The Nightmare Before Christmas was created at a non-descript warehouse building in San Francisco known as Skellington Productions. It was a complete stop-motion movie production facility - a joint venture between Tim Burton and the Walt Disney Company. The studio was a “secret” since the building was unmarked with no sign to indicate the magic being created within its walls. There were several departments housed there. In front was the nerve center consisting of executive offices, art and editorial departments, and a screening room. The middle was the heart of the production and contained the stop-motion stages which were generally very quiet so the animators could concentrate. The back of the studio contained the model shop and set department - much noisier by comparison due to the use of power tools. Upstairs was the creature department where all the wonderful puppets were fabricated. The crew labored away like Santa’s elves with the goal of bringing Tim Burton’s ideas to life. Despite the film being a Tim Burton Production, Tim’s actual involvement was minimal as he entrusted it to both the crew and the director, Henry Selick. Tim only made rare appearances at Skellington’s front offices, so I never saw him when I was animating on the back stages; however, I did finally meet the famous Mr. Burton by accident, as the story continues.
THE SHOT FROM HELL
Normally, the act of stop-motion animation requires a higher state of mind - being in the zone, if you will. Yet sometimes problems arise that test the patience of the animator. As Murphy’s law kicked into full force, such was the case with one of my shots. The assignment was to animate “Howie”, a beach ball-shaped fat kid running in terror, down a hallway away from an evil Jack-in-the-box. Things went wrong from the start. The shooting stages were all busy, and management had the horrible idea of setting up a makeshift stage right in the middle of the front production offices. Accordingly, my workspace was just a small curtained-off section in one of the busiest areas of the building, a miserable environment for focusing and concentrating on one’s animation work. Further complicating the situation was the fact that nobody took into consideration the means with which I could actually reach the puppets in order to animate them. The set was walled in on all sides except the front, mostly blocked by a huge Mitchell camera, requiring me to reach in from a very narrow opening. Adding insult to injury, the “Howie” puppet was basically defective. The creature department, normally known for superb work, made this puppet’s foam latex body so dense it resisted extreme poses, which severely limited what I could achieve for a character performance. On top of that, the paint on the puppet did not adhere well and it rubbed off from the handling as the shot moved forward. I was forced to continually touch up the paint while in the process of animating the puppet. It all added up to animation torture!
Progress on the shot went far slower than expected due to all the problems; however, management wanted the shot finished quickly to help meet their weekly quota. I felt trapped and pressured in my curtained-off personal hell and used every trick I could think of to keep moving forward. I worked late into the night and grew increasingly frustrated. Thinking I was the only one in the building at that point, I dropped all constraints and swore away with abandon at every provocation. Deciding to take a break, I pulled the curtain aside to step out of my space and there was Tim Burton, with girlfriend Lisa Marie, no doubt wondering who was this madman swearing away behind the curtain! “You okay man?” he said with concern. That was the embarrassing, yet cool way that I met him, and it gave me the opportunity to show both Tim and Lisa exactly what I was going through and struggling to accomplish. Tim Burton actually got to witness, proof positive, how the crew suffered to create his vision! My “shot from hell” was ultimately successful and good enough to be included in the movie.
Here is a collection of photos I took of some of the amazing artists at Skellington Productions in 1993...
Norm DeCarlo sculpts Oogie Boogie
Animator Richard Zimmerman looking cool with Zero
Set builder Fon Davis
Justin Kohn animates the flying sleigh
Model maker Joel Friesch touches up the mini sleigh rig
Character fabrication supervisor Bonita DeCarlo applies bugs to Oogie Boogie
Joel Fletcher animates the sleigh taking off
Michael Wick works on the Santa puppet
Skeleton reindeer puppets in the model shop
© 2011 Joel Fletcher