Henry Selick

The director of this groundbreaking film talks about working with Tim Burton, how timeless the film is and Coraline

The Nightmare Before Christmas is celebrating its 15th Anniversary with a brand new Collector's Edition, Ultimate Collector's Edition and the film's debut on Blu-Ray on August 26. One who didn't think the film would be around for so long is its director, Henry Selick, although he's surely glad that it did. I recently participated in a virtual roundtable with the director, where we got some exclusive glimpses at a few of the special features on these disc sets, including the original poem, read by Christopher Lee. Here's what Selick had to say about this stop-motion masterpiece.

Does a film like Nightmare naturally looking amazing in high def or does the translation and remastering take a lot of work?

Henry Selick: The fact is the film was originally shot in 35mm film, each image is pristine with no blur, so the source material is already high def , more so than a standard film, so the mastering is less of a challenge.

The DVD already makes the animation look so clear. What new details will we notice in Blu-Ray?

Henry Selick: Some of the details that may become apparent in Blu-ray are that we tried to add texture to all the characters and backgrounds as if they were an engraving, for example you'll see that Jack's stripes on his suit are hand drawn, and the hills behind also have hand made textures built into them. Additional details would be things like the leaves rhat Sallie is stuffed with, the bugs inside Oogie Boogie. Look into the shadow areas, there are hidden details there that have never shown up on previoius DVD but will show up on the Blu-ray>

As a kid I was mesmerized by the old 7th voyage of Sinbad (Ray) Harryhausen film. What stop-motion film got you as a kid and inspired your career path?

Henry Selick: The early Harryhausen, Jason and the Argonauts in particular. 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 read it took over three years of your life, and involved a small army of ILM artists, can you share with fans just how labor intensive this was for you, and what was the hardest element in finishing the film? Also, did you use any other effects houses than ILM?

Henry Selick: ILM are the ones who did the 3D adaption, not the original film. We hired several ILM veterans to work on the original film however. 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 reinspired 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.

Has it surprised you how much Nightmare has been absorbed into the pop culture stratosphere -- goth kids at Hot Topic wearing Jack belts and arm bands and the like?

Henry Selick: 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. But 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.

What is it about stop-motion that originally captured your attention?

Henry Selick: I love all sorts of animation, probably the most beautiful would be the tradtional hand drawn animation that Disney is known for. Stop-motion has a certain "grittieness" 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.

What was the biggest lesson you carried away from the The Nightmare Before Christmas experience?

Henry Selick: When possible always work with geniuses like Tim Burton, who are not only creatively inspiring but in his case, also have the clout to protect the film from the studio system.

How was your working relationship with Tim Burton?

Henry Selick: 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. 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 L.A. 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 adujust to make Lock, Shock, and Barrel just a touch nicer.

How did you originally come on board to this project?

Henry Selick: 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. 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 flims, TV commericals and MTV. While Tim went on to achieve great success in live action. 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 The 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.

How is the directing process on a stop-motion film different from directing live-action or even regular animation?

Henry Selick: Directing stop motion animation is actually a sort of combination of directing live action and 'regular' animation. 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.

What is the next step in stop-motion technology? We've read about the new stereoscopic dual digital camera rig you're using on Coraline. How will the end result be different from The Nightmare Before Christmas?

Henry Selick: Shooting stereoscopically just gives you more of what is there, just a little more sense of the reality of this medium, it does not live in the computer nor is it a series of drawings, it's an actual real set and puppets.

What major changes have occurred in this kind of filmmaking in the time between The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline?

Henry Selick: Mainly it is the ability to capture images in a computer while you shoot. When we did Nightmare we could capture 2 images total. Now you can shoot the whole scene and play it back while you animate. This assists the animator but actually slows down the process because they keep checking it every time they shoot a new frame. Computers have slowed down what is already a time consuming process.

How would you compare adapting Neil Gaiman in Coraline with adapting Tim Burton's designs on Nightmare?

Henry Selick: I think that both Tim and Neil are extremely imaginative and real creators. In Tim's case he is a visual artist so the look of the film came from his sensibilities. Neil is not a visual artist, so I created the visual look of Coraline, but as far as sensibilities, I think there is a little more whimsy in Tim's work, a little more sweet with the sours, comfort with the scary, but I'd probaly exclude Sweeney Todd. Neil goes a little more darker, primal like a Grimms fairytale.

How many of the original puppets do you have in your house?

Henry Selick: The main one I have is Jack Skelligton as Santa with his Skeleton Reindeer in his sled led by Zero. It is prominently displayed in my office where occasional trick or treaters get let IF they are wearing The Nightmare Before Christmas attire.

The Nightmare Before Christmas comes back to DVD in a Collector's Edition, Ultimate Collector's Edition and Blu-Ray edition on August 26.

Dont't forget to also check out: Nightmare Before Christmas [Ultimate Collector's Edition] [with Digital Copy], Nightmare Before Christmas [Blu-ray]