See the Creepy Models Used to Make Tim Burton’s Halloween Classic ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ Now on View in a New Show

The show puts these objects in dialogue with nearly 100 artworks from the McNay Art Museum's permanent collection.

Tim Burton, Jack Skellington and his dog, Zero, in Jack’s Tower from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin, TL1994.4.1.3. © Disney © Tim Burton

To mark the 30th anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas this year—the cult classic stop-motion film that emerged from the dark imagination of Tim Burton—the McNay Art Museum is presenting fascinating bits of the film set.

The exhibition, called Dreamland” (on view through January 14, 2024), includes original maquettes and small-scale models that were used during the three-and-a-half years it took to make the movie. These objects were accessioned into the museum’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts in 1994 and, over the past 30 years, have been preserved by its collection department.

Directed by Henry Selick from a story by Burton, the musical, upon its release in October 1993, was embraced for its creepy yet charming tale and its innovative use of stop-motion animation—its characters and designs swiftly lodging themselves in the Halloween pop cultural landscape.

“The set pieces and characters created for the now-iconic film reveal quite a lot,” said R. Scott Blackshire, curator of the Tobin Collection. “From a creative standpoint, visitors will recognize visual elements that signal a one-of-a-kind world that could only come from the heart and mind of Tim Burton.”

The Nightmare Before Christmas tells the tale of Jack Skellington, the melancholic king of Halloween Town, which is populated by various monsters, witches, and Frankenstein creatures. Weary of Halloween, Jack schemes with his residents to take over the holiday of Christmas, leading to hijinks including the kidnapping of Santa Claus. 

Tim Burton, Oogie Boogie Exposed from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin, TL1994. © Disney. © Tim Burton.

Featured in “Dreamland” are original models of the bony protagonist Jack Skellington, Bone Crusher, and Oogie Boogie, as well as the full-set model of Jack’s bed and tower—designs that take obvious cues from German Expressionism.

The McNay has further crafted a surreal environment in which to display these objects—its own “dreamland,” said Blackshire, “to channel our collective Burton-esque energy.”  

To do so, the museum has gathered nearly 100 paintings, photographs, prints, and sculptures from its permanent collection. The film’s maquettes have been put in dialogue with works by artists including Jim Dine, Julie Speed, Käthe Kollwitz, Marilyn Lanfear, and Sandy Skoglund, as well as set designs by Eugène Berman for a production of Pulcinella and Franco Colavecchia for The Tales of Hoffmann.

Eugène Berman, Curtain design for Pulcinella (1972). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of The Tobin Endowment, TL2001.27.34.

Burton’s early days as a Walt Disney animator also gets a callback in the exhibition’s “hall of peculiar portraits,” inspired by Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which brings together paintings by the likes of de Kooning, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec. 

“In this Victorian-inspired setting are ‘portraits’ that celebrate funny faces, eccentric characters and the whimsical narratives they inspire,” Blackshire said. “We also talked about the experience of walking through a room and feeling like the eyes in a portrait are moving, maybe even following us.”

“It was clear,” he added, “there are a host of fanciful characters in McNay’s artworks that, possibly, live in the same realm as Burton’s Nightmare cast.”

See more works from the exhibition below.

Tim Burton, Bed from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin, TL1994.4.1.1. © Disney. © Tim Burton.

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Ornament (2006). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Michael Maloney, 2012.54. © Julie Heffernan.

Marilyn Lanfear, Marilyn with no middle name, She’ll have one when she marries from The Wardrobe as Destiny Series (1989). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Given anonymously, 1996.35.

Paul Maxwell, Landsat View (1973). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Stevenson, 1982.64.

Tim Burton, Cat House from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin, TL1994.4.1.2. © Disney. © Tim Burton.

Peter Rice, Costume design for Dr. Kalterfelto in English Eccentrics (1967). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of The Tobin Endowment, TL2002.220.9.

Dreamland | Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” is on view at the McNay Art Museum, 6000 N New Braunfels Ave, San Antonio, Texas, through January 14, 2024. 

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