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Music & Entertainment

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 7:59 min

Writing specifically for a character can be daunting. In this case study, Danny discusses the process of creating the score for The Nightmare Before Christmas and how he collaborated with Tim Burton to invent Jack Skellington's story.

Danny Elfman
Teaches Music for Film
Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman teaches you his eclectic creative process and his approach to elevating a story with sound.
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[MUSIC - "WHAT'S THIS?"] - "Nightmare Before Christmas--" that was a unique moment for me in my life that I've never had anything quite like it since, because I'd always, as a songwriter, with Oingo Boingo, and with the Mystic Knights before that, I always kind of struggled getting a song together. And usually, there's a process, like what am I singing about? And I have a tune I like, but I don't know what I'm-- what's bothering me right now, because frequently, I sung about things that bothered me. I just don't want to write things just to be obnoxious, like when I started out, because that was enough in the beginning. Now, I'm looking for things that I'm thinking about. It was hard. And I start "Nightmare Before Christmas" with Tim, and so this was unique because it's the first time in my life I'd written for a character that wasn't me, the character I felt a close kinship with. And as I wrote more and more for Jack Skellington, he became more of my alter ego that I felt was part of me, but that developed in the course of writing 10 songs. It was unique because there was no script. Tim and I did not know how to begin a musical. There was no guidebook or manual to look up on how to begin a musical animation that doesn't have a script. He had a story. He had an outline. And that's what, basically, he got the job from. I just knew what I didn't want it to be. I didn't want it to be a Broadway musical because, in that period, I felt like Broadway had become an extension of adult contemporary music. And so I wanted to write something musically that was contemporary but retro, meaning the songs were modern, but they also referred back to things that were retro. In the sense, I was trying to put together different eras of song writing and trying to find a way to make it sound like this could come from any era. So my great driving influences were-- obviously, Kurt Weill was the biggest influence because I loved "Threepenny Opera." [MUSIC PLAYING] [NON-ENGLISH SINGING] There was also Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved Gilbert and Sullivan. I think there's just nothing better from the 19th Century. These are what I took into the songs. We don't have a script, but Henry is ready to start animating. We have to start coming up with something. We just-- we're just behind. Let's just start with the tunes. OK, take out the drawings, and I would say, just tell me what happens here. And he goes-- he starts telling me the story, and I would start hearing the tune. And he would have, sometimes, little phrases, bits of lyrics that he had done. It's like, oh, that's good, that's good, and I would shut them down. And I'd say, OK, that's it. Don't tell me anymore. Get out there, and I run back to my studio. And we did this 10 times, and each song only took about three days to write. I'd call him back twice a week to hear a new song. And I'd play him the one that I just wrote, and he was like, oh, yeah, OK, yeah, that's good. Well, wh...

Music out of chaos

From The Simpsons theme to the soundtracks of Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman’s compositions are original, memorable, and exuberantly weird. Now the Oingo Boingo founder and four-time Oscar nominee shares his unconventional (and uncensored) creative process. Step into Danny’s studio and learn his techniques for evoking emotion and elevating a story through music.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I simply love the sincerity and easy and right focus in the tools that help more.

loved his enthousiasm and the open way he talked about his insecurities.

I took this class because of my interest in Danny’s work and life. I’m glad to know more about him now.

Danny Elfman I've identified with danny elfman, thank you for sharing how to channel hyperactivity into something that favors. The best tips about natural sounds, rythms and how to create music. Thanks


Suzanne W.

I find i so interesting to hear about his creative process. Creation should be fun, but it certainly isn't at times.


@07:32 he talks as how he sings and writes. I believe Disney would have come in and check them, but in one month they already had the score almost completed.... so Disney surely didn't expect them to be so fast. I loved this chapter because its one of his most amazing scores (at least for me) because it really is ·sui generis· and innovative... this score is a big contribution to create and make a very strong and time proof history that I am sure will stay in the POP culture for, dare I say? centuries.

Anthony L.

I would love to see Danny and Tim just talk about anything. It really amazes me to hear about their creative chemistry.

Kathy S.

What a wonderful creative experience this film was for Elfman and Burton! And, thankfully, without interference from the studio. Love this class!

Marcus M.

“let’s just do our thing and have fun!” If only everything was as fun and easy. This insight into the creation of the movie is great!