Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. (founded as Videocraft International, Ltd.) was an American production company, known for its seasonal television specials, particularly its work in stop motion animation. The pre-1974 library is owned by Universal Studios (via DreamWorks Animation/DreamWorks Classics), while the post-1973 library is owned by Warner Bros. 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.
Nearly all of the studio's animation was outsourced to at least 4 Japanese animation companies: Topcraft, Mushi Production, Toei Doga and TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan).
The company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass on September 14, 1960, 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 Topcraft, which was formed in 1972 as an offshoot of Toei Animation. Many Topcraft staffers, including the studio's founder Toru Hara (who was credited in some of Rankin/Bass' specials), would go on to join its successor 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 in Toronto, Ontario, where recording was supervised by veteran CBC announcer Bernard Cowan. This group included actors such as Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, and Paul Kligman.
Maury Laws 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 Rudolph, The 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 General Electric, later owner of NBC. It was a stop motion animated adaptation of the Robert L. May story "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and the song it inspired, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer written by May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks. It had been made into a cartoon by Max Fleischer, brother and former partner of Dave Fleischer, as a traditional animated short for the Jam Handy Film Company almost two decades earlier. This featured Billie Mae Richards as the voice of the title character.
With narrator Burl Ives in the role of Sam the Snowman, and 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 with NBC until around 1972, and currently runs several times during the Christmas season on CBS. The special contained seven original songs. In 1965, a new song was filmed to replace "We're A Couple Of Misfits" titled "Fame and Fortune."
The success of Rudolph led to numerous other Christmas specials. The first was The Cricket on the Hearth, introduced in a live-action prologue by Danny Thomas, in 1967, followed by a Thanksgiving special, Mouse on the Mayflower told by Tennessee Ernie Ford, in 1968.
Other Holiday Specials
Many of their other specials, like Rudolph, were based on popular Christmas songs. In 1968, Greer Garson provided dramatic narration for The Little Drummer Boy, based on the traditional song and set during the birth of the baby Jesus. That year, Videocraft (whose logo dominated the Rankin/Bass logo in the closing credit sequences), changed its name to Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc., and adopted a new logo, retaining a Videocraft byline in their closing credits until 1971 when Tomorrow Entertainment, a unit of the General Electric Company acquired the production company.
The following year, in 1969, Jimmy Durante sang and told the story of Frosty the Snowman, with Jackie Vernon voicing the title character.
1970 brought another Christmas special, Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. Rankin/Bass enlisted Fred Astaire as narrator S.D. (Special Delivery) Kluger, a mailman answering children's questions about Santa Claus and telling his origin story. The story involved young Kris Kringle, voiced by Mickey Rooney, and his nemesis 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 Kaye, Vincent Price as the evil January Q. Irontail, and Casey Kasem as the title character. It was not based upon 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 S.D. Kluger in The Easter Bunny Is Comin' to Town, telling the tale of the Easter Bunny's origins.
In 1974, Rankin/Bass Productions was relaunched once again as an independent production company, and produced another Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus, featuring Shirley Booth, voicing narrator Mrs. Claus, Mickey Rooney, returning as the voice of Santa Claus, and supporting characters Snow Miser (voiced by Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (voiced by George S. Irving). 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.
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 by Buddy 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. 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 which is often paired with The First Christmas on holiday broadcasts.
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 (unrelated to Arthur Rankin, Jr.) for CBC Television.
Throughout the 1960s, Videocraft produced other stop motion and traditional animation specials and films, some of which were non-holiday stories. 1965 saw the 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 The Ballad of Smokey the Bear, narrated by James Cagney, the story of the famous forest fire-fighting bear seen in numerous public service announcements.
Often mistakenly referred to as Videocraft's foray into the Halloween genre, the theatrical feature film Mad Monster Party saw theatrical release in the Spring of 1967. Featuring one of the last performances by Boris Karloff, no reference is made to Halloween. The film features affectionate send-ups of classic movie monsters and their locales, adding "Beatle"-wigged skeletons as a send-up of the era's pop bands.
In 1972 and 1973, Rankin/Bass produced four animated TV-movies for The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie: The Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters, Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid, The 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 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, a rare theatrical release, and Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons.
In addition to their prime time specials, Rankin/Bass produced several regular cartoon series, including The King Kong Show, The Jackson 5ive, co-produced with Motown Productions, and The Osmonds. Perhaps the best-remembered[who?] of these was ThunderCats (1985), a cartoon and related line of toys. It was followed by two similar cartoons about humanoid animals, SilverHawks (1986), and TigerSharks, as part of the series The Comic Strip in 1987. Neither 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.
