The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Curse of the Oogie-Boogie Set
Updated: Apr 8, 2019
In between visits by perennially disgruntled The Nightmare Before Christmas employees, a few other adventures awaited me on the production of the movie. One of them actually involved Tim Burton.
He showed up at the studio one morning with Lisa Marie in tow.
Jenny, TNBC’s fab accounting assistant had just poured water into our coffee maker and hit the ‘On’ button. We had an old-fashioned restaurant style system which did not include an automatic shut-off. Tim, in his zeal to get some caffeine into his system made a bee-line for the kitchen.
Before I could intercede, he’d snatched the glass coffee pot off the burner; emptied its contents into a large Styrofoam cup; added milk and/or sugar before placing the pot back to catch the remaining coffee.
Tim and the strikingly beautiful Lisa Marie disappeared to their confab with Kathleen Gavin, our producer and Henry Selick, TNBC’s director.
I turned back to survey the damage.
Me: “Jen, the best Smiley Face I can put on this one, is that Tim Burton is one intense and focused individual.”
Jen: “You want the counter or the carpet?”
Me: “The carpet. It will take longer and delay my inevitable daily public stoning in front of The Big Board at the hands of the animators.”
Jen: “Oh come on. It’s not that bad. They don’t stone you every day.”
Me: “That’s true. Sometimes they do it twice.”
The next incident involved the late night stage inspections, of which I became a part after Jackie, the former head of scheduling, left on maternity leave and I moved from stage management (ahem) to the production department.
The production department split up the responsibility of doing one final late night walk-through of the stages among the entirety of the staff, which now included me. We wanted to share the pain of 14 hour days equally. Okay, they did. I might have. I can’t remember.
Before finishing their shift, one production person checked on the stages and made sure the animators, some of whom did work very late, had everything they needed to finish a shot or at least continue one.
Along with everyone in the production department, I pulled that duty once a month. Most of the inspections were fairly routine and involved finding a missing prop or getting animators tape, paint, or glue. They were a very self-sufficient bunch, used to working long hours on their own, but a last check-in did help expedite the process.
During one of my late night shifts I walked the main studio, which included the Roulette Wheel set, the one used for the final confrontation between Jack and Oogie-Boogie. It occupied the largest stage in the complex. The exact dimensions escape me, but about half the set lived on a couple pieces of secured plywood whose length and width exceeded that of a King-sized bed.
Which turned out to be a very appropriate comparison.
Now would be a good time to explain the physical rigors of stop-motion animation. Anyone trained in this particular artform has to be in relatively good shape. I’ve never seen a fat animator. Okay, that’s not true. I’ve seen plenty of fat animators. They sit on their behinds and push a mouse, pencil, or joystick around and make pretty pictures on a monitor.
The qualification I make is I’ve never seen a fat stop-motion animator.
One of TNBC’s animators, in particular, would rise everyone morning at 6am and do an hour of plyometrics before coming into work. Another one studied martial arts. One of them, an artist from Boston, had to be one of the most athletic people I’d ever met. Had he not gone into animation, I believe he could have excelled at professional sports.
It’s a very physical job. A lot of crawling, climbing, clutching, and lifting.
All this might go so far as to excuse me for not paying nearly enough attention to the heavy breathing I heard coming from the roulette wheel set. And if not for the apparent sounds of twosets of rhythmic and intense respiration, I’d have walked into quite a performance. Common sense took over and just before I yanked back the closure of black curtains that surrounded all the stages, I withdrew my hand and stepped back.
But not quite quickly enough.
Panting Individual: “Anyone out there?”
Me: “Uh. No?”
Continually Panting Individual: “Is anyone out there?”
Me: “I’ll come back later.”
Still Panting Individual: “I don’t need anything.”
Really Panting Individual: “What was that?”
Me: “I’ll go check on Steve and the Sleigh flying rig.”
Several animators wondered if production forgot about them that evening. I fled the scene and skipped a few stages, hoping that the independent buggers could get along without someone to fetch them 1” white camera tape for a night.
