IN THE WANING YEARS of the '80s, one of the biggest (and most surprising) pop culture phenomena was stop-motion clay animation, or "claymation." Dinosaurs, singing California raisins, and a weirdly popular pizza mascot called the Noid—all made of clay—dominated the cultural landscape. Michael Jackson provided the voice for one of the singing clay raisins. A segment on the popular show Moonlighting (ask your parents) was produced in claymation, and the airwaves saw multiple TV specials entirely animated in clay. A thriving merchandising industry—T-shirts, toys, coffee mugs, and more—was built around weird characters made out of brightly colored sculpting dirt. Claymation was everywhere.
The man at the helm of it all was Portland's Will Vinton, the eponymous head of Will Vinton Studios, which for years turned out some of the most popular and distinctive animation around. That is, until the early 2000s, when it was taken over by the head of another powerful local company. Today Will Vinton's legacy lives on, and he sat down with the Mercury to reminisce about his time as Portland's premier animator.
A Life Born in Clay
Vinton (who, with his shaved head and handlebar mustache, resembles a carnival strongman) got his start in the UC Berkeley counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. However, his early education in architecture soon turned into an animation obsession.
"I started designing in plasticine clay," Vinton says, "because I really liked the organic shapes of architects like Antoni Gaudí. I figured the only way to design that way was to sculpt. So my artist pals and I would sit around on Friday evenings with a wad of clay, and shoot stop-motion animation."
Along with Gaudí, Vinton also cites a 1965 short film called Clay or the Origin of Species as an early influence. Just under nine minutes long, the black-and-white film features lumps of clay, shaped roughly like dinosaurs, eating each other while a jazz soundtrack plays. It's elemental, plotless, and has little in the way of, say, editing. Nevertheless, it inspired Vinton, who wanted to make a movie that would bring established filmmaking methods to clay animation.
"I was already pretty proficient as a live-action filmmaker," he says. "So it was just a matter of incorporating traditional cinematic techniques, and applying them to these experimental films. I wanted to show that you could rack focus [change the focus of the lens within a shot] between the character and a painting, that kind of thing. So we made a laundry list, and that became our script."
Switching between close-ups and wider shots involved making two different models of the main character. The body model (for wider shots) was about a foot high, while the face for close-ups was life-size.
"We got a plastic skull from OMSI and set it on an armature [the framework around which a structure is built], and put some prosthetic eyes in there," says Vinton. Vinton covered the skull with clay, and soon had a character who was ready for his close-up.
The resulting film was called Closed Mondays and debuted in 1974 at Portland's now-defunct Movie House at SW 12th and Taylor. The 11-minute short film features a drunk staggering into an art gallery and the various exhibitions coming to life. (Vinton and his collaborator, Bob Gardiner, had difficulty making the figure stand still—so they just made him an inebriate.)
The film was well received by the owner of the Movie House, who sent it along to various contacts in LA for inclusion in various festivals. Closed Mondays won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1974, and before long, the now highly regarded Vinton was running his own Portland animation studio.
Shorts and Commercials
Riding on the success of Closed Mondays, Vinton was able to find other work making commercials and non-theatrical shorts—most of which were distributed by Pyramid Media. Early short films included adaptations of The Little Prince and Martin the Cobbler, as well as Dinosaur, a 14-minute film about, well, dinosaurs.
"Pyramid wanted to do some kind of dinosaur film," says Vinton. "I thought, 'Great, I love dinosaurs.' But they wanted it to be educational... while we just wanted to be entertaining. So we set out to create a story that was filled with facts."
Vinton describes making short, low-budget films for a direct market as both commercially and professionally satisfying.
"That worked really well for Pyramid. It was sold to countless museums... and of course schools," he says. "It was actually a decent market. What's great about low budget is that they'd say, 'Just make it,' and trust that it would be a good film."
In the mid-'70s, Vinton broke into television commercials, including one for Rainier beer that used a large clay mountainscape. After the beer ad wrapped, Vinton used the landscape again for Mountain Music, another early short film.
