A Claymation Christmas Celebration, Will Vinton A Claymation Christmas Celebration, Will Vinton

Stop-motion animation and the holiday season go hand in hand, thanks to the Rankin/Bass tv specials and feature films like The Nightmare Before Christmas.

But if you’re starving for some Christmas stop-motion you haven’t seen before, take a look at these lesser-known wintertime classics that might’ve flown under your radar.

Let’s begin with a funny sequence from Will Vinton’s Emmy-winning tv special A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987), in which Quasimodo conducts an orchestra of bells in performing “Carol of the Bells.” If you aren’t familiar with Vinton, he coined and trademarked the term “Claymation” and created the popular California Raisins commercials. Look at how many moving parts there are in this scene, each of which had to be meticulously manipulated frame by frame.

Back in 1913, Polish-Russian artist Ladislas Starevich created what must be the first stop-motion Christmas cartoon, The Insects’ Christmas, which was animated using dead insects. Starevich was an entomologist who got his start in animation when he tried to make a documentary about stag beetles; the beetles wouldn’t budge under the stage lighting, so Starevich moved dead ones around frame by frame, replacing their legs with wires. What could be more heartwarming than jolly old St. Nick visiting a bunch of insect corpses?

Czechoslovakian short A Christmas Dream (1945) tells the story of a rag doll who comes to life on Christmas night. This was Karel Zeman’s first attempt at blending live-action and animation, a process he would continue to refine in his extraordinary feature films of the 1950s and 1960s. This beautifully restored print comes from Thunderbean’s More Stop Motion Marvels Blu-Ray.

Musical elf cartoon Hardrock, Coco and Joe (1951) was produced as a bumper for local tv stations in the United States. The short was animated by Wah Chang, who would go on to design the props in the original Star Trek series, including the communicator, the tricorder, and the Tribbles. I feel sort of sorry for Joe in this short.

U.K. series Snip and Snap, starring a pair of scissors and a little origami dog, has some truly inventive character designs. The stylized paper cut-out characters were created by Danish toymaker Thoki Yenn, credited simply as “Thok.” In the Christmas episode Goodwill to All Dogs (1960), the selfish canine Snarl tries to keep Snap asleep so he can keep the juicy bone that Santa delivered for himself, leading to Tom & Jerry-like hijinks.

Hermína Týrlová, often called the mother of Czech animation, directed the delightful masterpiece Snowman (1966), a wintry fable about a snowman who comes to life. Her characters, created out of woolen yarn, look like no other animated films I’ve ever seen.

I can’t get enough of the Hey Mister, Let’s Play! cartoons, a series about two playful bears created by Czech animation genius Břetislav Pojar. These relentlessly creative films were shot on glass with a down-shooting camera, with textures that pop off the screen. The episode How They Went to Bed (1967), directed by Miroslav Štěpánek, contains a great sequence set in a winter wonderland. This scene is full to bursting with the series’ trademark whimsy and loopy transformations (Thanks to Toadette for the print and English subtitles.)

If you’re craving more Czechoslovakian animated bears, here’s Stromček (1973), the Christmas episode of the obscure but endearing Miláčik series, all about a curious little bear and his kindly grandma. The soft textures and quirky movements give this sweet little film so much hand-crafted personality.

Last Year’s Snow Was Falling (1983) is a wonderfully bizarre Soviet short about a shiftless drunkard who tries to chop down a New Year tree in a magical forest. The film was directed by Aleksandr Tatarskiy, who later co-founded Pilot Studio, Russia’s first non-state run animation studio after the fall of the Soviet Union. This film’s absurdist humor and clay-animated transformations made it a cult classic when it was shown on tv, but the weird jokes raised censors’ suspicions that it contained “encoded messages to foreign intelligence.”

Czech animator and visual effects whiz Zdeněk Rozkopal directed the lovely cautionary tale The Snowman’s Dream (1986). The character designs here are appealingly offbeat, and the warm yellow glow emanating from the window into the cold blue night is powerfully atmospheric.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw the release of many little-seen stop-motion Christmas specials including The Online Adventures of Ozzie the Elf (1997), Snowden’s Christmas (1999) and Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn’t Happen (2006). One that certainly deserved more attention was ‘Twas the Night Before Bumpy (1995), a special based around the ABC series Bump in the Night which stars a green monster named Mr. Bumpy. There are some great expressions on the snowman soldiers here.

Richard Starzak (of Shaun the Sheep fame) directed three specials starring Robbie the Reindeer for the BBC’s Comic Relief charity. This funny and well-choreographed bit from the BAFTA-winning Hooves of Fire (1999) is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). I wish I had thought of that tea kettle gag.

The Italian series Mio Mao, created by Francesco Misseri, is a charming cartoon about two clay-animated cats. The constant squashing and morphing in The Snowman (2005) really plays to the strengths of clay animation.

The amazing artists at Screen Novelties have consistently created top-notch stop-motion animation for tv specials like It’s a Spongebob Christmas! (2012) and Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas (2014). They also created the wonderful animated eCard A Krampus Christmas (2013) based around the nasty anti-Santa of Alpine folklore.

Max Winston is one of the finest stop-motion animators working today. His hilarious short Mr. Woop Man’s Holiday Special (2015) boasts Looney Tunes-style comic distortion and snappy timing, which is not easy to pull off when animating with puppets.

Another fun Max Winston project is Santa Claustrophobia (2020), produced for 20th Digital Studios, in which a little girl named Plane Jane hallucinates various oddball Santas. Look for some great neck acting from Charles the Goose in this clip.

Günther Falls in Love (2020), directed by Josephine Lohoar Self, is a Christmas tale about a pug who enters a relationship with a stuffed toy. The fuzzy detail on the pug’s fur is a great demonstration of that tactile quality you can only achieve with stop-motion.

Stop-motion Christmas specials are still going strong, with streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ producing films like Alien Xmas (2020), Robin Robin (2021) and Mickey Saves Christmas (2022). To close things out, here’s the charming music video for Ingrid Michaelson and Zooey Deschanel’s Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (2021), directed by the great Andrea Love. I could watch Love’s hypnotically beautiful wool animation all day. Merry Christmas!

Special thanks to Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation for the restorations and @Toadette_IAD and @EasternOoC for the English translations.

Follow Max Winston (@madmaxwinston), Josephine Lohoar Self (@josephinelohoarself), Andrea Love (@andreaanimates), and Screen Novelties (@screennovelties) on Instagram.

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