Will Vinton, Revolutionary Animator With Claymation, Dies at 70
By Richard Sandomir
New York Times
October 9, 2018
Photo courtesy Associated Press
College of Environmental Design alumnus Will Vinton (B.A. Arch ‘70), who used his and a partner’s revolutionary stop-motion animation process, Claymation, to win an Academy Award with an early cartoon and to create memorable commercial characters like the California Raisins, died last week in Portland, Oregon. He was 70.
The cause was multiple myeloma, his family said in a Facebook post.
Vinton had been honing his Claymation filmmaking technique for more than a decade when the California Raisin Advisory Board asked him to help with its new advertising campaign. He and his studio turned the raisins into a grooving group of singers in high-top sneakers who march out of a box singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — a hit for Marvin Gaye that was sung in the commercial by Buddy Miles — and showing off dance moves like those of the Four Tops.
The commercial “caught on like wildfire, and within a week it was kind of abuzz in the popular culture,” Vinton said in speech in 2011 at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver.
He made many more spots for the campaign, including one with Ray Charles and another with Michael Jackson, who had called Vinton to ask if he could be turned into a performing raisin.
Stop-motion is a time-consuming filmmaking process in which animators advance the movements of models minutely with each frame. When done correctly, the technique creates the illusion of seamless movement by characters in three dimensions — in contrast to two-dimensional hand-drawn cel animation.
Vinton and Bob Gardiner, his early partner, helped revive and refine stop-motion clay animation, which was memorably used in the 1950s and ’60s for the sweet, flexible, green-hued television character Gumby and his horse sidekick, Pokey.
As a youngster, Will found creative outlets in projects like designing go-karts and boogie boards. By the time he was at the University of California, Berkeley, he was studying architecture, stirred in particular by the intricate, flowing style of the Modernist Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí.
“If I really wanted to be inspired by designs like Gaudí’s, I had to throw away the T square and straight edge and grab some Plasticine clay,” Vinton said in his 2011 speech. “I started modeling and designing by way of sculpting.”
It wasn’t long before he was in his house in Portland working with Gardiner, a sculptor, on the clay models and stop-motion animation that became “Closed Mondays” (1974), a short cartoon about a drunken man who staggers into an empty art gallery, where he is stunned to see paintings and sculptures come to life.
“The clay and the cameras were in the basement,” his sister Mary Vinton Folberg said in a telephone interview, describing the sound of the stop-motion process as “click, stop, click, stop, click, stop.”
“It took about 18 months to shoot,” she said of “Closed Mondays,” “and it was only eight minutes long.”
The film won Vinton and Gardiner the Oscar for best short animated film. At the award ceremony Vinton had a full beard, being some years away from sporting the sculptured handlebar mustache that would become his facial signature.
The collaboration between Vinton and Gardiner soon ended, and Vinton received a trademark for Claymation several years later.
Vinton followed “Closed Mondays” with short animated films like “Martin the Cobbler” (1977), based on a Tolstoy short story; “Rip Van Winkle” (1978); “The Little Prince” (1979); and “Dinosaur” (1980), before producing and directing “The Adventures of Mark Twain” (1985), a full-length animated feature.
With its unusual visual impact, Claymation found itself in great demand. In addition to the California Raisins and the Noid, it was used in a segment of the Disney movie “Return to Oz” (1985) and in the video for the 1985 John Fogerty song “Vanz Kant Danz.”
It was also used in the “Speed Demon” sequence of the Michael Jackson film “Moonwalker” (1988) and in a 1987 episode of the television series “Moonlighting,” in which the clay figure of Maddie (played by Cybill Shepherd) turns David (Bruce Willis) into a toad.
By the 1990s, Vinton had started to shift from Claymation. In one project he used computer animation in commercials for the candy M & Ms, giving distinct personalities to each colored piece.
“Our pitch was to make the characters as dimensional as you can, to let the audience know who each of the characters are — yellow, red and green — not that they’re just 3D,” he said in the 2011 speech.
For characters in “The PJs,” an animated sitcom created by Eddie Murphy and others about an African-American couple living in a housing project, Vinton used foam latex, or what he called Foamation, which was lighter and easier to manipulate than clay. The series debuted in 1999 and lasted three seasons.
In 2003, after years of financial difficulties at his company, Will Vinton Studios, Vinton was forced out by the majority shareholder, Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike. Will Vinton Studios eventually became known as Laika, and Knight’s son Travis, who had worked under Vinton as an animator, became the chief executive in 2009.
After leaving his studio, Vinton taught at the Art Institute of Portland and worked on independent projects, including a stage musical, “The Kiss,” based on “The Frog Prince,” and a live-action comedy short, “The Martial Artist” (2008).
But in an interview with The Portland Tribune this year, he remained loyal to Claymation.
“If I were doing a Claymation show today,” he said, “I would use computer animation in probably 50 percent of it, on tough shots. Close-ups and signature shots would be done in clay.”