"We had this huge 25-by-25-foot space in a defunct tavern in Northwest Portland that we had to tear out," says Vinton, referring to the mass of clay mountains and trees. "So instead of just throwing it away, we thought we'd explode it. That actually led to the writing of Mountain Music."
The 1976 short features a Mt. St. Helens-esque eruption, set to prog rock very much of the era.
Vinton describes the early days of his studio as ad hoc and loosely organized.
"For most of the short films," he says, "it was like four or five people who'd come on for a project."
Vinton trained the sculptors himself, and little by little, the organization grew.
"You hire a few people, and then you hire a few more people, and eventually it's like a company—even if you never intended it," says Vinton.
Intentional or not, Vinton had a company on his hands. In the early days of the 1980s, that company, Will Vinton Studios, would attempt to make a feature motion picture—which didn't turn out exactly as planned.
The Adventures of Mark Twain
In 1985, Will Vinton Studios made their first and only feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain. The film involved the titular author flying in a kind of proto-steampunk airship to find Halley's Comet, while various Twain stories such as The Diaries of Adam and Eve and The Mysterious Stranger appeared as short interludes.
The Adventures of Mark Twain incorporated a lot of the more technically tricky aspects of claymation, such as moving water, atmospheric skies, and different scales of models.
According to Vinton, the film was well reviewed at the time—but failed to find an audience. Vinton blames that on the distributor relegating the film to kid-friendly matinees.
"The distributor showed it as part of Clubhouse Pictures, which was kind of a matinee-only thing for kids," says Vinton. "It was packaged along with other things that were very juvenile."
Other titles released under the Clubhouse name included Hey There, It's Yogi Bear and Heathcliff: The Movie—titles somewhat different in tone from The Adventures of Mark Twain.
"It was adult," Vinton says before correcting himself. "Not X-rated, I mean... but it had some teeth."
Nevertheless, The Adventures of Mark Twain was packaged, promoted, and advertised as a kids' movie.
"It absolutely missed its mark," says Vinton.
His studio would never make another feature film. Despite such a disappointing result, claymation's most successful days were just ahead.
Raisins, Claymation Station, and Expansion
Vinton's biggest success wouldn't come from movies, but commercials for dried fruit. In 1986, Will Vinton Studios debuted an advertisement for the California Raisins Advisory Board featuring singing, dancing raisins voiced by former Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles. The California Raisins (crooning a version of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine") immediately became a national phenomenon, as well as the subject of multiple animated claymation TV specials, a conventional cel animated TV show, four albums, and merchandising of every conceivable type. But dancing raisins weren't the only advertising mascot of Vinton's to take off. Around the same time, the Noid—a kind of pizza-destroying donkey man—became the face of Domino's Pizza, and was meant to personify customers who were "an-noid" by the failure of pizza companies who couldn't deliver their product within 30 minutes.
(The popularity of the Noid hit its apex in 1989 when a mentally ill man named Kenneth Lamar Noid considered the character to be a personal attack, and took an Atlanta Domino's shop hostage for five hours. Police eventually convinced Noid to surrender, but only after he demanded an escape vehicle, $100,000 in cash, and a copy of Robert Anton Wilson's The Widow's Son. Following the incident, Atlanta Chief of Police Reed Miller rather inappropriately quipped to the press that the suspect was "para-noid." Domino's dropped the Noid character soon after.)
Emboldened by so much commercial success, Vinton embarked on his biggest, most ambitious project: a claymation theme park in Northwest Portland.
"[Property developer] Bill Naito was really supportive," says Vinton. "And there was a lot of talk about [putting the theme park in] the Union Station area, which I loved— because where else could we get 25-30 acres in the core of a city?"
The housing market of Portland in the '80s was obviously very different than today. According to a 1991 Oregonian article, the theme park—called Claymation Station—would have dominated Northwest Portland.
"The original Claymation Station business plan called for a 72,000-square-foot specialty retail center," wrote the Oregonian, "a 100-room hotel and a small bed-and-breakfast inn, restaurants and pubs, and a 1,500-seat multiscreen movie theater. A major attraction would have been a pavilion featuring a big-time thrill ride, an exploratorium, an interactive theater, a gallery, and a studio tour—all focusing on Vinton's family of claymation creatures."
