ClayDream Review: A living look at stop-motion maestro Will Vinton

The book of Genesis contains two competing creation stories: one in which an all-powerful deity conjures up everything in six days, and the version in which a more anthropomorphic god rolls up his heavenly sleeves and makes man out of clay.

Guess which visionary stop-motion artist Will Vinton would have preferred.

As a co-inventor of the “Claymation” technique, Vinton wanted to become the second Walt Disney. Colorful eye candy ClayDream celebrates everything that Will Vinton Studios has accomplished – its most beloved characters include the California Raisins, rabbit-eared Domino’s Pizza menace The Noid and Eddie Murphy series The PJs – and reflects about what could have been, what had Control of the company was not snatched from him by Nike honcho Phil Knight, who renamed it Laika and put his son Travis in charge.

This was certainly an unfortunate ending to Vinton’s career, but like the Old Testament itself, the saga has multiple versions. Director Marq Evans does his best to weave the Rashomon-esque mix of occasionally conflicting reminiscences of Vinton’s artists, ex-boyfriends and former colleagues into a coherent narrative, and to bring the case of Vinton v. Knight from 2004 early on as the proverbial sword to introduce Damocles to his story.

ClayDream is a cleverly packaged oral history exercise centered around an interview with Vinton himself, who is being treated for multiple myeloma during the film (he died in 2018). Evans draws from an extensive archive of old Vinton Studios animation deep enough that there is a fitting clip for almost every bite of sound from the film’s many talking heads – among whom perhaps only Bill Plympton’s name is known, as he later went solo had successes.

Though he maintained a “no layoffs” policy even when times were tough, Vinton rarely shared the credit of his team, leaving many feeling they were toiling for his fame. There’s something karmic about what happened, given how he and his former collaborator Bob Gardiner broke up. The duo shared an Oscar for Closed Mondays, a clever 1974 stop-motion short that imagines what happens after hours in an art museum. Gardiner was arguably the true inventor of claymation, but it was Vinton who turned the technique into a thriving business model – leading to death threats and harassment from his unforgiving partner.

Historically, animators aren’t necessarily the most well-adjusted people, so it’s easy to believe a close friend’s analysis when she says, “He had trouble expressing emotion when it wasn’t with sound.” When working with her Element, however, Vinton and his team were truly exceptional, developing techniques that advanced form, including moving cameras, complex compositing, and objects that dynamically change before our eyes (what Vinton calls “metamorphosis”).

In a way, Vinton Studios was a victim of its own success. The company’s work for the California Raisin Advisory Board was so popular that it attracted more commissions and advertising campaigns that kept Vinton busy with rental projects, even though all he really wanted to do was make original films. HHe only directed one feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, a surprisingly ambitious omnibus project that wasn’t kid-friendly enough to catch on. Like Vinton’s half-hour adaptation of The Little Prince, it survives to this day.

That’s one of stop-motion’s advantages over more flashy digital forms of animation: Because the creations are hands-on, repositioned, and captured frame by frame, the results can be both “raw” and timeless. loam formation is a technique almost as time consuming and patience consuming as it often comes with the fingerprints of its makers – what inspired like-minded artists around the world. (It’s a shame Evans doesn’t include statements from the likes of Nick Park and Tim Burton that were clearly inspired by Vinton’s legacy.)

It would have been nice to hear from Laika boss Travis Knight as well, as the Kubo and the Two Strings director (who later helmed live-action Transformers spinoff Bumblebee) built his career in the Will Vinton trenches studios began . Dramatically, it makes more sense for Evans to position Phil and Travis Knight as antagonists in Vinton’s life story, even if the company was dead at the time of the acquisition.

It’s a little too easy to tease Travis Knight by digging up the rap videos he made as “Chilly Tee,” but Vinton’s early work was equally immature. Put another way, the idea that the foundation Vinton founded supported his dream in the hands of someone else — and functioned as a world-renowned feature film studio — could be a happy ending. In this tale Vinton saw everything he had made and it was very good. ClayDream Review: A living look at stop-motion maestro Will Vinton

Charles Jones

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