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Back in Theaters! The Nightmare Before Christmas Production Design Secrets

Spiders are crawling, pumpkins are being carved, and the twinkle of Christmas is approaching. In other words, Halloween Town and Christmas Town are open for festivities!

The re-release of the iconic holiday classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), is back in theaters for its 30th anniversary on October 20th, 2023. In honor of this exciting return, we’re giving you the lowdown of the film’s spookiest production design secrets, set design, and filming process. 🎃💀🧡

Animated character walking on a curve in front of moon siloutte
The Nightmare Before Christmas GIF


#1 The size of the film's production was incredibly enormous.

Production began in July 1991 with 230 individual sets and over 120 crew workers. This included 13 of the most talented animators, along with specially trained camera operators, puppet makers, set builders, and prop makers. Over a three year period, they filled 20 sound stages and assembled over 227 animation puppets for the film’s characters..

#2 The art directors drew inspiration from the pen and ink illustrations of artists like Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey.

black and white pen and ink illustration

Etch clay miniature set from The Nightmare Before Christmas

To reproduce some of these elaborate sketching and cross-hatching imagery, they took the sets and spread clay or plaster on them. They then inscribed lines all over them for an etched, textural feel. This made the sets feel like a living illustration.

#3 Set designer Greg Olson created quarter scale mock-ups of each set.

 Set designer Greg Olson created quarter scale mock-ups of each set. Set designer Greg Olson standing over quarter scale mock-ups of sets from The Nightmare Before Christmas

A quarter scale mock-up is a smaller version of the actual set. These mock-ups are created once the conceptual designs are complete and are helpful for set designers to envision the concept in three dimensions. For this particular set, the quarter scale mock-up was used to decide where to add breaks and trap doors so that the puppeteers could reach certain areas of the set in order to perform the animation. Director Henry Selick also used a director’s viewfinder on the mock-up to practice what he wanted to see on film.

#4 Lighting was an essential part in defining the design direction of the film.

Behind the scenes on set of The Nightmare Before Christmas

This story deviated from the conventional high-key soft lighting used in traditional animation. The Nightmare theme demanded stark contrasts, hard lighting, and prominent shadows. Cinematographer Pete Kozachik found inspiration in black-and-white period thrillers, influencing the film's techniques, which included emphasizing hard lighting, creating contrasting planes, and integrating shadows and theatrical pools.

Selective contrast enhancement was achieved by applying black and white paint to specific areas of the set, challenging the lighting crews accustomed to clear animation. Balancing mood, lighting, and character visibility was the goal, aided by narrow-beamed special lights and animator cooperation.

Practical light sources were essential to the story's atmosphere. Halloween scenes featured candles, lanterns, electric bulbs, torches, and a gas stove designed by Art Director Deane Taylor. In the cheerier Christmas Town, holiday lights, fireplaces, and table lamps were used, with Set dresser Gretchen Scharfenberg providing a range of miniature lamps. High-reliability bulbs operated at lower voltages were employed to prevent burnouts during extended shoots

#5 Puppet fabrication was challenging for an eyeless Jack Skellington.

Jack Skellington heads
Jack Skellington heads

Another challenge faced by the filmmakers was dealing with facial expressions. The original designs from Tim Burton in 1982 were a stark departure from Disney's usual style, which featured wholesome, wide-eyed characters. This represented an intentional effort to break away from Disney's mold and do something unconventional. In animation, a character's eyes are typically one of the first focal points for viewers. Tim Burton, when creating the character Jack, deliberately opted not to give him traditional eyeballs. He enjoyed the audacity of this decision, often teasing Disney by proclaiming, "It's great; there's the first character with no eyeballs." This choice, however, unsettled Disney.

Eyes are a key facial feature that animators rely on to convey a wide range of expressions, which complement the character's dialogue and actions. Yet, Tim Burton's design of Jack, without conventional eyes, was a deliberate challenge to this convention, pushing the animators out of their comfort zone. Surprisingly, it proved to be a success, as Jack remained just as dynamic and expressive as any character with pupils and eyeballs.

To achieve the diverse mouth positions and expressions necessary for Jack's dialogue and acting scenes, director Henry Selick decided that creating a series of replacement heads would be the most effective approach. Story artist and character designer Jorgen Klubein meticulously drew every conceivable mouth and facial expression that Jack might require throughout the film, serving as a valuable reference for the fabrication process.

#6 Much of the atmospheric effects were layered on top of the completed film.

Ghosts special effects were layered on top of film in The Nightmare Before Christmas

An example can be observed in the scene above where packages are being delivered by cartoon ghosts. The animated packages–which were flown on strings– were first traced for each frame in a process called rotoscoping. Then, the ghosts are hand drawn one frame at a time to fit around those packages. The two are composited together, which is the result you see on screen.

In the enchanting world of The Nightmare Before Christmas, set and production design brings to life a magical tale that’s captured the hearts of many ghouls. It is a timeless classic that embraces intricate design that enhances the film’s mood and atmosphere. Mark your calendars, as the journey lives on this October 20th! See you in Halloween Town 🎃


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