While these early features had minimal impact with most audiences, Rankin/Bass hit its stride with one of its best productions, the feature Mad Monster Party (Figure 1.10), released in 1967. Baron Von Frankenstein, voiced by Boris Karloff, creates a destructive formula and invites a full cast of classic monsters to share in his discovery. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Creature, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde are all there, including a Peter Lorre–inspired lackey named Yetch and the Monster’s Mate, modeled after and voiced by Phyllis Diller. The plot unfolds as the monsters conspire against the baron’s nephew and successor Felix, who also becomes romantically entangled with his sexy assistant Francesca. The film was co-written by Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine, and the characters were designed by another Mad contributor, Jack Davis. The work of these artists gave the film a fresh look that differentiated it from the designs of earlier shows, but it still maintained the classic Rankin/Bass feel. The film, full of witty puns, sight gags, and a jazzy ’60s score, became a cult classic, a regular staple for Halloween screenings, and an inspiration for many stop-motion artists, including Henry Selick and Tim Burton.
[Figure 1.9] Hiroshi Tabata works on the Thumbelina sequence of The Daydreamer. (© 1966, Rankin/Bass Productions/Rick Goldschmidt Archives.)
Rankin/Bass continued producing both cel and puppet animation well into the 1980s, but it would be several years until the studio attempted one more stop-motion feature: Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, released in the summer of 1979. The film brought some of its classic characters together for a story with many plot twists, surrounding an evil king named Winterbolt. Despite an impressive voice cast, songs by Johnny Marks, and strong production design (Figure 1.11), the film was not very successful; it is likely that a Christmas film in the middle of summer was a hard sell for audiences.
[Figure 1.10] Boris and Monster’s Mate puppets from Mad Monster Party. (© 1967, Rankin/Bass Productions/Rick Goldschmidt Archives.)
Nevertheless, Rankin/Bass had plenty of other successes that would inspire dozens of other stop-motion feature projects for decades to come. Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh of the stop-motion film collective Screen Novelties are very inspired by the work of Rankin/Bass. They both feel (and I quite agree) that the history and traditions of Japanese kabuki theater and bunraku puppetry come through quite strongly in the animation itself. Looking at the timing and posing of the puppets of Japanese stop-motion (such as Kawamoto’s The Demon or even earlier works), a similarity can be noticed. Rankin/Bass’ background in theater also meshed well with the style of their Japanese production team to produce a unique playfulness to the look of these films. It is important to look for the connections between traditional art forms and modern stop-motion, especially in a feature-length format where it can be easy for an audience to get lost in the technique itself.
[Figure 1.11] Kyoko Kita works on Animagic puppets for Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. (© 1979 Rankin/Bass Productions/Rick Goldschmidt Archives.)
Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander.