Interview: Page (1) of 2 - 09/29/06

A New Dimension for ''Nightmare Before Christmas''

Producer Don Hahn talks about transferring Tim Burton's cult classic to 3D

By Frank Moldstad

Converting Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas from 2D to 3D was a labor of love, as Producer Don Hahn relates in this interview. An Oscar-nominated producer whose works include The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and many other Disney classics, Hahn is a big fan of both Nightmare Before Christmas and 3D movies.

One of the objectives for the 3D conversion was that the original film should not be altered by re-cutting it or adding new scenes. Since the release of Nightmare Before Christmas 13 years ago, it has become a cult classic that is perenially re-released, Hahn notes. The film was written by Burton and directed by Henry Selick, both of whom were extensively consulted during the 3D conversion, which took more than a year of work by a team of people from Industrial Light & Magic and Disney. The film opens in theaters October 20.

The end result is better than anyone hoped for, Hahn says, placing viewers in the midst of the film's animated puppet characters with the aid of green polarized 3D glasses. Here he describes the 3D transfer process and talks about the promise of a new generation of digital 3D technology.

How does the look of Nightmare Before Christmas 3D differ from what people are familiar with from old 1950s sci-fi movies?

Well, it's quite different actually. There were some great 3D movies back in that era, and 3D goes back even to the 20s. But this is special on a couple of levels. It's digital 3D, which certainly you've seen -- Chicken Little was the first digital Disney 3D movie out there. The frame rate and the quality of the 3D is pretty astounding. And secondly, this is the first film in motion picture history that's been created from an original classic movie. So it's a chance to take a movie that's 13 years old now, and through a lot of digital magic tricks, with help from ILM, we've been able to turn it into this wonderful digital movie. So it's a first on a couple of levels -- the digital cinema aspect, and the fact that it's the first movie that's been turned into a 3D movie.

What's involved in the transfer process of a 2D movie to 3D, and how complicated is it?

It's really complicated. In the case of Nightmare, you take the original movie and scan it into a computer. That gets cleaned up and restored, and then it becomes your left eye. So when you look at the movie, if you want to see the original version, you just look with your left eye. But then we have to create a whole right eye version that's three inches over, so you can get the dimension of 3D. And that's done by rebuilding the whole movie as a digital picture. In other words, if you have a shot of Jack Skellington, you have to build Jack, and you have to build the background behind him, his house and the snow, or whatever is behind him in a digital world. And then we project a movie on to that digital geometry and then move the digital camera over to the right and rephotograph that for the right eye version.

That's a lot of work.

Yeah, it's really complex, and oddly it's as simple as the Madame Leota effect in the Haunted Mansion, where they project onto a featureless mannequin. That's the really simple version that I can understand. And that's literally how it works, but it's obviously far more complicated than that because it involves really making it pristine and an exact replica of the movie on the screen.

Click to play Quicktime trailer for Nightmare Before Christmas 3D

These days you would just shoot the movie in 3D using a second camera, right?

Yeah, if you are shooting a movie like that today, you would use two cameras side-by-side, which is what was done in those old 50s movies. Now, of course, you would shoot with two digital cameras side-by-side and you would have this wonderful pristine 3D movie. And people are starting to do that. Henry Selick [Nightmare, James and the Giant Peach] is working on a movie that won't be done for a couple of years, but he's starting to think about shooting in 3D.

It seems like more theaters are adding digital projectors for screening 3D films, too.

Yeah that's the other thing, as digital cinema has become more and more prevalent and available, you need a special screen and a special projector to do this. Our exhibitors have been fantastic. We had 80 screens for Chicken Little and probably close to 200 on this movie that are the state-of-the-art in digital projection. And that's part of what makes the experience so wonderful, because in the 50s you had to wear one red glass and one blue glass, and you got a headache. And now you wear glasses, but they are very lightweight effortless things. And the frame rate is so high -- as opposed to 24 frames per second, you are getting probably five times that. You don't get the flicker and you don't get a headache.

That's what I associate with the old ones.

Yeah, I know, we all do. I watched Dial M for Murder last night, the Hitchcock 3D movie. We projected it here at the studio. And boy, it really hurts after a while. It's a a great movie, though. 

Yes it is! But this 3D process is more believable because it has a more realistic depth of field, right?

Yeah, I mean the thing about a stop-motion movie like Nightmare is you really feel like you're in there with the puppets.  And you see things that you've never seen before. When we started working with Tim Burton on this -- we wanted to include the original filmmakers at every step of the way, because it's their movie -- we wanted to make sure that he liked what we were doing. And he was amazed that you could really feel like you were standing there in the same space as the puppets are.

I suppose he saw things that he would have done differently had he been creating it for 3D.

Yeah, that's the truth with any movie when you revisit it after a while. But I think this is a real treat for everybody to revisit the movie and be able to see it through two eyes instead of one.

Will this process be transferable to home video on DVD?

It's not today, but the technology is close. Although I think that the great thing about Nightmare is that it's a perennial, it comes out every year. People love it, and it's turned into this cult movie. But the technology for home theaters is catching up, because people are working on it with Blu-ray discs and things that hold more. So we'll probably get to the point where you can actually enjoy 3D movies in your home pretty soon.

You mentioned Chicken Little, which was released in both 2D and 3D. Did moviegoers show a preference?

I don't have any facts or figures off the top of my head, but the 3D experience is terrific because it's more immersive. So the theaters that were showing Chicken Little in 3D were really successful. That's why we continue to do it, and in fact next year, when our next movie Meet the Robinsons comes out, it will be in 3D as well.

Is the 3D experience better with animation than with live-action?

Well, I don't know if I would make that argument. In essence, Nightmare Before Christmas is a live-action movie. It's animation, stop motion animation. But it had sets that were built, and lights, and instead of actors we had puppets. But it was very much shot in a live action way. I think they both can be great. James Cameron has done some amazing 3D IMAX movies that were live action, and I think they are breathtaking. So I think with the right filmmaker, they can both be great.

Do you think the market for 3D films is going to grow quickly over the next few years?

I hope it does, because I'm a fan. Open Season from Sony has just come out, and they have a 3D release. There is a little 20-minute segment of Superman that was in 3D. I think it's an experience that theatergoers can enjoy, one that makes it special to go to the movies, not unlike it was in the 50s when you got a chance to go see 3D movies. 

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