If you’re making a Christmas special, you’ll probably throw a bit of claymation in there. That’s what It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Community did, and what started as a few credit-sequence embellishments and quick gags in the original movie of Elf turned into an hour-long special a few years later.
There’s just a vibe, you know? There’s something about that aesthetic, with its herky-jerky movement and lovingly hand-crafted feel, that just screams Christmas.
Stop-motion began in the very earliest days of cinema, when filmmakers found that taking one frame, moving things about and then taking subsequent frames created the illusion of movement. Georges Méliès, best known for 1902’s A Trip To The Moon (which uses a not-dissimilar technique known as “substitution splice” for the iconic scene in which a spaceship lands in the Moon’s eye), claims to have invented it toward the end of the 19th century, and in the beginning of the 20th century a lot of filmmakers experimented with toys coming to life. Films like 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong integrated stop-motion special effects with live-action, and full-length stop-motion features were being made by the 1940s. Due to how time-consuming the technique is, it was mainly used to show fantastical events.
But it wasn’t until 1964 that this look became forever entwined with the holiday season, when the Rankin/Bass production company debuted Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of the General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC.
“There were some short [animated] Christmas films before Rudolph, made by Centaur Productions and directed by Wah Ming Chang: Suzy Snowflake and Hardrock, Coco and Joe,” says Rick Goldschmidt, Rankin/Bass historian and author of The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass and The Making of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “These became classics on local Chicago TV, but the only big animated Christmas special prior to Rudolph was Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol in 1962, which was cel-animated.”
While it’s sometimes erroneously referred to as claymation, Rudolph used a stop-motion technique called Animagic that Rankin/Bass developed with Tokyo-based Japanese animator Tadahito Mochinaga (who Goldschmidt calls “the father of stop-motion animation”). It involved making small dolls with wired bodies, which cost around $5,000 each to make. Claymation, on the other hand, involves using an endlessly re-malleable substance like plasticine and reshaping it for every frame. Chicken Run is claymation; Rudolph is Animagic.
(The song pre-dates the special — it began as a poem in 1939 written by Robert L. May, which was then adapted into a cartoon short by Popeye animator Max Fleischer in 1948, then a song in 1949 by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks. Gene Autry’s recording of the song sold 25 million copies and, until the 1980s, was the second best-selling single of all time, beaten only by Bing Crosby’s equally festive White Christmas.)
The special has been on TV every Christmas since — 56 years and counting, incredible when you bear in mind how much TV from the 1960s was either shown once and never repeated or was wiped from existence (both The Beatles’ and Elvis’ first appearances on TV, most of Johnny Carson’s first decade on screens and the 1968 Super Bowl are all long gone). Part of why Rudolph is on every year is self-perpetuating — people expect it to be on every year, watch it every year, and if whoever had the rights (currently CBS) ever opted not to show it, they’d surely be accused of waging war on Christmas. It’s iconic enough to be endlessly spoofed and homaged, with the characters used for ads for Aflac, Verizon, Bing and Nissan.
The influence of the special on the animation world has been huge — Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton wrote the afterword to Goldschmidt’s book about Rudolph — not only leading to a lot more Rankin/Bass specials but a connection between stop-motion and Christmas.
For Goldschmidt, though, the reason for the special’s longevity is simply that it’s very, very good. “The core of the reason is the heart and warmth in Romeo Muller’s writing,” he says. “Then there’s the great soundtrack by Johnny Marks, beautifully orchestrated by Maury Laws; the look designed by Antony Peters and executed by Tadahito Mochinaga and all the great staff; the wonderful Canadian voice group with Billie Mae Richards as Rudolph and Burl Ives, a last-minute American add. They created a believable world and the characters all have lots of personality. For the fans, these characters are part of their families, and as important to Christmas as the tree.”
There are some other factors to consider, perhaps. Stop-motion animation of any kind takes forever, which means it also costs a lot of money. Tying it to a special occasion gives it more of a sense of being a big deal — if you’re going to spend a year making half an hour of television, you don’t just want it going out on some random-ass afternoon. The Oscar-winning British claymation series Wallace and Gromit began with three half-hour specials, all of which were first shown at Christmas, and the characters still feature in festive ads most years.
Stop-motion stuff also tends to be family-friendly, and Christmas is obviously a key time for releasing anything aimed at kids. A lot of the iconography of Christmas lends itself to being animated — a live-action snowman would be terrifying. Filming actors in snow is difficult, while filming models in cotton wool is pretty straightforward. Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s student film The Spirit of Christmas — which led to South Park being commissioned — isn’t what we think of as traditional stop-motion, but uses the same technique, just shot downwards onto cut-out construction paper. It cost a fraction of what it would have cost to make in any other way.
Then there’s just how ingrained Christmas stuff becomes, by dint of being watched every year. Nobody’s firing up Corpse Bride on an annual basis, but The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is a Halloween film, clearly, or a Thanksgiving one, but whatever) is a festive tradition for millions. Plenty of stop-motion movies come out and have nothing to do with Christmas (both Early Man and The Pirates! Band of Misfits! are excellent), but don’t end up getting shown 56 years in a row and becoming part of the fabric of an annual family celebration.
It’s that Rankin/Bass special, though, ultimately, that forged that connection between small models being moved infinitesimal amounts every frame and the holiday season. Rudolph remains a beautiful and beloved piece of work — two figures from it, of Rudolph and Santa, sold for $368,000 at auction earlier this year — and will in all likelihood continue to be a part of Christmas for as long as television as we know it exists, entirely entwined in the festival.
Like, it’s no Muppet Christmas Carol, but what is?