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A Brief History of Stop-Motion Holiday TV Specials

The holiday season is all about traditions — decorating the tree, writing letters to Santa, baking cookies, and gathering around the television to watch holiday classics. One Christmas special that has resonated with audiences for more than 50 years is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the stop-motion animated tale of an outcast, glowing-nosed reindeer who runs away from home with an elf who dreams of becoming a dentist.

Now beloved for its vintage charm, Rudolph was a breakthrough artistic and scientific achievement for Rankin/Bass Productions when it debuted in 1964. Following Rudolph, which is the longest-running holiday TV special of all time, the Rankin/Bass company created 18 additional Christmas specials bringing popular songs and stories to life — and the history of their creations is as magical as the memories they have made for generations.

The Beginning of Rankin/Bass Productions

Born into a show business family, Arthur Rankin Jr. began his career as an art director at ABC. In 1955, he paired up with Jules Bass, who worked in advertising, to form Videocraft International. The company produced TV commercials before transitioning from TV to animated films under their new name, Rankin/Bass Productions, in 1960. Rankin/Bass’ debut project was the episodic The New Adventures of Pinocchio, which used stop-motion animation, a technique that involves manipulating objects frame-by-frame to create a seamless scene.

Rankin and Bass also tried their hand at traditional animation with 1961’s Tales of the Wizard of Oz. While these premier productions were well-received, it wasn’t until 1964 that the company made a name for itself with its first Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Character of Rudolph Was Introduced More Than Two Decades Before the Special

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer in a snowy field.
Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

As with Rankin/Bass’ earlier projects, the inspiration for Rudolph was based on earlier source material. In 1939, Robert L. May, a Chicago-based copywriter for the catalog company Montgomery Ward, was tasked with writing an original “feel-good” Christmas story featuring an animal that could be used for holiday promotions. May thought a reindeer was the ideal subject for a winter holiday tale. Told over 89 couplets, the final work was published in a booklet, more than 2 million copies of which were given to children for free. Montgomery Ward later gave the rights to the tale to May, who enlisted his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to create a musical adaptation. First recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became an instant classic.

But it was a coincidence that brought Rudolph to television. In the early 1960s, Marks lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village next door to Rankin. Inspired by the story’s theme and its commercial potential, Rankin asked if he could adapt the "Rudolph" song as part of the “General Election Fantasy Hour,” a series of television specials sponsored by GE.

Creating the Special Was an Arduous Process

By mid-1963, Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was officially in production. It took 18 months and more than $500,000 ($4.5 million today) to complete.

The groundbreaking animation was created by Tadahito “Tad” Mochinaga, whom Rankin met during a 1959 tour of Japanese animation studios. Mochinaga developed his puppet-based stop-motion animation while producing Japanese propaganda films during World War II. His unique technique for creating fluid, realistic stop-motion movement became known as “animagic” — the signature look of Rankin/Bass Productions.

An estimated 200 puppets were created, with many of the characters crafted multiple times to have a variety of poses and expressions. The majority of the figurines were between 4 and 6 inches high; some were made of rubber, and all of them had bendable wire joints. There were 22 handmade sets built to scale, and each was no larger than 6x8 feet. The puppets’ mouths were drawn on Japanese paper and would be swapped to different mouth shapes to match the dialogue — just one of the many painstaking techniques required for each second of film, which typically consisted of 24 frames of animation.

Rankin/Bass Produced Holiday Programs for Almost Four Decades

Santa Claus on his sled from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

When Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first aired on NBC on December 6, 1964, it was viewed by more than half of American households. The special made Rankin/Bass the preeminent source of holiday entertainment for the small screen. Their second animagic holiday hit, The Little Drummer Boy, premiered in 1968, followed by Frosty the Snowman, which used traditional cel animation to create the look of a vintage Christmas card, in 1969. Frosty has aired on television every year since, making it the second-longest-running holiday special on television (after Rudolph).

Rankin/Bass continued to rule the holidays through the 1970s, with Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976), Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976), The Little Drummer Boy Book II (1976), and the original story, Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977). The production company ended the decade with the 1979 feature-length movie Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. Originally intended for theatrical release, the special was the first time Frosty was animated in stop-motion. The company’s final stop-motion special was 1985’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, based on L. Frank Baum’s novel of the same name.  

In the following years, television networks became less interested in commissioning original animated material for the holidays. Santa Baby (2001) was the company’s last production before it dissolved. Despite this, Rankin/Bass’ legacy lives on thanks to the continued airing (and now streaming) of their productions and those they have inspired, such as Tim Burton’s stop-motion masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas and the visual style of Elf — all unmistakable and unmissable delights of the holiday season.