Research – Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc.

27 07 2011

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Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. (formerly Videocraft International, Ltd.), also known as Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment, was an American production company, known for its seasonal television specials, particularly its work in stop-motion animation. With few exceptions, their library is currently owned by Classic Media.

Rankin/Bass stop-motion features are recognizable by their visual style of doll-like characters with spheroid body parts, and ubiquitous powdery snow using an animation technique called “Animagic.” Often, traditional cel animation scenes of falling snow would be projected over the action to create the effect of a snowfall.

The company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in the early 1960s as Videocraft International.


The majority of Rankin/Bass’ work, including all of their “Animagic” stop-motion productions, were created in Japan. Throughout the 1960s, the Animagic productions were headed by Japanese stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga. Their traditionally cel-animated works were animated by Toei Animation, Crawley Films and Mushi Production, and since the 1970s, they were animated by the Japanese studio Top Craft, which was formed in 1972 as an offshoot of Toei Animation. Many Top Craft staffers, including the studio’s founder Toru Hara(who was credited in some of Rankin/Bass’ specials), would go on to join Studio Ghibli and work on Hayao Miyazaki‘s feature films, including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro.

In addition to the ‘name’ talent that provided the narration for the specials, Rankin/Bass had its own company of voice actors. For the studio’s early work, this group was based inToronto, Ontario, where recording was supervised by veteran CBC announcer Bernard Cowan. This group included actors such as Paul SolesLarry D. Mann, and Paul Kligman.

Later, the most notable voice was Paul Frees, who provided the voices for, among many others, the three wise men (The Little Drummer Boy), Burgermeister Meisterburger (Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town), the traffic cop (Frosty The Snowman), Jack Frost (Frosty’s Winter Wonderland), and even Santa Claus himself (Frosty The Snowman). Other Rankin/Bass voice actors have included Andy GriffithBurl IvesCasey KasemFred AstaireRed SkeltonDanny KayeBoris KarloffJimmy DuranteDanny ThomasEthel MermanVincent PriceBob McFaddenRobie LesterLinda GaryMickey RooneyMorey AmsterdamMarlo ThomasGreer GarsonAngela LansburyJune ForayDon MessickJackie VernonAllen SwiftRobert Morse and Shelley Winters. Outside of the holiday specials, Larry Kenney had been with Rankin/Bass for years, doing characters on ThunderCats (notably as Lion-O) and SilverHawks.

Maury Laws has served as musical director for almost all of the animated films.

Romeo Muller was another consistent contributor, serving as screenwriter for many of Rankin/Bass’s best-known productions including RudolphThe Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman.


One of Videocraft’s first projects was an independently produced series based on the character Pinocchio. It was done using “Animagic”, a stop motion animation process using figurines (a process already pioneered by George Pal‘s “Puppetoons” and Art Clokey‘s Gumby and Davey and Goliath). This was followed by another independently produced series using more traditional cel animation and based on already established characters, Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961.


One of the mainstays of the business was holiday themed animated specials for airing on American television. In 1964, the company produced a special for NBC and sponsor (and later owner of NBC) General Electric. It was a stop-motion animated adaptation of the Johnny Marks song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which had been made into a Max Fleischertraditional animated short almost two decades before). This features Billie Mae Richards as the voice of the title character. With narrator Burl Ives in the role of Sam the Snowman, along with an original orchestral score composed by Marks himself, Rudolph became one of the most popular and longest-running Christmas specials in television history: it remained withNBC until around 1972, and currently runs annually on CBS. The special contained seven original songs; however, General Electric had one additional song, “Fame And Fortune”, added in 1965.

The success of Rudolph led to numerous other Christmas specials. the first of which was The Cricket on the Hearth (introduced in a live-action prologue by Danny Thomas), in 1967, followed by a Thanksgiving special, The Mouse on the Mayflower (told by Tennessee Ernie Ford), in 1968. Often mistakenly referred to as Videocraft’s foray into the Halloween genre, the theatrical feature film Mad Monster Party was released in the Spring of 1967. Featuring one of the last performances of Boris Karloff, no reference is made to the October holiday. The film features affectionate send ups of classic movie monsters, which some viewers confuse for traditional Halloween characters.

This is the trailer to the classic Rudolph the red nosed reindeer.

