 Dec 14:40; Sat 23 Dec 18:20
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Sat 23 Dec 12:00

Never miss an issue with Sight and Sound, the BFI’s internationally renowned film magazine. Subscribe from just £25*
*Price based on a 6-month print subscription (UK only). More info:

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email