For a week I avoided the couple I speculated occupied Motel Oogie-Boogie on that particular evening. Not easy to do in a facility with 100 workers, all of whom knew each other right down to their personal lives. A conversation with a coworker or two about my possible voyeurism didn’t make it high on the list of things to do during the workday.
That particular Oogie-Boogie roulette wheel set had a curse on it. A few days after the Things Go Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump, Bump In The Night episode, one of our quantum physics degreed camera operators decided to drive their brand new motion control rig from Stage 1 to Stage 20.
In defense of our own Doctor Einstein, his next assignment did take place on Stage 20.
However, driving a contraption of speed rail, welded metal plates, block and tackle from the 1700s ship-building industry, and a motorized Worrall head through the Escher-like construction of Skellington AT NIGHT however, might not have been the best plan. Throw in the duvetyne which wrapped everything on the stage floor in a black shroud of grim death and the only place more dangerous to take a spin on four wheels might be a Demolition Derby on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
[Whoa! Look at that, Jim. Hunter McQueen just backed his Brinks Armored Vehicle overthe Yugo driven by the former Jimmy “The Bohunk” Abramowitz!]
[Yes that is something, John!]
But don’t let common sense interfere with a joyride in the middle of the night . . . on a pitch black studio floor . . . with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment and gear in the way . . . and millions of dollars of set pieces, props, and puppets on display.
The following is the chagrined personal account of said cameraman and the production assistant on rounds. I was not on duty that evening. Follow the layout of Skellington Studios below this posting.
The camera operator took off from Stage 1 and worked the Motion Control rig down one of the narrow alleyways on the studio floor. The stages did lay out in a surprising form of organized
numbering. Stages 1 through 7 were on the right hand side of the studio as you drove from front to back, and Stages 8 through 13 sat on the left.
14 through 20, or the Auxiliary Stages, were in the far reaches of Skellington and defied such military regimentation. As such we had an overhead of the stages that I used until I memorized where they were. Several thousand trips to each working set will embed their whereabouts in your brain.
Back to the accident about to happen.
The motion control rig, far from street ready, managed to avoid any collisions, despite the lack of definition in the field of vision of the driver, until it got to near the end of its initial journey through the first thirteen stages. Just before the safety of open space, which lay just on the other side of the drapery that divided the two sets of stages, the motion control rig crashed into a corner of the Oogie-Boogie Roulette Wheel set.
A six inch protrusion of a corner of the set extended into the narrow alleyway. Invisible due to its camouflage of black duvetyne. An additional piece of plywood had been added to allow the animator to keep certain tools and materials close at hand.
Or, perhaps the amorous couple of a few nights back needed a little extra room to move around. We will never know.
Whatever the reason, the MoCon (That’s film lingo.) rig had inadvertently committed one of the several zillion cardinal sins of stop motion animation known as unnecessary or un-filmed movement.
It causes horrific things to happen when such events occur such as Oogie-Boogie moving six feet in perspective without any known purpose and against all the laws of physics. The shot, to this juncture, might be ruined.
The fallout and possible solutions.
1. The animator can kill the camera operator and be found not guilty due to justifiable homicide. Also included would be the subsequent dismantling and melting down of the MoCon rig. The entire camera department would be forced to attend this event.
2. The animator can commit suicide, greatly reducing his productivity ongoing.
3. The shot, already 360 frames into a 720 frame extravaganza, can be restarted. This request would precipitate #2.
4. Phil Lofaro works on a brilliant solution. He sends the finished 360 frames to Disney. They send back specs to line up the set in its original position. The animator starts from frame 361, and Disney’s editorial staff is prepared to make further micro adjustments in post.
Strangely, as much as we wanted to see the camera operator dispatched and the cursed MoCon rig turned into scrap, we opted for #4.
Courtesy Reminder: When I said Phil Lofaro could do anything, I was not joking. The shot continued on schedule. It finished on time and looked great. If another performance of the Posturepedic Polka occurred on the Oogie-Boogie set, I was not the one to hear it.
And really, you two. That Roulette Wheel had a surface like an Iron Maiden.