24 December 2011

MOM Productions and the Making of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

It’s the Christmas season again and my children have already watched our DVD of the 1964 stop motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) half a dozen times.  I never tire of watching this Christmas special which was something I looked forward to watching on TV every year when I was a child.  The characters have clearly been lovingly brought to life by the hand of some animator.

As I reported last year in my post Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials: Made in Japan, Rudolf and many other animated Christmas specials produced by Rankin/Bass were animated in Japan.  Rudolf is an early example of an international co-production for television.  The production, concept, and screenwriting were all done by Americans.  Apart from the star, Burl Ives, the voice acting was all done in Canada.  The stop motion “Animagic” was subcontacted to Tadahito “Tad” Mochinaga’s MOM Production studios – a place where many animators including the great Tadanari Okamoto got their start.  Rick Goldschmidt’s The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass tantalizingly offered up a few tidbits about MOM Productions, but I could not afford his book about the making of Rudolph.  Fortunately, he released The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Kindle edition this year.  It gives the answers to a lot of questions I had about the production, and provides highly detailed testimonies from former MOM Productions employees.

A few of the nuggets of information about the production:

  • Arthur Rankin supervised the production in Japan while Jules Bass was responsible for the production outside of Japan.  This meant that it was rare for people working on Rudolph to see both men together.

  • There are two conflicting stories about how Rankin discovered Mochinaga.  One is that he saw Mochinaga’s Little Black Sambo at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1958 and contacted Mochinaga about making TV series The New Adventures of Pinocchio (130x5 minute episodes).  The other story Rankin tells is that he was invited to Tokyo in 1958 by a trade delegate called Minoru Kawamoto and one of the studios they visited belonged to Mochinaga. (note: date typo amended 26 Dec 2011)

  • I had long wondered about the role of Kizo Nagashima, who is listed as a director in the credits of the Rudolph.  I could not find any evidence of Nagashima as an animator or a director online.  Goldschmidt solves this mystery by reporting that Nagashima “was an elderly gentleman who supervised the business affairs of the Tokyo studio.  Perhaps due to Japanese traditions of respect, he was given a prominent creative credit.  However, the credit was entirely honorary, as Tadahito Mochinaga was undeniably in charge of the entire animation process.” 

  • Mochinaga began animation in 1938 at Geijutsu Eigasha (芸術映画社 aka GES/ゲス).  [This isn’t in Goldschmidt’s book but Mochinaga spent much of the war and the years following working for an animation studio in China].  When he returned to Japan after the war (c. 1953), Mochinaga started up his own studio.  He formed MOM Productions in 1960 with many of his old colleagues from GES in order to make puppet animation for Rankin/Bass.

  • Assistant animation director Hiroshi Tabata recalls that he and Mochinaga took the 10 hour sleeper train from Tokyo to Nara to see the famous sika deer in Nara National Park.  The spent two days observing the movements of the deer in order to prepare for the animation of Rudolph.  The animation studios were housed in a building that had previously been used to test engines for fighter planes.

  • Ichiro “Pin-chan” Komuro was the puppet maker for Rudolph.  He used the wood of the Katsura tree (カツラ/ Cercidiphyllum japonicum) for Rudolph’s head and torso.  The head was carved out to make it lighter and therefore easier to control during animation.  The joints of the puppets were made of lead and copper wire which were padded with cotton and polyurethane.  The antlers were formed using polyurethane.  Rudolph’s eyelids and irises were made using finely shaved leather.  Rudolph’s exterior was made of thick-piled white wool that they dyed themselves.  The hooves were made of wood and had 1mm holes drilled in them in order to affix the hooves to the sets using pins.

  • The biggest problem during production was the fight to keep the puppets and sets from collecting dust and dirt.  The animators all wore white gloves, and the figures were sprayed with a magnetic spray flock to diffuse reflections for the camera.  The most difficult sets and puppets to keep clean were the white ones. 

Goldschmidt’s book is a must-read for fans of stop motion animation and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Add the Kindle edition to your holiday reading:

Learn more about Rankin/Bass Productions on Goldschmidt's blog or in his book: