An Interview with Will Vinton

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you know of Will Vinton. He’s the man who coined and, in 1978, registered the term “claymation” to describe his films’ use of stop-motion animated clay. He’s responsible for some of the most well-recognized ad spokesmen of the twentieth century in this style – the California Raisins and the Red and Yellow M&Ms. He’s won an Oscar and multiple Emmys; all while working from his home base in Portland, Oregon.

Vinton grew up in McMinnville, Oregon before heading to University of California – Berkley to study Physics. Physics changed to Architecture and with his interest in geometry and architectural forms Vinton began to discover clay as a convenient medium for creating physical structures and figures. He commandeered his father’s old 16mm equipment and started experimenting with animating clay. For Vinton, the transition from architecture to stop-motion animation isn’t as odd as it might immediately appear. He says he was inspired by the “more organic structural elements of architecture” rather than linear T-square geometry and his work with clay reflected that.

After graduation, Vinton worked in Los Angeles for a little before moving back to San Francisco and finally settling in Portland. He “liked the independent spirit of Portland” and points to Portland State’s now closed Center for the Moving Image as the focal point for the small but passionate group of filmmakers living in Portland at the time. “Working in Portland was the best decision I made,” he says. “I’d never have been able to do what I did in L.A. or build the company I did.” And Vinton actually built several companies, first the still existent Odyssey Productions with some other local filmmakers, and later Vinton Studios.

Since leaving Vinton Studios in 2003 (now LAIKA), Vinton’s established another company – Freewill Entertainment – and shifted his attentions away from production, though not filmmaking. “I wanted to focus on a part of the industry that gets the least attention: the development process.” This means spitballing ideas and fine-tuning concepts and screenplays. It’s a process he enjoys, but admits that he’s been away from production long enough to be ready to get back in. He’s not talking about these future projects (yet), but his excitement is palpable.

I ask if being in Portland has helped keep his work and style experimental. His reply is immediate: “Absolutely.” And Vinton’s style is experimental in the best way possible. Now iconic characters like the California Raisins (initially designed for a commercial, they went on to have their own Primetime show and two Emmy nominated TV specials) and the Eddie Murphy created FOX TV series “The PJs” (also an Emmy winner) are instantly recognizable with their crude, kind of retro style. “I like coming up with ideas and seeing them evolve,” he says. “I like making things that end up on screen.”

In addition to the Emmys, Vinton’s been nominated for five Academy Awards – one for Best Visual Effects and four for Best Animated Short Film – as well as a slew of other awards. He won an Oscar with his first nomination in 1975 for Best Animated Short Film with his film “Closed Mondays,” an honor he shared with collaborator Bob Gardiner.

As a testament to his continuing influence in the animation industry, Vinton spent the beginning of June serving on the jury for the Annecy Film Festival in Annecy, France.  “I’m so impressed by the growth of the [animation] industry worldwide. It’s been growing exponentially. It’s phenomenal.” He points to the success of American produced animated features such as “Kung Fu Panda” and “Toy Story” and the major success they’ve found abroad as evidence of the international capabilities of the medium. “Animation travels well,” he says, pointing to the lack of ethnic rooting amongst animated characters. Once you dub a talking dog it can be from anywhere and the audience will feel like it’s unique to them in the way that a live-action person can’t.

Speaking of the industry in general, he observes that animation doesn’t have its own low-budget genre niche yet in the way feature films do. “I really look forward to that moment though,” he says, expressing an eagerness to explore these not-yet delineated genres.

“Claymation as we were doing it will probably never be done again,” he admits, citing the painstaking, time absorbing process of creating and manipulating the visual elements by hand. It’s not a transition he’s bitter about though, as he finds himself using more and more computer programs with his animation. “The tools are so good at mimicking other styles,” he says, “including claymation.”

When I ask him what his favorite part about the artistic process is, he doesn’t hesitate, “I love the collaborative creative process of working with a team of people and being able to see [our finished product] on the screen.”

Vinton also had a piece of advice for people looking to break into the animation industry, whether they are amateurs or professionals: “Do short films of your own creation. It’s a great way to try things and experiment.” Experimentation is the name of Vinton’s game and I don’t think his audience would have it any other way.

Written by Lindsay Harrop.

As an intern with the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television, I get to observe Oregon’s film industry from a unique angle. Over the course of the summer I’ll be writing periodic pieces about the exciting cinematic endeavors occurring across the state and how the film industry impacts Oregon (and vice versa).


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