How The Nightmare Before Christmas changed stop-motion forever

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When people think of projects that launched stop-motion animation into the mainstream, Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas usually come to mind. In some respects, these two productions couldn’t be more different. One is very colorful and jolly where the other is dark and gothic. There is a common thread between the two, however, that would result in the evolution of stop-motion: Christmas.

As Rudolph turned into a perennial classic that that families watch every holiday season, Rankin/Bass was influenced to produce several more stop-motion specials. We’re all familiar with The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus. There are even some pretty bizarre specials people always forget about like Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. The bottom line, people came to associate stop-motion with Christmas. That is until Tim Burton and Henry Selick brought us The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993.

At the time, the idea of combining Halloween and Christmas into one package seemed odd to say the least. Where many consider Christmas a sacred holiday, Halloween is the one night of the year when it’s appropriate to dress up as a devil. Then again, it wasn’t the first time Christmas was given a spooky makeover. After all, A Christmas Carol is essentially a ghost story that takes place during the holidays. What really made The Nightmare Before Christmas work, though, was the clever use of stop-motion effects.

Really, this was a thing?

When you look back at a lot of Rankin/Bass productions, the puppets a lot eerier than you might remember. Their eyes looked dead most of the time, the dialog didn’t always match up with their lips, and the animation itself could be very awkward. If you really think about it, puppets in general can be more creepy than charming, going all the way back to ventriloquist dummies. In that regard, stop-motion was the perfect way to bring a Halloween/Christmas mash-up to life.

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While The Nightmare Before Christmas was only a modest box office success, it evolved into a phenomenon that’s revisited every Halloween and Christmas. It even became the first animated feature to earn a Best Visual Effects Oscar nomination. Up until then, stop-motion was typically restricted to short subjects like Wallace and Gromit. After The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, we got a slew of stop-motion feature films, including Coraline, ParaNorman, and Frankenweenie.

One thing the three aforementioned films all have in common is that they all possess a sinister edge. Because of this, they’re all ideal films to watch in October. This just goes to show how much stop-motion has changed over the years. It’s gone from being a staple of Christmas to being a staple of Halloween. The link in this drastic shift can be attributed to The Nightmare Christmas, which encompasses both holidays at their absolute best.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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