Arthur Rankin Jr., filmmaker famous for stop-motion animation TV specials, dies at 89

More than five decades ago, Arthur Rankin Jr., a producer­-director working in stop-motion animation, had an idea to develop a family-oriented TV special around a popular Christmas song. He hoped a network would like it enough to run it two or three times.

But when “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” aired in 1964, he and partner Jules Bass found that they had a blockbuster — one that launched them into TV history as pioneers of the animated holiday special.

(Rick Goldschmidt/Rankin/Bass Productions) - Producer-director Arthur Rankin Jr., seen here in 1966, and his partner, Jules Bass, were best known for their stop-motion technique called Animagic, which differed from Claymation in its use of small, wire-jointed dolls.

**CORRECTS LAST NAME TO ROPER ** ** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 4 **Pastor Fred Phelps, right, holds his great-granddaughter, Zion Phelps-Roper, as he sings happy birthday to family members during a gathering at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. April 9, 2006. Phelps and his tight-knit congregation travel the country preaching damnation to a nation of sinners. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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“Rudolph,” with its catchy tunes and charmingly misfit characters, remains the longest-running Christmas TV special, “one of only four 1960s Christmas specials still being telecast,” according to the Archive of American Television.

The others are “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and another Rankin-Bass creation, “Frosty the Snowman.”

Mr. Rankin, whose projects would later include animated series such as “The Jackson 5ive” and the feature-length, stop-­motion film “Mad Monster Party?,” died of undisclosed causes Jan. 30 in Harrington Sound, Bermuda, where he had retired, said his son, Todd Rankin. He was 89.

“Arthur was the Walt Disney of stop-motion animation,” said Rick Goldschmidt, who chronicled the history of Rankin-Bass productions in books and on a Web site. “He was a great influence on the Tim Burton films and even more so on Pixar.”

Although Rankin-Bass also produced traditional, hand-drawn animation, it was best known for its stop-motion technique called Animagic, which differed from Claymation in its use of small, wire-jointed dolls.

Burton, who told the Los Angeles Times last year that he had “a fond burning feeling” for the Rankin-Bass holiday specials he watched as a child, created movies such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” using the same style of jointed figurines.

In homage to his childhood inspirations, Burton even named a character in his 1984 short “Frankenweenie” Mr. Burgermeister, after a character in Rankin-Bass’ “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (1970).

Other well-known Rankin-Bass stop-motion works include “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968), “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” (1971) and “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974).

Following the pattern established in “Rudolph,” which features Burl Ives’s singing and narration, Mr. Rankin and Bass broadened the appeal of the programs by using famous voices, including those of Greer Garson, Danny Kaye and Jimmy Durante.

A time-tested theme was also a Rankin-Bass hallmark.

“In all our pictures we had an antagonist who becomes the good guy,” Mr. Rankin said in a 2005 interview for the Archive of American Television, “and the underdog fulfills his quest.”

In “Rudolph,” the underdogs were the title character with the flashing red nose and an elf named Hermey, who wants to be a dentist. Among the villains is the Abominable Snowman, who ultimately changes his menacing ways.

“Rudolph” took more than a year to make because of the painstakingly slow pace of stop-motion production, “but the show is not just the technique,” Mr. Rankin told The Washington Post in 2004. “It’s the story, the characters, the music. We knew what we needed: warmth. ‘Rudolph’ showed us that.”

Mr. Rankin grew up in a family attuned to pleasing audiences. His parents, Mignon Klemm and Arthur Rankin Sr., were vaudevillians. An only child, Arthur grew up on his grandparents’ farm outside Baltimore, where he was born July 19, 1924. He moved to New York at 12.

After service in the Navy during World War II, he ventured into the burgeoning television industry. Hired at ABC, he was a graphic designer and art director on dramatic series such as “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Schlitz Playhouse.”

He began making commercials for network sponsors, a sideline that proved so successful that he left ABC in 1952 to form his own company.

Bass, who worked for an advertising agency, joined him in 1955, when they formed Videocraft International, later named Rankin/Bass Productions.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Rankin went to Japan to study the techniques of stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga, who used figurines and miniature sets to make his films. Mochinaga would later supervise the animation of a number of Rankin-Bass shows.

In 1962, Mr. Rankin was trying to come up with a Christmas special for General Electric and thought of his Greenwich Village neighbor Johnny Marks, whose song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” had been inspired by a story written as a department store holiday promotion by his brother-in-law Robert May. Marks’s song, sung by Gene Autry, was a huge success in 1949.

Mr. Rankin, Bass and writer Romeo Muller fleshed out a story based on the song, adding a whole cast of characters, including the Misfit Toys.

With Bass, Mr. Rankin branched out from holiday specials to animated features such as “Mad Monster Party?” (1967), a tongue-in-cheek mash-up that featured Frankenstein, Dracula, the Werewolf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other famous creatures, and the Peabody Award-winning “The Hobbit” (1977), based on the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy.

— Los Angeles Times

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