Recurring Nightmare
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 11 (November 2005)

Recurring Nightmare

As Hollywood continues to embrace the computer game industry, film artists are looking at new ways to express their creative genius with interactive technology. In 1993, legendary filmmaker Tim Burton released his stop-motion movie The Nightmare Before Christmas , which quickly became a cult classic, and is still popular today. A decade later, Burton and the film’s art director, Deane Taylor, reinvented the movie in an interactive form for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Game Boy Advance. Published by Buena Vista Games, The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge is available now.

Years ago, I was the host for a children’s television show in South Australia, and while there, I had the opportunity to interview the late, great Bill Hanna from Hanna-Barbera in Los Angeles. He offered me a job in his Sydney studio as the layout artist on Popeye, The Flintstones, and other popular titles at the time. That was in 1978, and I’ve been working in animation ever since, performing a variety of roles ranging from art direction through production design and direction on feature films, TV series, and commercials throughout Australia, Asia, Europe, and the US.

While working for Hanna-Barbera, I got to know a network of animators, and we would fax cartoons and sketches to one another based on whatever seemed funny that day. One day, director Henry Selick spotted some of those sketches and thought I might be a good choice as the art director for The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Apart from the obvious duties of an art director, I helped flesh out a 2D visual approach in a 3D environment, which gave the film a bit of a ‘stamp.’ In order to support this, all the artists had to understand set construction and lighting, as well as design and conceptualization. It was important to appreciate the physical constraints of a set, a prop, or the ability to get a light in there, in order to twist and deform these worlds in a believable way.

The game production was inherently different from the film production. Even though the basic mold was created for the film, it was not a simple task of popping out another [version of the property]. To begin with, you had to assimilate reality to make it match the flavor of the film, then you had to twist it back out again-like reheating a steak. This was a difficult sensibility to achieve, and one that the crew at Capcom in Japan did well. And while the challenge was different, the responsibility to the end product was the same.

I’ve done about a gnat’s whisker amount of game work, and yes, I have big plans for future game development. For me, it is a new form of storytelling, and a way to execute an extremely adventurous design that might otherwise not be possible.

The biggest difference was the freedom of scale and the atmospheric elements of the CGI-if you need the graveyard to be 10 miles wide, you can do it without having to extend the set out the door and into the alley, as you would with stop motion. As far as the planning goes, every last detail had to be storyboarded for the film. While that is not true of the game, I don’t believe that any preproduction shortcuts were made. In fact, the planning needs, in many ways, were much greater.

Both. Tim Burton’s source material contains the absolute essence of this place and these people. We did have total freedom in so far as we would have to capture that essence. The hardest thing to do is improve on that first sketch, so creative freedom is relative.

The biggest challenge was holding back. Because you have the ability to do anything, the tendency is to do just that. However, there is a danger of making everything a dessert instead of a three-course meal. Good ideas and strong visuals should be enjoyed, and not diluted by an oversaturation of effects and a multi-layered production value. Less is more.

For me, it was understanding that a pixel is a unit of measurement and occupies a real space. It’s no different to an animator getting his or her head around the fact that one-twenty-fourth of a second is a unit of time. I had to stop myself from looking for “real” things.

I don’t think that the look was necessarily updated as much as it was expanded upon. I’ve heard arguments about more sophistication, more exposure to cool things, and so on, but, fundamentally, I don’t think that today’s audience is any different from any other audience-contrary to what the audience would like to believe.

The look is Gothic noir-somewhere between the worlds of the Grimm brothers and Dr. Seuss. In a nutshell, it is all things Tim Burton. I’m not sure how it differs from other games. I would point out, though, that there was a conscious effort to bring a cinematic feel to Oogie’s Revenge, not in the sense of an action blockbuster, but more in the sense of its aesthetics and its charm.

I couldn’t really say. Because it’s so new to me, I still enjoy all of it equally right now. With the movie, it took me about six years to decide that I liked Lock, Shock, and Barrel’s tree house interiors the best, and then, recently, I decided I liked Town Hall more. It’s like opening up a Far Side book; you find a new favorite every time. One thing about the new locations is they all have an actual history, or backstory behind their creation. You won’t see it, but you will feel it. In order to design what it is, you need to design why it is.

This is a constant surprise to me, but at the same time, I can understand it. The film is unique in its feel, and it is seamlessly directed. In a sea of animated films that differ from one another by such minute increments, it has to stand out.

My involvement spanned a 12- to 18-month period, and I typically made a pass over the work from my home in South Australia before it hit the build stage. All the work was coordinated through Buena Vista Games in Los Angeles to Capcom in Japan, passing in front of Tim Burton in London at the appropriate times. When we felt we had the right framework, I went to Japan and worked directly with the crew for a brief period.

In the movie, in one of the Halloweentown wide shots, there is a small Dr. Death character off to one side in the shadows. Basically, we had a hole to fill in order to imply a larger crowd, but no puppets to do it with. [The character’s] a bit of old sack, draped over a plastic coffee cup and holding a sad-looking scythe. This is the guy I identify with the most, though I don’t know why. I do appear as a doodle on a police officer’s pad when things go to bits at the end of the film, but this resulted from an art department in-joke. As far as the game goes, I am not aware of any alter ego.

The most important thing is to respect the talents of those you work with and to have the confidence in your own work so you can stretch yourself creatively. This is what is most important when it comes to getting right under an idea and pushing it to a new height. Without this process of inspiration and challenge, your work can only ever be ordinary.

Interview by executive editor Karen Moltenbrey

Art director Deane Taylor created the concept art for the new computer game The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge, based on director Tim Burton’s film.