Animated Shorts: Henry Selick, 1 - Nightmare and More

Animated Shorts: Henry Selick, 1

As any horror fan knows, it’s just damn difficult to keep the undead down. If you don’t, ask Henry Selick.

For those who don’t know, Selick is one of the top stop-motion animation directors in the world, having comfortably settled in a position somewhere between golden age masters like Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and Art Clokey and modern day masters like Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and Aardman Studios. It doesn’t take long to see he loves working in the genre that’s truly the oldest form of animation either.

“[As a kid I was inspired by] The early Harryhausen, Jason and the Argonauts in particular,” Selick reminisced over a telephone conference this weekend. “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.

“I love all sorts of animation, probably the most beautiful would be the traditional hand drawn animation that Disney is known for. Stopmotion has a certain grittiness and is filled with imperfections, and yet their is an undeniable truth, that what you see really exits, even it if is posed by hand, 24 times a second. This truth is what I find most attractive about stop motion animation.”

Yet his first work experience would be in traditional animation. In 1980 he was part of the legendary animation team who created Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. This team also included Brad Bird, Don Bluth, John Lassiter and a number of others who would become movers and shakers in the cartoon universe.

There was another guy over there in the Magic Kingdom who Selick also hung out with. His name was Tim Burton. Like Selick, Burton was a stop motion fan. More important, Burton had convinced Disney to finance two shorts using the process, Frankenweenie and Vincent. Burton got the initial idea to also do Nightmare Before Christmas there. Selick remembers it well.

“’Vincent’ was Tim's first stop motion film that he made with Rick Heinrichs,” Selick recalled. “It had a striking look, bold design and was basically part of Tim's growth as an artist, which influence the look of Nightmare Before Christmas.

“I was working with Tim at Disney in the early 1980s when he first conceived the poem and idea of Jack Skellingon taking over Christmas,” said Selick. 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.”

In fact, Burton was mega-hot. His first features films, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman, had both made tons of money. Batman II and Edward Scissorhands were in the wings. That didn’t mean cinching the Nightmare deal was a fait accompli.

“There was resistance to doing it all at first,” says Selick. “When Tim first pitched it to Disney in the early 1980s there was resistance to the project in any medium. But 10 years later when the film was made there was never an issue about it being stop motion. It was simply a case of that is how Tim conceived it.”

Apparently, both Burton and Heinrichs hadn’t forgotten their old buddy Selick either, who was making waves with his short “Slow Bob In The Lower Dimensions.”

“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. I met with Tim and Danny Elfman and my small crew that I had been working with immediately became supervisors on a feature film.”

The film would then take the next three years of Selick’s life. Part of the process was finding enough animators familiar with stop motion. In an interview conducted a year ago, part of this problem was solved through hiring people who worked for Art and Joe Clokey, the creators of the last Gumby series.

“Directing stop motion animation is actually a sort of combination of directing live action and 'regular' animation,” says Selick. “We have real sets, real lights, real cameras. There is a costume department, a hair department and our puppets are the actors. Like regular animation it is a divide and conquer. It is all divided up into manageable pieces, edited in storyboards before the movie is made and then shot a frame a time like traditional animation.

“There was a Gumby revival by Art Clokey in the 80s and a new TV series that followed, which attracted a lot of young stop motion animators to California. Many of the animators for Nightmare Before Christmas came from that group…because the Gumby project had been over for almost three years so we did not 'take' anyone. We [also] hired several ILM veterans to work on the original film however.

“We don't think we actually achieved a very fluid motion. It was basically made the same way the original King Kong was made or any of Ray Harryhausen's creatures. 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 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 re-inspired regularly. 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.”

Not that there weren’t other challenges, either.

“While virtually every bit of the stop motion animation was challenging, there were several particularly difficult scenes to pull off,” Selick recalled. “One began where Jack is shot out of the sky with his Skellington Reindeer flying over head and being shot down and 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. We were [also] desperate to flesh out the town, after you go through the mummy and vampires etc it gets slim. We used everything we came up with.”

One character in particular, Oogie Boogie, was not only a villain in the film, but a monster to animate.

“Oogie started out as the size of a pillowcase and not that scary or evil or important,” said Selick, “but as the story developed I felt the need to grow him in both his scale and his role. Ultimately Danny Eflman's ‘Oogie Boogie’ song is what truly defined his character as the villain and Jack's role was fully defined as a misguided hero. [Still], he was a huge puppet, very difficult to muscle around it was almost as if he was trying to push back while you were animating him.”

