The innovative Portland filmmaker Will Vinton, best known for his iconic work with stop-motion animation, died on Thursday, October 5, at the age of 70, following a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma. Vinton was the first Oregonian to win an Oscar, and his company, Will Vinton Studios, served as a laboratory, training ground, and creativity magnet for a generation of Portland artists. His legacy survives today in the form of Laika Studios, which has taken stop-motion work to new technological and commercial heights, though not without some controversy along the way. I never had a chance to meet Vinton more than in passing, but if the testimonials and condolences that have emerged over the last few days are anything to go by, his was a genuinely generous soul. His bald head, bushy handlebar mustache, and twinkling eyes denoted a spirit that was independent, mischievous, and bold, even while working in the potentially stifling world of corporate advertising.
The individual personalities of each of the California Raisins, the in-your-face anarchy of The Noid, and the wistful moments of confused awe experienced by the drunk museum-goer in “Closed Mondays” all seem to stem from an aspect of Vinton himself. Even after his creations became nationwide obsessions, and when his company’s landmark headquarters in Northwest Portland buzzed with activity, there was always the feeling that the work that emerged sprang, at its core, from one especially fertile brain. Needless to say, that’s not the impression one gets, for better or for worse, from the vast majority of the animation on movie screens today. (Television may be another matter.)
Vinton was born in McMinnville, but after obtaining an architecture degree from the University of California at Berkeley, he moved back to Portland and convinced classmate Bob Gardiner to join him. The two began experimenting with Claymation techniques in Vinton’s basement. Of course, this was years before Britain’s Aardman Animations produced the “Wallace and Gromit” shorts, and the most famous examples of Claymation at the time were children’s TV shows like “Gumby” and “Davey and Goliath.”
Vinton and Gardiner had more highbrow aspirations, and wanted to make a short film about a man visiting an art museum. They had difficulty achieving smooth motion, but came to an ingenious solution: their protagonist, they decided, was drunk. (Inebriation could also explain the way the museum’s works come to life for this soused, inadvertent patron in a series of trippy metamorphoses.)
“Closed Mondays,” was, famously, rejected from the inaugural Northwest Filmmakers Festival. (Vinton would make his debut at the fest the following year with the documentary “Gone for a Better Deal.”) It did screen in a Los Angeles theater, which made it eligible for Academy Award consideration. The rest is animation history: the first Claymation movie ever nominated for an Oscar ended up winning, and Vinton’s name was established in the biz. (Gardiner’s career in animation did not flourish as Vinton’s did, and he died in 2005 at the age of 54.)
The bread-and-butter of Will Vinton Studios’ work over the next couple of decades was TV commercial gigs. The California Raisin Advisory Board earned its place in pop-culture history by commissioning an ad wherein a quartet of raisins sang the Motown classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Premiering in 1986, the first California Raisins commercial was dubbed the 15th best TV spot of all time in a 1997 Entertainment Weekly ranking. The characters’ popularity spurred a half-hour Claymation mockumentary “Meet the Raisins” (and a sequel!), a Saturday-morning cel-animated cartoon series, four record albums, a slew of merchandise, and even a video game (which, sadly, was never officially released).
At the same time, Vinton’s artistic ambitions remained undimmed. Perhaps his crowning achievement was the feature-length 1985 film “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” which put Claymation versions of the author and three of his fictional creations on a steampunk-style airship trying to chase down Halley’s Comet. The idea sounds ludicrous on its face, but it provides an excuse for a series of charming vignettes based on Twain’s work. Visually, “Twain” can’t compare in slickness to something like “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but remember: everything in this movie is made of hand-molded clay. As a work of artisanal animation, it’s on a par with the single-handed moviemaking of fellow Portlander Bill Plympton (“The Tune”). As a work of imagination, it’s unique.
In the wake of Raisin-mania, and flush with the attendant cash, Will Vinton Studios pursued a plethora of projects. Vinton has admitted that the company’s fiscal discipline left something to be desired in these years. The pursuit of artistic freedom took a company that employed at its peak several hundred people and had reported revenues of $28 million per year to the brink of disaster. There were more commercial projects, including the design of a character called “The Noid” who served as a foil for the Domino’s Pizza delivery chain. This abrasive figure, clad in a skin-tight red jumpsuit, served as a manifestation of all the hazards that could befall a pizza en route to its delivery to a customer. The Noid, it turned out, annoyed many commercial viewers, and in one bizarre incident, a mentally ill Georgian named Kenneth Noid took such offense that he held two Domino’s employees hostage at gunpoint for a $100,000 ransom. (The incident was resolved peacefully).
Vinton Studios’ last high-visibility project was the Eddie Murphy-produced half-hour TV series “The PJs,” which ran for three seasons on Fox, and then the WB, from 1999-2001. The show was part of the trend toward more adult-themed TV animation, which began with “The Simpsons,” continued with “King of the Hill,” and has exploded into “South Park,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Bojack Horseman,” and dozens, if not hundreds of others today.
Set in an urban public housing project modeled after Chicago’s Cabrini Green, “The PJs” centered on the complex’s inept but ultimately well-meaning superintendent, voiced (most of the time, at least) by Murphy. With its ghetto backdrop and Murphy’s involvement, criticism that the show trafficked in racial stereotypes was probably inevitable, but reviews consistently praised its look, which was obtained through a process Vinton dubbed “foamation.” (Essentially, the characters were crafted from latex foam rather than clay, allowing for more stability in their shapes and movements.)
“The PJs” won three Emmy awards, but high ratings proved elusive and high production costs proved persistent, which led to eventual cancellation. The combination of top-notch workmanship and underwhelming financial returns was an overly familiar one for the company by this point. The year before the show debuted, Nike co-founder Phil Knight had purchased a stake in Will Vinton Studios, and reportedly began instituting fiscal discipline while suggesting that Vinton hire his son Travis as an animator.
By 2003, Knight had complete control of the company, and Vinton was out. It was a rocky end to what had been a hive of creativity, and a rocky beginning to what would eventually become Laika Entertainment, an animation powerhouse that achieved instant credibility with the 2009 release of “Coraline.” For the last decade, Laika’s output had been generally well-reviewed, but had nonetheless struggled at times to find box-office footing in an animation marketplace still dominated by the Disney-Pixar monolith. Some things never change.
In retrospect, and without dissing the fine work that Laika has produced, one wonders if the ouster of Vinton by Knight fifteen years ago was one of the first fault lines to crack the pedestal that Portland had been putting itself on during the 1990s. Sure, it was still a few years before “Portlandia,” skyrocketing rents, and police brutality (among other things) would solidify the notion that the city had jumped the shark. But there was something about Vinton that recalled the loose, unpretentious style of mayor Bud Clark, and it wasn’t just his predilection for distinctive facial hair. He was an artisan, not a technocrat; a visionary, not a bean-counter; a maker, not a buyer.
More specifically, he made Portland into a city with more independent animators per capita than any other in America. (I actually don’t know if that’s true, but it seems like it could be.) Joan Gratz, Joanna Priestley, and Chel White are among the countless filmmakers in the Portland community and beyond who were directly employed and/or inspired by Vinton. And it’s anyone’s guess how many viewers of Vinton’s visions were nudged toward trying their own hand at some form of imaginative creation or another. Vinton’s work was alchemy—transmuting the base material of clay into living art, and the tagline of a prospective forthcoming documentary on his life, “Welcome to My Daydream,” gets it right: “Life is what you make it.”
(The Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland has hastily organized a Will Vinton tribute screening on Sunday, October 15, featuring both “Closed Mondays” and “The Adventures of Mark Twain.” Details can be found here.)