Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. (formerly Videocraft International, Ltd.) was a television production company, known for its seasonal television specials and animated series, such as ThunderCats.
The company origins
The company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in the early-1960s under the name Videocraft International. One of Videocraft's first projects was an independently produced series, The New Adventures of Pinocchio. The series was produced using "Animagic", a stop-motion animation process pioneered by George Pal's "Puppetoons" and Art Clokey's Gumby and Davey and Goliath.
Rankin and Bass followed the Pinocchio series with a traditional cel-animation series, Tales of the Wizard of Oz, in 1961.
Videocraft produced programs themed for the Christmas holidays during the 1960s. Many of their specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, were based on popular Christmas songs. In 1968, Greer Garson's dramatic narration carried through The Little Drummer Boy, set during the birth of the baby Jesus. Also in 1968, Videocraft became Rankin/Bass Productions and adopted a new logo, although they retained a Videocraft byline in the new closing logo credit until 1971.
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) Kluger, a mailman answering the many questions about Santa Claus which told his origin. The story revolved around a young Kris Kringle (voiced by Mickey Rooney) and the Burgermeister Meisterburger. Kringle later marries the town's schoolteacher, Miss Jessica.
In 1974, Rankin/Bass produced yet another popular Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus, based on Phyllis McGinley's 1956 book of the same name. Two supporting characters created specifically for the special, Snow Miser and Heat Miser, are unusual fictional characters in the annals of television; several of their fans have devoted entire websites to them, and even Snow Miser's song was paid tribute in a scene from the 1997 film Batman and Robin. The characters were later featured in a spinoff special in 2008, A Miser Brothers Christmas, produced by Warner Bros. Animation.
Throughout the 1970s, Rankin/Bass created animated sequels to its classic specials, including Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July in 1979. Among Rankin/Bass's original specials was 1975's The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow which told 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. When the Immortals question Claus' worthiness of the Mantle, the Great Ak tells Claus' life story, from his discovery as a foundling in the woods by the lioness Shiegra and his childhood under the care of Necile the wood nymph, his adoptive mother, to his education by the Great Ak in the cruelty and misery of the world that Claus is destined to alleviate once a year. Finally, it shows Claus as a young man accepting his destiny and taking up the cause of children's joy, fighting against the cruel King Awgwa, who does not like children or want them to be happy.
In 2001, Fox aired Rankin/Bass's first 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.
Many of these specials are still shown on American TV stations in the present day around the holidays, and many have also been released to video and DVD. Rankin/Bass stop-motion features are recognizable by their visual style of doll-like characters with spheroid body parts, and ubiquitous powdery snow. Often, traditional cel animation scenes of falling snow would be projected over top of the action to create the effect of a snowfall.
Beginning with Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman in the 1964 production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials became known for their list of well-known star-powered narration and quirky hosting characters. The narrator list includes such stars Andy Griffith, Buddy Hackett, Angela Lansbury and Art Carney. Pinocchio's Christmas and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus are the only classic Rankin/Bass Christmas specials without a narrator.
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, Billie Richards (Rudolph's voice) and Paul Kligman. In later years, a mixture of New York and Hollywood talent, led by veteran voice actor Paul Frees, would be used.
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 Rudolph, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman.
Rankin/Bass' "Animagic" stop-motion productions, as well as many of their animated productions, were animated in Japan. Throughout the 1960s, the Animagic productions were headed by Japanese stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga. Starting with Frosty the Snowman, MAD Magazine artist Paul Coker was the main art director.
Many of Rankin/Bass' traditionally cel-animated works were animated by the Japanese studio Top Craft, which was formed in 1972 as an offshoot of the legendary studio 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 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro.
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 until 1988, when Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video acquired the rights from GE. In 1995, Broadway Video's children's division became Golden Books Family Entertainment, and in turn became Classic Media (which is where the rights stand today after merging with Entertainment Rights). The post-1974 library, meanwhile, is currently owned by Warner Brothers, a unit of Time Warner.
Television rights to most of the Rankin/Bass library are held in the United States by ABC Family, with Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town airing on ABC, while the rights for the original Rudolph and Frosty specials are held by CBS.