Written by Konnor Long (Features Writer)
As we enter the holiday season, we find ourselves surrounded by the timeless entertainment that is holiday media. The public eye is once again flooded with the cheery lighting, hot chocolate, and classic holiday songs and movies that we’ve come to know and love (or grow quickly tired of). Very few pieces of American culture grow to such heights as do the holiday classics. Will Ferrell’s Elf, Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, among many more, are gleaming examples of the infatuation Americans have with the holiday season. Among these, however, is a force whose work is more influential than any other Christmas classic. None other than the work of Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment.
Ring any bells? If you’re like most people my age, probably not. It’s origins trace back to the early 1960s, originally adopting the even more unremarkable name Videocraft International. Its founders Arthur Rankin Jr, and Jules Bass had begun work on the first independently produced project The New Adventures of Pinocchio. The project proved rather forgettable, with its most interesting feature being the way in which it was made: a new technique which they had named “Animagic.” It describes the process of using Celluloid cameras to create stop motion animation, which was often overlaid with projections of traditional animation. This proved to be incredibly popular with children of the time.
This style was the product of the company’s business ventures; they had begun to outsource their process to Japanese stop motion animation studios who were pioneering this technique. This strategy proved very successful, and would later be used in movies like King Kong and Godzilla to bring these monsters to life through the power of illusion. perhaps even more memorable, was its use in their newest features. These were called Holiday Tales. With its dreamy toy-like production, the company adopted its most famous name – Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment – and began production on Christmas-themed programs. Its first large hit was the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
First airing on NBC in 1964, it became the first of many successes for the company. Christmas had proved to be the most successful theme for the company, and so it was adopted as the heart and soul of its production for the next many years. With each success, Rankin/Bass acquired more of a budget, and spit out Christmas specials like clockwork. It’s next biggest hit was The Little Drummer Boy, followed by Frosty the Snowman, followed by The Year Without a Santa Claus, and followed by each success throughout the 1960s. Their name quickly became synonymous with stop motion animation and holiday specials. The Productions were played annually on every station able to buy the rights to their films, each of which was produced home media spanning from Betamax to Blu-Ray.
By the 1970s, Rankin/Bass had amassed a company of voice actors and producers who were to work on each new TV special, producing their specials like clockwork. Each new special continued to use its signature “Animagic” style and continued to entertain audiences annually.
After a brief hiatus since working with companies such as Toho – the company behind the Godzilla films – they were able to relaunch quickly in 1974 with A Year Without a Santa Claus, which proved to be their next big hit. This proved, however, to be the last of their successful Holiday films.
Rankin/Bass had turned their hopes into breaking out into the field of traditional animation. The decision proved to be uneventful, with their largest production not being until six years later in 1980, with an animated version of The Hobbit. They continue to produce many shows throughout the decade in a traditional animated Style. None of these reached the success they had seen but their Christmas special, the company stopped all production on March 4th, 1987, and was bought out by Disney.
The Legacy of these films cannot be discredited, and for over 40 years, these Christmas specials maintained a cult following and are aired every Christmas season under contract with companies such as CBS and freeform. Their impact on the world of animation is remarkable. The company inspired the use of “Animagic” in countless films throughout the 70s and 80s. Almost any American can name at least one Rankin/Bass’s Productions, and while its name has largely been lost to time, its influence has not.