Selick also recalls that Disney itself was generally highly cooperative on the project. He recalled the Mouse Works had only one truly objectionable note, for the man with the Tear Away Face, which they thought was too terrifying for kids. Burton also only made some minor modifications.

“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,” said Selick. “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 LA 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.”

Then it was time for release. Mind you, Disney was on one of the hottest streaks in the history of the studio. It had already set box office records with its release of Aladdin, who’s opening weekend brought in $19 million. In 1993, that was not chump change by anyone’s standards. Powered by the voice work of Robin Williams, it would eventually bring in $500 million internationally. Word on the street that their next traditional animated project, 1994’s The Lion King could potentially be bigger (which it eventually was at $783 million). Yet inbetween was this very, very, exceedingly strange movie about monsters delivering shrunken heads during Christmas. To top it, Disney didn’t even brand the film as one of its own. They shipped it over to their more adult Touchstone subsidiary.

Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas actually didn’t do bad for its full wide screen debut. It brought in $8 million. From there though it only went on to do a lifetime box office of $73 million, not even 15% of what Aladdin grossed, and Nightmare was the Christmas release to boot.

Nightmare was just too different from what Disney was having success with,” Selick opined, “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 or Ward Kimball's goons and monsters in Sleeping Beauty and you'll see Nightmare and it's characters were carrying on in the same tradition. While it took sometime, about seven 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.”

But as said before, it’s truly hard to keep the undead down. One could say that after it’s inauspicious start, Nightmare developed a life of its own.

“At this point, 15 years later after the original release, I've grown used to seeing Jack and Sallie turn up all over the place,” says Selick. “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 NBChristmas 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 went away just full of life.”

End of Part 1. The Nightmare Before Christmas 15th Anniversary Edition is due in stores on August 26th.


The FUNimation Channel will be premiering five new animated series. The debuting titles all begin airing September 1 and include (all times are eastern):

Mushi-Shi (TV-14) - Mushi are neither plants nor animals. Instead they resemble the primeval substances of life. Few humans are aware of their existence, among them in Ginko, a ‘mushi-shi’ who studies them and investigates strange occurrences related to their appearances.

School Rumble (TV-PG) – This comedic drama is about the tangled love triangles of teens.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (TV-PG) - This dramatic action-adventure about four travelers on an epic journey. Their goals are different, their destiny the same.

BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad (TV-MA) - In this comedy about a garage band trying to make it there is one thing to remember: music can change your life. That doesn’t mean you’re going to like it.

Basilisk (TV-MA) – Set in feudal Japan, the young leaders of warring ninja clans fall into a forbidden love amidst a battle for blood.

For those who miss the episodes during the week, they can catch all of the episodes back-to-back in the weekend “rewind” on Saturdays and Sundays. Fans should also check their local listings as other schedule changes will take effect on September 1.


Rough Draft Studios, an independent animation production company, today announced that it will be producing animation for the upcoming animated Fox series, Down, Shut Up, from Arrested Development creator, Mitch Hurwitz. Fox initially ordered thirteen 30-minute episodes from producer Sony Pictures Television scheduled for broadcast March 2009.

Sit Down, Shut Up focuses on the lives of eight self-centered staff members at a high school in a small northeastern fishing town who never lose sight of the fact the children must always come second. Based on a live-action Australian comedy series of the same name, Sit Down, Shut Up is written and executive-produced by Mitch Hurwitz, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and executive-produced by Eric and Kim Tannenbaum. It will have a distinctive look combining 2-D animation with live action backgrounds. Animation will be produced by Rough Draft Studios at its Glendale facility. Voicing the principal animated characters will be Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler. Kenan Thompson is also signed on to star as the Principal of the school with Will Forte set to play the Vice Principal. Cheri Oteri, Tom Kenny, Nick Kroll and Maria Bamford will also provide voices for the show.

“We are thrilled to be working with such a creative and hilarious talent as Mitch,” said Claudia Katz, Partner at Rough Draft Studios. “As a studio that loves to work on writer driven animation Sit Down, Shut Up is a project that we’re delighted to be involved in.”

Rough Draft Studios previously collaborated with Oakley and Weinstein on Futurama, where it produced all the animation and earned multiple Emmy’s for their groundbreaking seamless blending of 2-D and 3-D animation.

NEXT COLUMN: Selick talks about working with a certain Mr. Gaiman on a film called Coraline.

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