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 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. That same year, Videocraft became Rankin/Bass Productions 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 titular snowman. 1970 brought another famous Christmas special, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, which starred Fred Astaire as narrator Special Delivery Kluger, a mailman answering many questions about the origins of Santa Claus, voiced for the first of several times by Mickey Rooney.
In 1974, Rankin/Bass produced yet another popular Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus, based loosely on Phyllis McGinley's 1956 book of the same name. Two supporting characters created for the special, Snow Miser and Heat Miser, proved to be breakout characters, to the point that they later starred in a spinoff special in 2008, A Miser Brothers Christmas, produced by Warner Bros. Animation.
In the late 1970s, Rankin/Bass created a few sequels to its classic specials, culminating in the feature-length Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July in 1979. Also among Rankin/Bass' output in that decade was 1975's The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, the story of a blind shepherd boy who longs to experience Christmas. Their final stop-motion Christmas special was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, adapted from the L. Frank Baum story of the same name and released in 1985.
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 previous specials.
Rankin/Bass' stop-motion specials 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 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass' Christmas specials became known for their star-powered narration and quirky hosting characters. This included such stars as Andy Griffith, Buddy Hackett, Angela Lansbury and Art Carney. Pinocchio's Christmas and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus were the only specials without narrators, while Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July only has narration at the beginning.
In addition to the 'name' talent that provided the narrations, 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. It included actors such as Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, Billie Mae Richards, and Paul Kligman. In later years, a mixture of New York and Hollywood talent, led by veteran voice actor Paul Frees, would be used.
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 Toei Animation. Many Top Craft staffers, including its founder Toru Hara, 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.
Video and broadcast rights
General Electric's Tomorrow Entertainment acquired the original Videocraft International in 1971. Rankin/Bass' 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. 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). In 2012, Classic Media was acquired by DreamWorks Animation, which was in turn acquired by NBCUniversal in 2016. The post-1974 library, meanwhile, is currently owned by Warner Brothers, a unit of WarnerMedia.
Television rights to the post-1974 Rankin/Bass library are held in the United States by the AMC television network, where they are currently aired as part of the channel's annual programming event, Best Christmas Ever. Meanwhile, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town continues to air annually on ABC, while the broadcast rights for the original Rudolph and Frosty specials are currently held by CBS. Those three specials, plus The Little Drummer Boy, also now air annually on the 25 Days of Christmas on Freeform. (Prior to 2018, most of the post-1974 specials had also aired as part of the 25 Days of Christmas.)
Full list of Christmas specials
|Title card||Narrator||Release date|
(as Sam the Snowman)
|December 6, 1964|
|Danny Thomas||December 18, 1967|
|Greer Garson||December 16, 1968|
|Jimmy Durante||December 7, 1969|
(as S.D. Kluger)
|December 14, 1970|
|Joel Grey||December 8, 1974|
(as Mrs. Claus)
|December 10, 1974|
(as Sister Theresa)
|December 19, 1975|
|Andy Griffith||December 2, 1976|
(as Father Time)
|December 10, 1976|
|Greer Garson||December 13, 1976|
|December 3, 1977|
(as B.A.H. Humbug, Esq.)
|December 23, 1978|
(as Santa Claus)
|November 25, 1979|
|December 13, 1979|
|none||December 3, 1980|
|Art Carney||December 23, 1981|
|none||December 17, 1985|
|Eartha Kitt||December 17, 2001|