The saga of Will Vinton Studios is such a part of Portland lore that some folks might be nervous about Claydream, the new documentary that tells Vinton’s remarkable tale, from his earliest stop-motion experiments to the heights of (literally) commercial success to the bitter legal contest between Vinton and Nike boss Phil Knight. That battle ended with Vinton, who died in 2018, losing his company and seeing it transformed into Laika Studios under the leadership of Travis Knight, Phil’s son.
We needn’t worry, though, that the story will be properly told. Director Marq Evans brings an empathetic but mostly even-handed approach to the sometimes charged material. Evans weaves together a wealth of amazing archival footage, candid interviews with Vinton and his colleagues, and electrifying videotaped depositions from the Vinton v. Knight lawsuit to create a compelling portrait of a man whose creative influence continues to resonate.
It’s all here, from The Adventures of Mark Twain to the California Raisins to The Noid to The PJs to the courtroom. And, fortunately, Vinton and crew saved everything, from behind-the-scenes footage of soundstage antics to an answering machine cassette with Michael Jackson’s voice on it.
The film’s director didn’t come to the project as a Claymation fanatic, however. “All I really knew going in was his work and his image as this guy with a mustache. And then I saw an article called ‘How the Inventor of Claymation Lost His Company to a Rapper Called Chilly T.’ And I thought that the story could make a good documentary,” recalls Evans.
At first, Evans naively had the impression that Vinton created all of the studio’s Claymation films himself, an impression that some interviewees say Vinton encouraged, to the frustration of the many animators doing the actual physical labor. “It was important for me to put in the film that there were people who had issues with the fact that he essentially got all the credit,” Evans says. “Probably his greatest strength was that he could inspire people and attract great animators.”
Vinton’s first creative partner was Bob Gardiner, who, Evans says, “was described to me many times as a creative genius.” Their first collaboration, Closed Mondays, won the 1974 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film and jump-started their careers, but their partnership fell apart as Gardiner’s behavior became more erratic.
It’s ironic that Vinton was the more organized and capitalistic counterpart to Gardiner’s naïve artiste, but ends up on the other side of that equation when Knight enters the picture. “I don’t think I meant for that to come across, but as we were editing, I realized that was true, and I thought it was really interesting.”
Evans did reach out to the Knights, but did not end up interviewing them for Claydream. “We tried them both, Travis probably a little more than Phil. After a while, it just became clear that it wasn’t going to happen,” he says, lamenting the fact that their perspective isn’t as represented in the film as it could be. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to tell their side. The way we cut the film, we tried to make it honest and we would have loved to have heard from them. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that chance.”
Instead, the majority of both Knights’ screen time comes from that videotaped deposition, all three (and their lawyers) sitting around a table and staring daggers at each other. It’s riveting stuff. “Will had that footage in his basement, and I didn’t even know about it for the first two years working on the project,” Evans says. “He casually said one day, ‘Did I ever give you the deposition?’ I asked if he meant the transcripts, and he told me they had shot it. Will had hired some guys to shoot that with two or three cameras.”
The footage was still on Betamax tapes, but once it was digitized and he viewed it, Evans immediately “knew how I was going to tell that part of the story.” He does so skillfully, creating all the tension of a Hollywood courtroom drama from cinematically mundane raw material.
Evans’ first documentary feature, 2015’s The Glamor and the Squalor, was about the rise, fall, and recovery of Seattle DJ Marco Collins, a key figure and tastemaker of the grunge era. Collins, like Vinton, became a victim of his own success, and Evans sees the similarity of their trajectories. “I’m not looking for stories like that necessarily, but there is something about the rags-to-riches narrative. It’s also that I’m from the Northwest, and these are two Northwest stories that spoke to me.”
Contrary to what many in Oregon might think, Will Vinton is not a household name for much of the country. “A lot of the national press,” Evans says, “is talking about him as a guy you’ve never heard of but you should. Whereas, of course, in Portland, everyone’s heard of Will. In the wider animation and filmmaking world, he’s not a known name. And if you look at alternative or grunge music, Marco Collins is not a known name, although he was very influential in making that whole scene. I like telling the stories of figures who are lost a little bit to history and giving them their due.”
Ultimately, Claydream is a cautionary tale. “He took some huge swings, and when you do that and it doesn’t go well, there can be huge losses. He mentioned to me a couple times, and this isn’t in the film, that he wished he’d kept the company small. So there’s a cautionary lesson about art versus commerce and getting in over your head.”
At the same time, Evans prefers to focus on “not the fact that he lost it all, but that he did it in the first place. To me, that’s a more inspiring story. He might have lost it all eventually, but most people don’t do what he did.”
“It needs to be remembered that this whole industry in Portland, all the animators he inspired, all the wonderful work that Laika has done, which is world-famous, started with Will in his basement.”
(“Claydream” opens Friday, Aug. 12, at Cinema 21.)