Friday, April 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Arthur Rankin, influential animator

Arthur Rankin Jr., 89, whose Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer remains television's longest-running Christmas special, died of natural causes last Thursday in Bermuda, where he had retired.

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

Although Mr. Rankin and partner Jules Bass also produced traditional, hand-drawn animation, their studio was best known for its stop-motion technique called Animagic, which differed from clay motion 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 Nightmare Before Christmas using the same style of jointed figurines.

Other Rankin-Bass stop-motion works include The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).

"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."

1964's 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, the son of vaudevillians, was hired as a graphic designer and art director for ABC television after serving in the Navy in World War II.

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

Johnny Marks, who wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," was afraid that his hit could be tarnished if the TV project was a flop, but when it aired on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas, the ratings vanquished any fears of failure.

After that broadcast, "everyone wanted a Christmas film like Rudolph," Mr. Rankin recalled.

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