Clearly, the plan never came to pass, and Old Town and the Pearl District are not dominated by a claymation theme park. By Vinton's own admission, the financial side of Claymation Station didn't pencil out. The theme park wouldn't be Will Vinton Studios' only misstep, however. Throughout the 1990s, the company would expand, and eventually implode.
After the California Raisins craze subsided in the early 1990s, Vinton found new projects to pursue in the form of computer animation. Vinton didn't shirk from the rise of this new technology, and embraced it as soon as it became user friendly.
"We didn't find digital tools useful until the early '90s when they started being programmed for non-technical geniuses," he says. "With the early stuff you had to be a computer scientist to make it work for you."
Vinton's studio produced the Red and Yellow M&M's—two of the earliest CG marketing mascots. Around this same time, Will Vinton Studios delved into making TV shows. Actor/comedian Eddie Murphy wanted a sitcom, but instead of acting on camera, he would lend his voice to a foam stop-motion animated character on a show called The PJs, which went on to win three Emmys. Later, Will Vinton Studios animated Gary & Mike, a one-season stop-motion comedy for UPN.
When talking about managing a larger, more successful company, Vinton is not nostalgic.
"It wasn't as satisfying or gratifying," he says.
Nevertheless, expansion seemed inevitable, so Vinton hired a professional to manage the newer, larger version of his studio.
"I got a CEO to run the company," he says. "I'd gotten to the place where I was doing business things to keep the company together, as opposed to maybe making movies."
Around the same time, Will Vinton Studios started taking in outside investment to expand beyond Portland.
"We ultimately found one investor," he says, "and that was Nike CEO Phil Knight. It seemed fine. Phil was only a 15 percent investor."
But the small, nimble studio that had made low-budget videos about dinosaurs, ads for raisins and beer, and shorts about drunks in art galleries did not transition well into a larger company.
"As soon as the CEO stepped in, we started to lose money," says Vinton. "We were trying to do too many things."
Vinton is wistful when talking about his earlier counterculture days, and now thinks the smaller model was a better fit for him.
"We had been under what we'd jokingly called 'artist management,'" he says, "and that was kind of meant as a putdown. But that 'artist management' format had been mostly profitable. We'd been profitable except for one year. But after [we hired a CEO], we started losing money regularly. The executives we hired in LA tried to amp us up to the next level, and it didn't really work."
Unfortunately for Vinton, Knight had no intention of sinking money into an unprofitable company. After a few bad years, Knight was able to outmaneuver Vinton and take over the studio.
"I didn't even read the contracts," Vinton says. "Why would I? They were like books. It turned out that there were some clauses in the contracts that, if you had a couple of bad years, as an investor he'd be able to take over control of the board, which Phil ultimately did. I didn't want to fight about it—I wanted to move on. I was hoping he would buy me out, actually. Unfortunately, that's when the only dispute came about."
Vinton was eventually forced to leave the studio that bore his name. Knight's son Travis—whom Vinton originally hired as an intern as a "favor" to his father—would head up the new incarnation of the company. Previously, Travis Knight had attempted a rap career under the name of Chilly Tee. (Sample lyrics: "Who's on the mic? I'm on the mic illy/You say that's cold, but I say that's Chilly.") After his musical ambitions went nowhere, Travis Knight turned to animation.
According to Vinton, the younger Knight was a much better animator than rapper.
"He was actually a pretty good animator. He seemed to thrive," says Vinton, who emphasized that he respects Travis Knight's work.
Will Vinton Studios may be gone, but Laika Entertainment—the company built from the bones and sinews of Vinton's old studio—is still around and producing films like Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. (We asked Laika for an interview for this piece, but they never got back to us.)
Vinton says he's just happy that someone in the Portland metro area (Laika is based in Hillsboro) is working in animation.
"At this point, I don't have any misgivings about it," he says. "The fact that Laika exists and is doing business year after year with major budgets is a real boon to Portland—and I've thoroughly enjoyed being separate from that."
However, without Vinton, Laika probably wouldn't exist. That's because Vinton—and his love for a strange and new animation technique—put Portland on the cinematic map, by taking simple clay and bringing it to life.