Picture Perfect: Working on "The Nightmare Before Christmas" by Paul Jessel

(Paul Jessel, director of Animasaur Productions in Highland Park, Illinois, worked at Skellington Productions in San Francisco between December 1992 and March 1993, where he animated eight scenes for "Nightmare Before Christmas.")

Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" is the first time that a feature length stop motion animated film has been treated with the same level of technical commitment and money as feature length animated films have been, and by no less than the Walt Disney Company! The film represents a high water mark in the art of stop motion, both for its art direction and its smoothly executed and ambitious character animation.

I was one of the lucky few who was asked to work on the project. Unfortunately, I could not join the crew full time because of my commitments to Animasaur Productions in Chicago, but I was called in to help out for a few months when production fell behind.

In past stop motion special effects features and often commercials I have worked on, you got one chance to shoot a scene with little or no prior testing, and the results went into the film, good or bad. For "Nightmare" a tremendous amount of effort went into perfecting each scene. First one of five two-man camera crews lit the set and worked out motion control camera moves (if needed) using wire stand puppets. The animator assigned to the scene started by picking up the animation timing sheets from the sound track department (the same as used in cel animation.) Dialogue for lip sync was handled in two ways: if the puppet had replaceable heads, the lips sync was worked out on a computer, using something like Quick-time software. The puppet would have 25 to 30 sculpted heads-- one head for each vowel and consonant. Front and side views of each head were entered into the computer along with the sound track. The heads were then picked to match the sound and played back in real time to be checked, all in the computer. The track reader then put numbers on the timing sheets that identified at what frame each head was used. In this way all the lip sync was worked out for the animator ahead of time. Puppets that had jointed mouths could not be done this way. The lip sync for these puppets was the animator's responsibility to work out.

The animator started filming his scene every 10th frame with the puppet to check for staging and lighting. Upon evaluation of this test, the lighting was refined by the camera crew. Then the animator did a rough full animation test of the scene, usually on ones.

Some time during this testing period, before the final shoot, it was the animator's responsibility to make sure the puppet's ball-socket skeleton armature was adjusted to his liking, and that the puppet was clean and its paint retouched, There was an armature crew and a puppet fabrication crew for each of these tasks that the animator took his "patient" to.

Prior to the final shoot, a special model crew cleaned up the set, retouched paint, positioned props, and glued them down. Everything on a stop motion set had to be solidly anchored and glued down because if you bumped a prop during the shoot, and it moved, it would cause an unwanted jump in the action. The animator then shot the final scene using the traditional surface gauges and a digital video frame grabber to assist him in manually moving the puppet 24 times for each second of action. Photography was done with a vintage 35 mm Mitchell camera identical to those used to photograph King Kong in 1933.

For non-stop motion affectionados, a surface gauge is simply a metal pointer that is set on the trailing edge of the body or limb of a puppet. That part is then animated away from the touching pointer and the resulting gap between the pointer and the puppet allows you to see how far you have moved the puppet. The video frame grabber is a relatively new device that was used to help the stop motion animator. Through a small TV camera set next to the motion picture camera it allowed you to capture a puppet's position before you photographed it, and compare it with two previously grabbed positions in the puppet's action. This gadget eliminated forgetting to move something, or allowed repositioning the puppet if you accidentally bumped it. It also helped you get a better feeling for the acting, when you flipped through the positions in sequence. Apart from these devices used by the animator, there were also alarms set on the lights that would go off if a bulb blew.

Each scene's final take and its prior testing stages were scrutinized each day at the screening of the dailies, which began at 8:00 AM. Attending these often nerve-wracking sessions were all the animators, the heads of the puppet fabrication department, photography, set construction, and production design, along with Henry Selick, the director. Tests in each scene were analyzed to be made completely picture perfect. Props and sets were repainted and repositioned and lighting finessed to meet this goal. And yes, the worst did happen. Despite all the precautions, scenes occasionally had to be reshot. We all suffered in empathy with those animators who were unfortunate enough to have to reshoot because of bad acting or motion that wasn't smooth.

There was a close camaraderie among the animators and artists working on the film. The work was physically and emotionally taxing, with 12 hour days, six times a week not uncommon. Everyone knew that the picture was something special and unique in the history of stop motion animation. Tim Burton's vision, director Henry Selick's unswerving perfectionism, and the Skellington Productions' highly talented crew proved that stop motion animation can still be a viable and exciting technique in this age of hi-tech computers.