Other holiday specials

Videocraft also continued to produce programs themed for the Christmas holidays. Many of their specials, like Rudolph, were based on popular Christmas songs. In 1968, Greer Garson‘s dramatic narration carried through The Little Drummer Boy, set against the birth of the baby Jesus. Also in 1968, Videocraft, which had carried Rankin and Bass’s production credits as part of its closing logo until then (see “The company origins” section above), changed its name to Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc., and adopted a new logo, although they retained a Videocraft byline in the new closing logo credit until 1971.

The following year (1969), Jimmy Durante sang and told the story of Frosty the Snowman, with Jackie Vernon voicing the title character of a snowman magically brought to life.

1970 brought another famous Christmas special, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. Rankin/Bass was able to enlist Fred Astaire as narrator S.D. (Special Delivery) Kruger, a mailman answering the many questions about Santa Claus (and in turn, telling his origin). The story revolved around a young Kris Kringle (voiced by Mickey Rooney) and the Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by Paul Frees). Kringle later marries the town’s schoolteacher, Miss Jessica (voiced by Robie Lester).

In 1971, Rankin/Bass produced the Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail, with the voices of narrator Danny KayeVincent Price, and Casey Kasem (as the title character). It was based not on the title song, but on a 1957 novel by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich titled The Easter Bunny That Overslept. In 1977, Fred Astaire returned as mailman narrator Kruger in The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town, telling the tale of the Easter Bunny‘s origins.

In 1974, Rankin/Bass produced still another popular Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus, which featured Shirley Booth (voicing narrator Mrs. Claus), Mickey Rooney(returning as the voice of Santa Claus, which he had performed previously in Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, of which this special is a semi-sequel), and supporting characters Snow Miser and Heat Miser. The Miser Brothers are unusual fictional characters in the annals of television; several of their fans have devoted entire websites to them. It was remade as a poorly-received live action TV movie shown on NBC in 2006 starring Delta Burke and John Goodman as Mrs. Claus and Santa.[1]

Throughout the 1970s, Rankin/Bass continued to produce animated sequels to its classic specials, including the teaming of Rudolph and Frosty in 1979’s Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, with the voice of Ethel Merman as the ringmistress of a seaside circus, and Rooney again returning as Santa. The special features cameos by characters from several other Rankin-Bass holiday specials, including Big Ben from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Jack Frost. Jack appeared in his own special later that year; Jack Frost, narrated byBuddy Hackett, tells the story of the winter sprite‘s love for a mortal woman menaced by the evil Cossack King, Kubla Kraus (Paul Frees, in addition to Kubla, voiced Jack Frost’s overlord, Father Winter himself).

Among Rankin/Bass’s original specials was 1975’s The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, featuring the voice of Angela Lansbury as the narrating and singing nun, and the Irving Berlin Christmas classic White Christmas. Though only a half-hour long (as opposed to the standard hour time slot), it was critically acclaimed, telling the story of a blind shepherd boy who longs to experience Christmas.

Their final stop-motion style Christmas story was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, taken from the L. Frank Baum story of the same name and released in 1985. In this story, the Great Ak summons a council of the Immortals to bestow upon a dying Claus the Mantle of Immortality. To make his case, the Great Ak tells Claus’s life story, from his discovery as a foundling in the magical forest and his raising by Immortals, through his education by the Great Ak in the harsh realities of the human world and his acceptance of his destiny to struggle to bring joy to children.[2] This special has recently been released as part of the Warner Brothers Archive Collection on a double-feature disc that also contains Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.

Many of these specials are still shown seasonally on American television, and some have been released to video and DVD.

The specials The Gift of Winter (1974) and Witch’s Night Out (1978), sometimes mistakenly attributed to Rankin/Bass, were actually produced by John Leach and Jean Rankin for theCanadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Non-holiday output

Throughout the decade of the 1960s, Videocraft produced other stop motion and traditional animation specials and films, some of which were non-holiday stories. For example, 1965 saw production of Rankin/Bass’s first theatrical film, Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, the first of four films produced in association with Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures. 1966 brought to life The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (narrated by James Cagney), the story of the famous forest fire-fighting animal seen in numerous public service announcements.

In 1972 and 1973, Rankin/Bass produced four animated TV-movies for The ABC Saturday Superstar MovieThe Mad, Mad, Mad MonstersWillie Mays and the Say-Hey KidThe Red Baron, and That Girl in Wonderland.

