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In 1985, Tim Burton and Paul Reubens invited Elfman to write the score for their first feature film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Elfman was apprehensive at first because of his lack of formal training, but with orchestration assistance from Oingo Boingo guitarist and arranger Steve Bartek, he achieved his goal of emulating the mood of such composers as Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann. In the booklet for the first volume of Music for a Darkened Theatre, Elfman described the first time he heard his music played by a full orchestra as one of the most thrilling experiences of his life. Elfman immediately developed a rapport with Burton and has gone on to score all but two of Burton's major studio releases: Ed Wood which was under production while Elfman and Burton were having a fight, and Sweeney Todd. Elfman also provided the singing voice for Jack Skellington in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and the voices of both Barrel and the "Clown with the Tear-Away Face". Years later he provided the voice for Bonejangles the skeleton in Corpse Bride.
Burton has said of his relationship with Elfman: "We don't even have to talk about the music. We don't even have to intellectualize – which is good for both of us, we're both similar that way. We're very lucky to connect" (Breskin, 1997)
In October 2013, Elfman returned to the stage to sing his vocal parts to a handful of Nightmare Before Christmassongs as part of a concert titled Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton