Doc’s portrayal of an animation innovator is inspired and poignant

In proudly bizarre Portland, Oregon, far from the Hollywood movie machines, an animation empire sprang up in the mid-’70s. It was fueled by a collective hippie exuberance and the “burning ambition” of ‘a man, as a colleague describes the enterprising energy of Will Vinton, the driving force behind the business, in commitment and insight Claydream.

With incisive use of clips from the Vinton catalog and insightful interviews with Vinton and those who knew him, Marq Evans has crafted a film that pays homage to his subject but is not a star-eyed celebration. Much like the characters Vinton and his collaborators brought to the screen thanks to Claymation (a Vinton currency and trademark), the doc combines exhilarating fantasy with dark, complex emotion. And any movie that incorporates depositional footage probably isn’t going to be headed for simple bliss forever.

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These lawsuits pitted Vinton against Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike and, from 1998, a major investor in the then struggling stop-motion studio. It was about a conflict between two ultra-motivated entrepreneurs who had put Oregon’s largest city on the map. But as Vinton was to find out the hard way, he was the sneaker mogul’s David to the Goliath. The heavily edited deposition footage (Lucas Celler and Yakima did the doc cutting) suggests more that the host was swimming with sharks.

As organized, fearless and practical as he was when it came to building a business and producing creative work, larger scale business decisions were not his forte. Will Vinton Studios has become world famous for its work with the California Raisin Advisory Board. Featuring sun-dried fruit singing and dancing to “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the ads went viral in the ’80s. He would win an Emmy for a prime-time Christmas special featuring the Grapes. But Vinton wasted a lot of time on licensing for the merchandising that would follow — a revenue pipeline that would prove monumental. He would later reject a takeover offer from upstart Pixar that would have made him a major shareholder in that company.

Originally from small town Oregon, Vinton was inspired by the counterculture scene in Berkeley in the 1960s, the extravagant architecture of Antoni Gaudí and his father’s 16mm film camera. In college, he hosted clay sculpting parties, and before long he was setting up an animation studio in the house he and his first wife shared in Portland. There he and artist Bob Gardiner – “a mad genius”, per animation maestro Bill Plympton – took stop-motion clay animation, an old form, to a new experimental edge. (Until they mastered how to control their characters’ movements, having lots of them sway was a workable solution.)

Vinton and Gardiner won an Oscar for their 1974 short film Closed on Mondays, but their partnership was soon to come to an end, Gardiner’s unpredictability did not sit well with laser-focused Vinton and his dreams of becoming a Disney-like movie maestro. Gardiner’s struggles and bitterness surfaced, sometimes in the form of death threats, whenever Will Vinton Studios made headlines with its triumphs. Initially installed behind a hairdressing salon, the company was in its infancy, according to the testimonies of the interviewees, a magical place with a strong family spirit. As voice actor Michele M. Mariana, who provides some of the doc’s most memorable and deeply felt commentary, the Claymation workshop was propelled with “melodic” energy.

But Vinton was unable to maintain the melody. The studio has reached a creative halt. Employees became disenchanted, with some believing they were not being properly recognized for their work. The fact that Vinton kept everyone on a salary with benefits, as opposed to the more profitable Hollywood model of contract workers, added to the company’s financial stress. There would be reinvention (computer animation) and revitalization, C-suite redesigns, and injections of capital from investors. Although at one point Michael Jackson would claim to work with him (images of the singer are presented in terms of who he was then, and it’s up to the viewer to navigate between more recent revelations and the image of a revered superstar in his prime), eventually Vinton would find himself outside watching. His studio would be reborn and, under a different name, reach the cinematic heights to which Vinton aspired.

His Disney dreams, which even included plans for a theme park, did not come true. The only Claymation feature he directed, The Adventures of Mark Twain, was five years in the making; its ambitious, adult-oriented themes did not sit well with audiences. Still, the ever-hopeful Vinton, who died in 2018, showed resilience. And his ability to keep moving forward was, at least in part, a function of his talent for compartmentalizing.

Evans’ take on Vinton is sympathetic, but the strength of his film is its attention to the complexities of a man who was closed to his own feelings. The portrait that emerges from the new interviews and well-curated archive footage is at least as compelling as the sinuous irreverence of the characters that Vinton and his collaborators brought to life. One of his sons remembers how undemonstrative he was and how they connected best working together on creative projects. His second wife, Susan Shadburne, who worked at Will Vinton Studios as a writer, calls him “a mystery to himself”; he ended their 12-year marriage without even arguing. A friend wonders about the link between the illness he was hiding and the emotions he was not expressing.

For all his mustachioed joy, Vinton kept a lot under the vest – and that surely included his disappointments. In Claydream he gets to tell his story, and the pauses and silences that Evans captures resonate as movingly as the words.

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