November 22, 1993 12:00 PM

LIKE JACK SKELLINGTON, THE WELL-MEANING GHOUL WHO TAKES it into his pumpkin-shaped skull to fill in for Santa in Disney’s hit fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas, creator and producer Tim Burton knows just how elusive the Christmas spirit can be. Burton grew up in Burbank, Calif., where, he says, “there’s no weather or seasonal changes, no emotional or visual stimulus. You looked to the holidays to give you a sense of ritual.” In his case, that meant supplementing a steady TV diet of old Vincent Price horror films with such kiddie classics as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Or he would wander over to the local Thrifty drugstore, where he would gaze in wide-eyed wonder al the displays of tinsel and tree decorations. “Kind of sad, really, the way they experience the seasons in California, walking down the aisles at Thrifty’s,” says Burton, 34, who—again like Jack—is a spindly, gentle presence. “A little scary.”

That almost queasy sense of holiday excitement blooms like nightshade in Burton’s new movie, an exuberantly twisted Christmas carol told through the painstaking process of slop-action animation. It’s the same technique used 20 years ago in Rudolph, only now given a high-tech assist by sophisticated new cameras and editing equipment. Jointed puppets of metal, plastic and fabric are posed for thousands of sequential shots, creating the illusion on film of seamless action. “There’s something very primal about stop-action,” says Burton, who was a kid when he began making short films with the technique. “It really is breathing life into something that doesn’t have life.”

Which is very much to the point in a movie populated with both the dead and the undead. Its characters include Jack’s true love, Sally, a sad-eyed Frankengirl who tries to stop his deluded plot to kidnap Santa and get his own taste of Christmas joy; Oogie Boogie, an underworld demon who looks like (and, it turns out, is) a burlap sack full of squirming bugs; and an evil scientist who suggests Donald Duck crossed with Dr. Strangelove.

This mix of sick humor and sugarplums delighted critics and was tops at the box office in its first week in theaters nationwide. All of which proves again that Burton, director of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and the two Batman movies, may be peculiar, but he’s not from the far side of the moon. “It’s that Charles Ad-dams, Edward Gorey, dark-side-with-humor approach to life,” says Henry Selick, the animator-director Burton chose to spearhead Nightmare. “Tim is in touch with something that people really want to see.”

Studio executives haven’t always been as attuned to his playfully morbid sensibility. Burton—the youngest of two sons born to Bill Burton, a Bur-bank parks official (since retired), and his wife, Jean, who now runs a gift shop—first conceived of Jack 12 years ago. But when he pitched the idea at Disney, where he was then an apprentice animator, the studio wasn’t interested in his sketches of a romantic-looking skeleton clothed in black. In 1990, though, Burton, by then a major director, got a different response. “This is a business based on success,” he says, “and if you’re lucky enough to gel a little success, people will listen more.” Disney was delighted that he’d agree merely to inspire and supervise the $22 million production, handing over day-today chores to Selick while focusing on other projects.

Burton—who lives in the Hollywood Hills with actress-model Lisa Marie since splitting with his wife, photographer Lena Gieseke—rarely visited the set of Nightmare; if he had, he might have gotten lost in the crowd. The movie required a staff of 120 working in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco. The stop-action process was so time-consuming that each of the 13 animators produced no more than five to 10 seconds of footage a week.

Burton, who critiqued each sequence from his office in L.A., is thrilled by the result of this labor of love. (His love, he admits, their labor.) Waiting for the rushes, he says, “I would get so energized. I looked forward to seeing footage the way I looked forward to seeing Rudolph.” Experiencing the finished product is, he says, even better—like being back in aisle four at Thrifty’s. “When I think of the process and how it turned out, I start laughing,” says Burton. “It’s a miracle.”


LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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