After its last series output, Rankin/Bass shut down its production arm on March 4, 1987.
Arthur Rankin, Jr. would split his time between New York City, where the company still has its offices, and his home in Bermuda. He formed Rankin Productions to produce a few cartoons, such as the remake of Krazy Kat; that company was later absorbed in 1990.[clarification needed] Rankin died at Harrington Sound, Bermuda on January 30, 2014 at the age of 89. Jules Bass commuted between New York and Paris.[when?] Bass became a vegetarian; a decade later, he wrote Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon, the first children's book character developed specifically to explore moral issues related to vegetarianism. The original story and 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 Family Entertainment, creators of The Swan Princess franchise, for the first and only animated adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The King and I, based on a treatment by Rankin. Distributed by Warner Bros. Family Entertainment, the film flopped at the American box office and many American film critics took it to task for its depictions of "offensive ethnic stereotyping."
In 2001, Fox aired Rankin/Bass's first new original Christmas special in sixteen years, Santa, Baby!, which like most of Rankin/Bass's other specials was based on a popular, similarly-titled Christmas song. Santa, Baby! stood out from its predecessors due to its use of African-American characters and voices performers, like Patti LaBelle (the narrator), Eartha Kitt, Gregory Hines, Vanessa L. Williams and Tom Joyner; it also employed sound effects created by an outside company, Hanna-Barbera. Santa, Baby! turned out to be the final Rankin/Bass-produced special; the Rankin/Bass partnership was dissolved shortly after, with most of its remaining assets acquired by Warner Bros. Television.
Many of Rankin/Bass' films are shown on Freeform during their December "25 Days of Christmas" seasonal period, though several are heavily edited, with scenes shortened and entire songs removed either for content or to accommodate more commercials (as is modern broadcasting practice). Both Rankin and Bass were involved in the new ThunderCats series on Cartoon Network until its cancellation. In the series, a magical item called the Forever Bag was activated by the word "Rankin-Bass".
Sections of the Rankin/Bass library are 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 1960–1973 Rankin/Bass television material from GE. In 1996, Golden Books Family Entertainment acquired Broadway Video's family entertainment library and was later folded into Classic Media in 2001. In 2012, DreamWorks Animation bought the studio, and renamed it DreamWorks Classics. On April 28, 2016, it was announced that the library would be acquired by NBCUniversal for $3.8 billion. The acquisition was completed on August 22.
Videocraft International's theatrical feature film library except Mad Monster Party is now owned by French film production and distribution company StudioCanal, a subsidiary of Vivendi.
In 1978, Telepictures acquired all of the post-1973 Rankin/Bass library except The Last Unicorn and Santa, Baby!. This library is now owned by Warner Bros., through the studio's 1989 acquisition of Lorimar-Telepictures.
Since 1999, The Last Unicorn has been under the ownership of a British company, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, as the successor to ITC Entertainment, via PolyGram Entertainment.
The Jackson 5ive is now owned by CBS Television Distribution due to being the successor to Worldvision Enterprises.
Mad Monster Party and The Last Unicorn are now owned by LionsGate.
Filmography (Pre-1974 library owned by DreamWorks Classics)
- The New Adventures of Pinocchio (1960)
- Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961)
- The King Kong Show (1966–1969)
- The Smokey Bear Show (1969)
- The Tomfoolery Show (1970-1977)
- The Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad Show (1970)
- The Jackson 5ive (1971-1972)
- Kid Power (1972-1973)
- Festival of Family Classics (1972-1973)
- Return to Oz (1964) (produced as Videocraft)
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964, Burl Ives) (produced as Videocraft)
- The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show (1965)
- The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966; James Cagney)
- Cricket on the Hearth (1967, Danny Thomas & Roddy MacDowall)
- Mouse on the Mayflower (1968, Tennessee Ernie Ford)
- The Little Drummer Boy (1968, Greer Garson)
- Frosty the Snowman (1969, Jimmy Durante)
- The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians (1970)
- Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town (1970, Fred Astaire)
- Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971, Danny Kaye)
- The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye: The Emperor's New Clothes (1972)
Episodes of The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie
- Mad Mad Mad Monsters (1972)
- Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid (1972)
- Red Baron (1972)
- That Girl in Wonderland (1973)