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By KJ Doughton | February 20, 2008

In the following interview, Vinton reflects back on his early evolution as a filmmaker and animator, commenting on the various short films featured just moments before our conversation. Later, he launches into the present and future, revealing what Will Vinton has in store for the world – even after three decades of inspired productivity as the world’s foremost animation guru.

Were the initial seeds of your animation legacy planted when you lived in the small town of McMinnville, Oregon – or during your latter college years in Berkeley, California?
Mostly Berkeley. But the creative interests certainly started in McMinnville. My parents were real supportive of the arts, especially for growing up in a small town. I played a lot of music when I was little, and played in bands. I was interested in dance and theatre. My dad had 16 mm film equipment that I inherited when I went to college, which is how and why I became a filmmaker. That became my first love, even though I was doing other things in school. I give my parents a lot of credit. My sisters are very creative people as well. I didn’t really get into filmmaking until I went away to Berkeley, making both live-action, experimental, and short animated films.

The work of Spanish sculptural architect Antoni Gaudi has reportedly influenced your work…
Gaudi did most of his work in Barcelona. It’s very organic in structure. It looks like shells, beehives, and all kinds of rounded forms. I started designing clay, sculpting and building similar shapes. I theorized that you really couldn’t do those buildings with T-squares and straight edges. It didn’t work. It was a free-form sculptural medium. Ultimately, it was the clay crossing paths with filmmaking experimentation that led to clay animation.

As a youngster, you weren’t fixated on playing with Playdough…
Well, I played with clay when I was little, but I never did clay animation. That was something that crossed paths in college. But I would make little creative shapes and people. If I remember correctly, it was usually to put little people on boats, with firecrackers on them, float them down the river, and watch them blow up (laughter). That kind of stuff. A lot of fun.

“Closed Mondays,” which won an Academy Award, seemed a very important early short film…
It was a breakthrough film in many ways. Nobody had ever seen much quite like it, before that.

Today, there’s a competitive playing field in animation. But in 1975, when “Closed Mondays” won the Oscar, it must have been an obscure medium.
There really wasn’t anything. Clay was completely discounted, in terms of animation. There were one or two books that had anything about it. It was discounted as impractical. It was fun to do. Back when I started messing with clay on tabletops, I realized that it was magic.

A biography of your work noted that in “Closed Mondays,” the main character was inebriated, which lent itself to the primitive, jerky state of animation at that time. In “Mountain Music,” however, the movements of human characters became more of a concern. It sounds like your were trying to refine and “smooth out” the jerkiness inherent in stop-motion animation.
Yeah. That’s true.

Some of your films employ what is described as “relief animation.” Can you define this?
This is what we also call “clay painting.” Literally, it was painting with bits of clay, smearing it in small increments of motion. In the film “Creation,” Joan Gratz did all of the painting. As the director, I just put the ideas and boards together, and recorded the voices.

A biography of your work suggests that the physical proportions of the characters challenged you in some films. Was there eventually more of a focus on your animated characters having realistic proportions?
I don’t know… I always liked the idea that the characters should be caricatures. We weren’t trying to duplicate reality. Generally speaking, larger heads and larger hands make the character more expressive. We gesture with our hands and face, so these tend to be larger. There’s also a cuteness factor.

For laymen like myself, can you explain what defines three- dimensional animation, versus two-dimensional animation?
I think people have slightly different definitions. But to me, dimensional animation is simply distinguishing it from “flat” or cell animation. I’ve always done the 3-D animation, except for the clay painting, ‘cause that’s all I’ve done – real puppets made of clay, or foam, or latex materials. Even when we moved into computer animation… it’s 3-D as well. In some ways, the process that we went through in dimensional animation led to the acceptance of and appreciation for computer animation, especially as a medium for all ages.
When I started out, animation was absolutely and totally for kids. It was called “family entertainment,” but it was totally something for kids. You almost never saw animation of any kind for adults.

What about “Fritz the Cat” (Ralph Bakshi, 1972)?
That came later. When you look back on that, there were a bunch of dimensional animation things that started to catch on, which were appreciated more and more by older audiences. I think this has, in some ways, led to the situation that we’re in today, where animation is not at all stuck in the kids’ ghetto. It can be for anybody, with all kinds of different stories.

You collaborated with Walter Murch on “Return to Oz,” (1975) which combined live action with some animated sequences…
That’s right. The gnomes and gnome kings were animated. They were living underground, in the rocks.

You eventually collaborated with Disney on the Captain Eo theme park attraction (1986-1997), as well. Did your company eventually start teaming up with other groups of people, versus creating your own productions?
Yeah, we did start to do that. Never exclusively that way, but it was always fun to do some effects and so forth. But the focus of what myself and most of the company was into was character animation.

Do you live in Portland?
Yeah. It’s my home. I like the lifestyle.

You mentioned the influence of Gaudi’s architecture on your work, with its organic, round shapes. In your home region, there are two striking examples of this same type of aesthetic. One is Seattle’s Experience Music Project building designed by Frank Gehry. The work of Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly also employs these shapes. Do you feel that Gaudi influenced these artists?
I know both of those. They couldn’t help but be influenced by Gaudi. He’s been around for a long time. Barcelona is a magical city, filled with architecture and art that’s in the spirit of both of those guys. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world.

Are there any other locations or cities that have inspired your work? I think of “Mountain Music,” and its rural, woodsy setting. It reminds one of the Pacific Northwest.
The Pacific Northwest is my home, and it definitely inspires me. When I’ve been elsewhere for extended periods of time, I’ve always gravitated back to it. The greens, the forests, the rivers, and all that stuff… it definitely has an influence. Ironically, it’s not completely compatible with the Barcelona stuff, which tends to be a more arid, rocky environment – as opposed to the lush, mossy stuff in the Northwest. Having said that, however, they both inspire me. I think there are lots of forms that are in nature here, like tree forms and shells, that are part of a vernacular you can use when you design things. You can carry that aesthetic of what appears natural, in nature, and use it as an example for design, as Gaudi did. His buildings are almost more reminiscent of caves.

We’ve talked about how the aesthetics from both Spain and the Northwest have influenced your films and animation. How did Berkeley fit in? What did you take from this location, where you lived while attending college?
Berkeley certainly politicized me. I was fairly environmentally conscious even back then. At this stage in my career, I’m back into exploring that again. Things like recycling materials for use in the building industry. I’ve continued to keep that interest. I have some patents (related to environmental products).

For those who have followed your work, or even those just now discovering your animated films at festivals like this one, what do people have to look forward to from Will Vinton?
I’m doing some teaching. I’m developing some projects that are still related to animated movies. One is probably not for families – and would probably be R-rated, in a low-budget niche market. Others are very much family-focused. I’m also working on a Jack Hightower video game with Dark Horse Comics.

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