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By KJ Doughton | December 15, 2008

Originally ran on on 02/20/08

Will Vinton sports both the shiny, bald bean of Lex Luthor, and the untamed handlebar mustache of Yosemite Sam. Cloaked in an all-black, Johnny Bravo-styled wardrobe, the pioneering animator’s striking physical features suggest a larger-than-life persona: maybe a live-action relative of Mr. Incredible, or an eccentric uncle of the Spy Kids.

Haunting Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum lobby between screenings of his early Claymation shorts, Vinton nods and smiles while a pair of Swedish fans sings his praises. Vinton hands out posters for a Jack Hightower video game project he’s working on, signing each with a black Sharpie.

Before MTV’s “Celebrity Death Match,” “Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run” meshed stop-motion animation with the oozing, organic medium of clay, Vinton helped to perfect and commercialize the art. In fact, he even holds a registered trademark on the term “Claymation.”

Remember the lumpy, brown ‘n purple-hued California Raisins crooning Ray Charles’ “Heard it through the Grape Vine?” Did the villainous, spandex-clad Noid ever prompt you to order a Dominoes Pizza when he starred in the franchise’s ‘80s ad campaign? Did the M&M’s shiny-coated candies’ miraculous transformation from hard, inanimate sugar-shells into fast-talking funnymen astound you?

Credit Vinton. Inevitably, any family with couch potato, boob-tube leanings has absorbed his genius through these commercial milestones. Vinton’s plasticene personalities have also saturated prime time television, in “The PJ’s” (Warner Bros.) and “Gary and Mike” (UPN).

On this drizzly February day in 2008, however, a Northwest Film Forum staffer is summoning Vinton into the facility’s crowded screening room. Hundreds of fans – many of which haven’t yet reached puberty (this is, after all, the Third Seattle Children’s Film Festival) – are seated within, anxious to view a rare collection of the animator’s early works.

It’s safe to assume that these New Millenium kids will delight in his onscreen clay visions, even though the celluloid reels are over a quarter-decade old. It’s an even more assured bet that attendant parents, raised on the filmmaker’s pioneering style, are also eager to blanket themselves in his comforting imagery.

Before the curtain rises and Vinton’s amazing, surreal universe plasters the screen, a telling bit of chivalry occurs. Unable to navigate the theatre stairs toward the few higher-level chairs still available, an elderly moviegoer struggles to find seating. Vinton, sitting near the screen, immediately surrenders his choice spot to this less ambulatory viewer.

Vinton’s early movies, which soon illuminate the screen, reflect his kind, decent disposition. “The team I built in Portland cut their teeth on these films,” he explains, extending his hands towards the audience. “I hope these are good prints. Much screening these days is done in DVD. These 35mm prints have been in boxes. I don’t know what condition they’re in.”

His films roll – and it turns out, they’re in pretty decent shape.

“The Legacy” (1979, 7 min) details earth’s evolution from cosmic bang to diverse stomping ground for a wide assortment of living, breathing creatures. The intricate, pink nostrils of a blue elephant are one example of Vinton’s attention to detail. Ultimately, the short takes on “2001: A Space Odyssey” aspirations, in its image of a primitive caveman pounding on a nutshell, then morphing into a dapper, suit and tie-wearing yuppie.

In contrast to the evolutionary stance of its predecessor, “The Creation” (1981, 9 min) sees the world as a spiritual landscape contracted by God. In his best fire-and-brimstone, Darth Vader voice, James Earl Jones narrates the film. His commanding pipes compliment the sight of a massive, spiritual architect rolling balls of light between heavenly hands. Shiny strobes, fireworks, and stars make way for purple mountains erupting from a brown desert landscape. The Almighty “spat out the Seven Seas”, informs Jones, as ocean waters roll and swirl onto the screen. Alas, god is “lonely still,” so he populates the earth with human beings. In an ensuing kaleidoscope illustrating the diversity of human faces and expressions, I could have sworn the mugs of John McCain and Hillary Clinton stared back at me.

“Mountain Music” (1976, 9 min) follows, an animated fable with environmentalist leanings. Its opening credits inform that it’s filmed in “3-D Mation,” before a clay sun rises over green conifers. Birds chirp, coyotes, howl, and waterfalls roar. A human trio of musicians interrupts this natural harmony, with an intrusive, progressively louder cacophony of piano, guitar, and percussion. Eventually, the loud rumblings destroy this once-peaceful landscape, causing God’s angry wrath to intervene with exploding volcanoes and steaming lava (audience-members can be forgiven for having flashbacks of the regional Mt. St. Helen’s eruption from 1980). AC/DC might preach that “Rock ‘n roll ain’t noise pollution,” but Vinton’s film begs to differ.

“A Christmas Gift” (1980, 8 min) preaches the philosophy that human connection is the best holiday gift, while “Rip Van Winkle” (1978, 27 min.) expands Vinton’s clay universe within a longer narrative context. Both of these features show Vinton’s talent for kneading complex facial expressions and human mannerisms from his pliable palette of earthen putty.

Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum is close to home for Vinton, who grew up in McMinnville, Oregon and currently resides in Portland. The gray-skied Northwest town has seen a lot of the animation auteur. After collaborating with fellow clay animator Bob Gardiner in the mid-seventies on an Oscar-winning short film called “Closed Mondays,” Vinton established Portland-based production company Will Vinton Studios. Dozens of films, television specials and commercials were unleashed to redefine the pop-culture landscape globally. According to “Will Vinton Re-Animated” (The Oregonian, 2005), Vinton’s studio reached its pinnacle in the ‘90s, employing 400 and boasting annual revenues of $28 million.

Such fortune didn’t last. Web-surfers who type in will no doubt be surprised to find an intrusive red dot materialize, the name LAIKA inscribed within. LAIKA is the current name for Will Vinton Studios, following an abrupt company take-over in 2003 by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Knight, a longtime Vinton Studios shareholder, reportedly saved the company from bankruptcy with millions of his own dollars, took over primary control, then fired Vinton. Suddenly, the esteemed animator had been ousted from the very company that boasted his name.

Various stories provide different explanations for Knight’s harsh decision. Some reports suggest that Vinton’s business sense didn’t match his creative genius, resulting in debilitating company debt. Others suggest that the post 9/11 advertising market decline negatively impacted demand for animation. Others point out a nepotistic angle: Knight’s son Travis has been an employee with the company since 1997. Interestingly, since Vinton’s dismissal, the junior Knight has been granted a seat on LAIKA’s Board of Directors.

The LAIKA take-over proved a devastating fall for Vinton, but to hear him talk, it’s also been a liberating means of returning to what he’s best at. “We grew to a large enterprise,” Vinton explains to the NWFF audience, describing the massive expansion of his animation studio in the late eighties and early nineties. “Now I’m back to my roots, doing new projects. I’m back to being an artist, as opposed to a businessman.”

Read the full interview with Will Vinton in Part Two of Will Power: Interview with Claymation Pioneer Will Vinton>>>

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