In 1977, Rankin/Bass produced an animated version of J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit. It was followed in 1980 by an animated version of The Return of the King, the final volume of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. (The animation rights to the first two volumes were held by Saul Zaentz, producer of Ralph Bakshi‘s animated adaptation The Lord of the Rings.) Other books adapted include The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (one of their few ventures for cinema rather than television) and Peter Dickinson‘s The Flight of Dragons the plot though is mainly from Gordon Dickson‘s The Dragon and the George.

In addition to their prime time specials, Rankin/Bass produced several regular cartoon series, including The King Kong ShowThe Jackson 5ive (co-produced with Motown Productions), and The Osmonds. Perhaps the best-remembered of these was ThunderCats (1985), a cartoon and related toy-line about battling cat-like people in a post-apocalyptic future. It was followed by two similar cartoons about animal-like people, Silverhawks (1986), and Tigersharks (as part of the series The Comic Strip in 1987) which never enjoyed the same commercial success.

Rankin/Bass also attempted live-action productions, such as 1967’s sequel King Kong Escapes (a co-production with Toho), 1976’s The Last Dinosaur, 1978’s The Bermuda Depths and 1983’s The Sins of Dorian Gray. (With the exception of King Kong Escapes, all were made for television.)

Rankin/Bass today

After its last output in 1987, Rankin/Bass went into hiatus, with no new holiday or non-holiday specials or theatrical films.

In the meantime, Arthur Rankin Jr. split his time between New York City, where the company still has its offices, and his summer retreat in Bermuda. He went out to form Rankin Productions to produce a few cartoons, such as the remake of Krazy Kat. It was later absorbed in 1990. Jules Bass commuted between New York and Paris. Bass became avegetarian; a decade later, he wrote Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon,[3] the first children’s book character developed specifically to explore moral issues related to vegetarianism. The original story along with a follow-up cookbook became bestsellers for independent publishing house Barefoot Books.

In 1999, Rankin/Bass joined forces with James G. Robinson’s Morgan Creek Productions and Nest Entertainment, creators of the animated trilogy The Swan Princess, for the first and only animated adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s musical The King and I, based on a treatment conceived by Rankin. Distributed by Warner Bros. (whose part in Rankin/Bass history is explained below in “Library and rights”), the film flopped at the U.S. box office and many U.S. film critics took it to task for its depictions of “offensive ethnic stereotyping.”[citation needed]

In 2001, the Fox network aired Rankin/Bass’s first new, original Christmas special in sixteen years, Santa Baby! (like many past specials, based on a popular Christmas song), featuring voices by Eartha Kitt and Gregory Hines and featuring primarily African-American characters, a change from its previous specials.[4] Unlike previous Rankin/Bass holiday specials, which made no use of Hanna-Barbera sound effects, Santa, Baby! made total use of them. Shortly after, the Rankin/Bass partnership was dissolved & its library was sold to Classic Media.

Many of Rankin/Bass’ films are shown on ABC Family during their December “25 Days of Christmas” broadcast, though several are heavily edited with scenes shortened and entire songs removed.[citation needed]

Library and rights

The Rankin/Bass library is now in the hands of other companies. General Electric’s Tomorrow Entertainment acquired the original Videocraft International in 1971. The pre-1974 library (including the “classic four” Christmas specials) remained under the ownership of GE. In 1988, Lorne Michaels‘ production company Broadway Video acquired the rights to the pre-1974 Rankin/Bass television material from GE. In 1995, Broadway Video’s children’s division became Golden Books Family Entertainment, and in turn became Classic Media.

The Rankin/Bass theatrical feature film library (with the exception of Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July and The Last Unicorn) is now owned by French production companyStudioCanal.

In 1978, Telepictures Corporation acquired all of the post-1974 Rankin/Bass library. All Rankin/Bass material from 1974-1989 (except The Last Unicorn) are now owned by Warner Bros.(through the studio’s 1989 acquisition of Lorimar-Telepictures) and managed by its animation division. In 2008, Jack Frost (1979) was officially released on DVD by Warner Home Video(after several years of being in the public domain).

The Last Unicorn is owned by ITV Global Entertainment Ltd., with Lionsgate handling video distribution under ITV’s license.

Television rights to The Jackson 5ive are owned by CBS Television Distribution due to being the successor to Worldvision Enterprises. Classic Media does have ancillary rights, however.

Television rights to most of the Rankin/Bass library are held in the United States by ABC and ABC Family, with the exceptions of the original Rudolph and Frosty specials, which are held by CBS.




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