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Few movies are better equipped to celebrate the end-of-year holiday run like "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Henry Selick's 1993 stop-motion animated classic that's perfect whether you're celebrating spooky season or Santa season. This year, however, there's a third special occasion to celebrate with the film: its own anniversary, ringing in 30 years of chilling and charming audiences of all ages.
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will get in on the festive fun on Oct. 28-29, with a pair of musical performances bringing the citizens and songs of Halloweentown to life alongside the film. Before Jack Skellington and company hit the Bradley Symphony Center's big screen, though, OnMilwaukee got the chance to chat with some of the key hands behind the hand-crafted haunted holiday hit: Owen Klatte and Angie Glocka, two married animators living in the area who worked on the eerie icon back in the early '90s.
To commemorate the two MSO shows and three decades of the cult classic, we discussed the process behind the meticulous making of the mesmerizingly macabre masterpiece, as well as the state and evolution of animation 30 years later.
OnMilwaukee: I think we all have a basic idea of how claymation works, but take me through the process of how something like “Nightmare Before Christmas” came together.
Owen Klatte: So unlike the other forms of animation – computer graphics and traditional drawn animation – it’s animating objects. So they have to actually make these puppets that have these armatures inside, like skeletons, so you can move the characters around and pose them in whatever position you need. And then you just have to move the character a little bit at a time, frame by frame, as you’re animating it. So I always say that stop-motion animation has a lot of similarities with traditional Disney-style or whatever, but it’s a performance. It’s like an ultra-slo-mo performance; you start at frame one, then you shoot frame two and three, and work your way through the shots.
Do you do the whole movie, or are you each individually given your own certain scenes or sequences?
Angie Glocka: It can be either you can get various unrelated shots or you get a whole sequence. I don’t think anyone’s ever done the whole movie unless they did it all by themselves. Right, Owen? You did! (laughs)
OK: Well, a short. For “Nightmare,” they originally started with seven of us; Angie and I were two of the original seven animators. They actually, for a while, thought they could do it with seven people, but I think we ended up with as many as something like 18 animators who worked on the movie over the year or eight or nine months it was in production. Angie and I worked on it for that long – and long hours every week. Between us, we think we have about 15 percent of what’s up on screen.
For you, what was the hardest sequence to animate?
OK: They’re all hard. (laughs) I guess for me, in Oogie Boogie’s song, it was all shot under blacklight to get the glowing effect in his lair, so I had to have glasses on to protect my eyes and wear sunscreen and everything, working for long hours every day in those circumstances. And animating Oogie Boogie was difficult, because he was a very big puppet. He was about two and a half feet tall I think, and had this really strong armature. So there were times, to get even small increments of motion in him, I had to climb up on the set and stand over him and reach under his crotch and pull with all my strength to get him to move an eighth of an inch. He was a very, very tough puppet that way.
AG: Most of the effects were in camera – so when you saw things flying around, they were often actually on strings or wires. So I would get these shots – like there’s one scene in the bad Christmas present distribution where these little girls run up to a Christmas tree and all the black ornaments turn into bats. There were like 14 of them, and they fly around all over the place. Every bat slid along a pathway, and it had to all be coordinated, and they had to all fly off the screen in the right way. That kind of stuff is really difficult.
Also I had a lot of crowd scenes, where I would be animating sometimes up to 15 characters at once. At the time, we didn’t have video storage; you could only see two frames previous plus what was live, what you were actually working on, so I had to keep track of the animation for 15 characters. I had to basically write everything down.
Yeah, how do you keep track of all of those nuances?
AG: Well, part of it is you get used to how the timing for an arm or head movement works, so you know after a while how long it takes. You also need to time an action; a lot of times, you’d have to time the whole shot so that the first frame and the end frame, all the action matches and end up on the same spot on the set to sync up with the next shot. You have to time out how long their steps are going to take, how far they’re going to go on each step, and if they’re singing, you have to sing along with the soundtrack. It’s just a lot of planning.
Oh, and there’s this thing called a surface gauge we used to do. Now, we have a software system called Dragonframe where you can play the whole movie and see your whole shot on video any time you want. But back then, we had what’s called a surface gauge. It’s like a machinist’s tool, and it has this spindle on it. Let’s say he’s moving his arm: You’d have to sit it on a set, put it where his fingertip is, move the hand so that you know how far you just moved it, then take the surface gauge off the set, run away and shoot your frame, and then go back and do it all over again. (Laughs)
Sounds a little tedious!
OK: It’s all about the planning. Most shots, you’d do two or three increasingly refined tests before you’d actually go in and start the actual shot. So it was a lot of testing involved for every shot to figure it all out and write out all the instructions on your exposure sheets to know what exactly is going to be going where on each frame. So by the time you got to the actual shot, you have really worked your way through it, know it pretty well and are just paying attention to all the fine details of motion on the final shot. We would actually only produce about five seconds of finished animation a week – and that’s 50 to 60-hour weeks, sometimes more.
AG: And that was a good week! (Laughs) We had no video support. It was like doing a painting where you couldn’t look at what you’d just painted. You had to just blindly go forward and take notes about what you’d just painted. And you never saw the actual painting until the show. We would never see what we had just produced. It was all on film, so we had to take it at night to the lab. The only time we saw it was in the morning during dailies when everyone saw it. When you screwed up a shot, it was just excruciating.
OK: There’s that awful dead silence, when the director and the producer and all your peers are sitting there, knowing you screwed it up. There weren’t that many reshoots; mostly we got them done and you get that nice round of applause when the film plays and looks good. That’s always great – but yeah, it was stressful times.
What’s it like looking back at the movie now, 30 years later, played as a holiday classic with the MSO and having a place in pop culture?
AG: Constantly we’re shaking our heads thinking, “I can’t believe how lucky we got.” We’ve both worked on a lot of films, but none of them has had this kind of longevity. Except maybe “Toy Story.”
OK: “Nightmare” was our first film – we’d worked on commercials and TV stuff before, but never a feature. So that was an amazing way to start, right? We pinch ourselves still to this day, that we were lucky enough to get on that, to be in the right place at the right time, and to be able to do it. The only thing we wish is we had some kind of royalties for all the merchandise. (Laughs)
AG: And it took a long time! It was a little bit of a sleeper. Not a lot of people knew about it or saw it, and they didn’t play it a lot. It really took a while – partly because Disney started promoting it and using it in the Haunted Mansion and embracing Jack. Now, Jack is their Halloween character. I can’t believe it! Every time I see somebody with a “Nightmare” tattoo, I can’t believe it.
OK: And there are a lot of those out there!
Henry Selick is the director on the movie, but a lot of people still think of it as a Tim Burton movie. How do you feel about the authorial battle or question mark with the movie?
OK: Henry, quite rightly, has always been a little miffed I think that he doesn’t get credit for it – because it really is his movie. Obviously the original concept was Tim’s and the main character’s original designs are his – but Henry took those bare bones and fleshed it out into a movie and deserves the credit for it. Tim obviously saw the dailies and had input and everything, but it’s Henry’s film – and I always try to make that point to people who don’t know that.
AG: But it really was a collaboration. I mean, Tim and Henry are like two of the same kind of people, I swear. They’re so unique. They both went to Cal Arts at the same time and I think they were both at Disney at the same time, and they’re both eccentric geniuses. Henry wouldn’t have been able to do this movie without Tim, and Tim wouldn’t have been able to do this without Henry. Even Henry would say Tim’s a real showman. He really knows how to steer a movie toward great public appeal and audience appeal. They really complement each other; they really did.
How do you feel about the state of animation today?
OK: As far as stop-motion in particular, I’m thrilled. We were working on “Nightmare” when we learned in “Jurassic Park” the dinosaurs were going to be done in CG, not in stop-motion. We all thought “uh oh” – especially when we saw the finished film. It was like, “OK, we’re done. There’s not going to be any more stop-motion.” Even the Pillsbury Doughboy by that time had gone from stop-motion to CG. But after all these years, it continues and continues to grow, with “Wendell & Wild” and “Pinocchio” doing so well. There’s a lot of really good work still being done. So that’s really encouraging. Stop-motion as an artform continues and grows and continues to grow – and that’s really great.
As for the other forms of animation, drawn animation is still kind of in a limbo. It’s being done in 2-D on computers, but most stuff now is CG. There’s just so much being done that there’s room for everybody it seems like.
AG: I love CG; we transitioned to CG as well after that. I just think stop-motion, there’s this visceral response to the tactile nature of stop-motion. I’m getting tired of the computer screen and the computer look. It’s great and it’s wonderful, but it’s definitely a look – it’s a computer-y look, no matter how beautiful they make it and perfect. It’s all pixels. Every though a stop-motion film is still digitized into a video format, it still has that tactile feel to it. There’s something that’s really almost like a relief to me to see that, to see a real set with real toys and real puppets and real objects. I think that’s why its appeal, in my opinion, is growing. It’s just really labor-intensive; that is the stumbling block.
Yeah, no studio’s going to be like “Oh, this is going to take triple the time? Sign me up!”
AG: Well, and the money. Any kid can do a CG movie in their bedroom now just about. If you’re smart enough, you can just buy models online and download them and go to town. This stuff costs a lot of money.
OK: Yeah, although in general, Laika produces their films for a lot cheaper than most other CG films are done. It’s not inherently more expensive. It’s a different technique, and animation in general is time-consuming. There are ways you can cut corners, and there are high-budget and low-budget films in every media. So it varies a lot.
But I think Angie’s totally right that there’s this tactile, visceral feeling that you get when you see stop-motion – because it’s never perfect. If you keep massaging the computer files enough, you can make things move perfectly. With stop-motion, it isn’t perfect; you can feel that there’s a human being behind that stuff – and that’s one of the charms of it.
AG: Every single person there – just about from the accountants to the people in the shop – had an art background. Everyone there was a passionate artist. The energy was just electric, from beginning to end. It never stopped. And I think that’s what gets transmitted through the film, and why younger people get so lit up by it. Because you can just feel it, there’s an energy in there.
Do you consider “Nightmare Before Christmas” a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?
AG: (laughs) We just talked about that last week! Probably a Halloween movie, because most of the characters are ghouls. Christmas is probably the smaller part of the movie and the whole atmosphere is a bit dark – though I remember, when Tim was being interviewed, he just said, graphically, he just thought Christmas and Halloween would go great together, image-wise. And he was right!
OK: My response would be you can’t separate it out like that. It’s both – and that’s what makes it magical. It has all the themes about Christmas and giving, and then there’s Halloween with all the scary stuff. It’s just a perfect blend of both.
The MSO's performance of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" will take place on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 29 at 2:30 p.m. For information – and for tickets before they all get kidnapped away to Halloweentown – make your way over to mso.org!
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.