This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast of Rankin/Bass's stop-motion animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Originally aired by NBC in December, 1964, it's a Christmas favorite that according to Rankin/Bass fan and historian Rick Goldschmidt, has become "the longest running, highest rated television special in the history of the medium." From Rudolph's desire for respect from the other reindeer, to the struggle of Hermey the Elf trying to become a Dentist, to the adventures of Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Snow Monster, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer is an enduring tale that has remained in the hearts and minds of many children and adults.
Like Jim Henson's Muppets, the Rankin/Bass characters animated in stop-motion are cartoon beings brought to life in the third dimension. The technique accomplished in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, was also used by Rankin/Bass in other classics including Mad Monster Party, by pioneering animator Willis O'Brien in King Kong, by Ray Harryhausen in Jason and The Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and the many Sinbad films, by Henry Selick and crew in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and by the Aardman Studio in Chicken Run. Imagine having to animate each character and surrounding props frame by frame. For film, it took between 16 to 24 frames in order to produce one second of film. Think about that. One second. Now imagine how many frames it took to complete the 55-minute film and you have an idea of the enormous amount of work required! Each character's movements had to be carefully coordinated and because they were talking and singing, their heads had to have mouths that matched the words. An incredibly complex production but the results, as we are all aware of, were simply amazing.
What are holiday specials without holiday music? The soundtrack and narration are as much a part of the magic or Rudolph as the animation. Burl Ives, who narrated for the film as the voice of Sam the Snowman, also provided memorable songs including 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' , 'A Holly Jolly Christmas', and 'Silver and Gold.' As the 'big name' brought in to attract viewers to the special, his voice and music alone can evoke vivid memories of the colorful animated feature. You can listen to samples and purchase the soundtrack for Rudolph at the iTunes Music Store.
Some interesting facts about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer include:
- The 55-minute film took approximately 18 months to shoot, and like other stop-motion gems, it required the animators to work frame by painstaking frame. The animators had to keep a focused effort on their work; one error could result in having to reanimate and re-film an entire sequence.
- Rudolph, like television's Bart Simpson (voiced by Nancy Cartwright), was given audio life by a woman, Billy Mae Richards, currently 83 years of age and living in Ontario, Canada.
- As was the case with George Lucas's original Star Wars Trilogy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer also had alterations made. For the 1965 rebroadcast, the song and sequence of 'We're A Couple Of Misfits' was replaced with a new song, 'Fame and Fortune'. There were also some minor alterations done, but the film was supposedly restored back to its original condition in 1998. However, eagle-eyed fans will note some differences between the Collector's Edition DVD and the original airing of the show, most of which are due to ownership and rights issues.
- The character of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in 1939 by Robert L. May, who at the time, worked as a copywriter for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department stores. The book was created as a Christmas story that could be given away as a promotional item to holiday shoppers.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Rick Goldschmidt and Mark Sykora at RankinBass.com, the histories of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Rankin / Bass company have become more available to the fans. A search around the Internet turned up some rather great links about our favorite reindeer.
The insightful TVParty website features an incredibly in-depth 3-part article by Rick Goldschmidt on the history of the beloved holiday favorite. Topics discussed in the article include the characters and their name problems, the soundtrack written by Johnny Marks, and the re-shoot required to replace one song sequence with another.
CBS has produced new animated Christmas promotional spots featuring the classic characters of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and some of their recent hit shows like Survivor, CSI and Everybody Loves Raymond. In a nod to the old technique, one of the characters remarks that his movements seem a little 'jerky' - and if you're viewing the clip online, the often stuttering video clip quality (sadly available in Real Player only) echoes his statement. In addition to the video clips, the website features a photo gallery, a coloring book, and wallpaper for your computer.
National Public Radio (NPR) has a small article and audio interview with Goldschmidt discussing Rudolph's 40th anniversary and even some clips from an interview with the voice of Rudolph.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is not the only Christmas Classic the Rankin/Bass Studio created. Other holiday adorations include: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, The Year Without Santa Claus, Jack Frost, The Little Drummer Boy, The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold, and the 2D classic Frosty the Snowman. One of my favorites is the rarely-seen The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus currently only available on VHS. Written by L. Frank Baum, more famously known for creating The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the stop-motion film centers its story on Santa's journey from myth-filled boyhood in the Forest of Burzee to legendary manhood around the globe. Wonderful creatures and gods, including Knooks and Nymphs, and beautifully detailed and designed by Rankin/Bass, help support Claus in his goal of providing all children, rich or poor, with toys for Christmas. This is both a more spiritual and adventurous take on the legend of Kris Kringle that fans of mythology, fantasy, and stop-motion animation will enjoy. For those not familiar with the wonderful tale, you can read it this link.
The look of Rudolph continues to be emulated today in numerous commercials, movies, and spoofs. A few years ago, animator Corky Quakenbush provided us with a satire on MadTV called Raging Rudolph (Windows Media Player required and Parental Discretion is advised). Combine the gangster films of Martin Scorsese and the work of Rankin/Bass and you have a violence-laden revenge story instead of the friendly childhood version we all know and love. CBS has used the look in their 2004 holiday promos, and many fans have created their own homages on the World Wide Web. Films like Toy Story and Shrek, even owe a debt to Rankin/Bass for helping to bring continued recognition to animated storytelling. And while studios continue to produce new animated holiday tales in 2D, 3D, and Stop-Motion, none will be as cherished or glow as brightly as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
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