Filmmaker Will Vinton and His Feats of Clay Are Giving Animation a New Raisin D'être

updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

One-pound bricks of modeling clay in rainbow and Day-Glo hues spill from cardboard bins stacked head-high above wooden work benches. On stove tops and hot plates, double boilers simmer with melting red and blue clay. There is clay cooling in pizza-size puddles on tabletops, clay spattered in 114 colors all over a momentarily silent Sunbeam mixer, and gumball-size balls of clay clinging to the walls in random clusters.

Truly, Will Vinton's Portland, Ore. design room looks like nothing so much as a lavish day care center where the inmates have taken over.

...but listen closely with your mind's ear. Tah-ta-TAH-tah. There they are, those spooky opening bass chords. And didn't you just catch a glimpse of a tiny conga line, the glint of oh-so-cool sunglasses on wizened little faces? It's that old Marvin Gaye hit, and it's being performed by—by a pack of besneakered, beshaded, ultrahip raisins! Tah-ta-TAH-tah. "...heard it through the GRAPE-vine..."

"There is a point in Claymation," says Vinton, who created the hard-partying raisins for a California Raisin Advisory Board TV spot, "where you can almost fool yourself into thinking that these things are manipulating themselves—that they're alive." And it is this eerie feeling, transmuted into giggles, that has made the commercial and a second raisin ad into the most delightful and hottest half-minutes on the tube. Walt Disney, the last great animator, invented characters who were plausible fictions; Vinton's raisins, the "Noid" devil in his Domino's Pizza ad and hundreds of other creations destined to become much better known very soon, seem real, albeit not from any known universe. "It gives me chills sometimes when I see some of those moments," says Vinton.

Claymation looks so startlingly alive because it is a sequence of pictures of three-dimensional figures, not drawn images. The 39-year-old Oregonian, without doubt the top grape on the clay-animation vine, says there is "no closely guarded formula" for his favored medium and that "any school kid can do it and have wonderful results." Not quite. To achieve raisin-quality animation, his workers must mold a clay character, usually eight inches tall, and then reshape it as many as 1,440 times for every minute of film, while a computer-driven camera shoots each individual "pose." Ball-and-socket armatures may be inserted in the little figures' joints, and sequences may be filmed ahead of time with real actors to provide the sculptors with a guide to natural motion; nonetheless, the work is arduous enough to keep Vinton, six "master claymators" and six assistants busy on 11 miniature sound-stages. A six-second shot takes about a day and a half to film. Vinton calls the process "very tedious. And challenging in a fairly rewarding way."

Only lately, however, have the rewards been monetary. Vinton, whose father is a car dealer and retired civic leader in McMinnville, Ore., and whose mother is a bookkeeper, became aware of clay animation while an architecture major at U.C. Berkeley in the late '60s. ("People constantly ask me, 'Did you study Gumby as a kid?' " he sighs, "and I get so tired of it.") Assigned a paper on the history of the Acropolis, he instead turned in a film treatise using miniature clay models. "The professors loved it," he remembers. "The same amount of research and good design on film was worth an A or A-plus, when it would have gotten a B in the traditional form. Call it a gimmick, but there was clearly power and magic in film." By 1972 he had abandoned architecture and teamed up with a friend on an animated short called Closed Mondays, about a drunk in a museum where artworks metamorphose crazily before his eyes. Clay animation was known at the time (Gumby was indeed made of clay and the technique had been around for 40 years) but was dismissed by some animation texts as "impractical" and "crumbly." Nevertheless, the friends spent 14 months working on the film in Vinton's basement.

The short won an Oscar in 1974, the first of a huge ("we stopped counting around 350") collection of international awards Vinton would amass in the next decade. During that time, his technique grew more and more sophisticated. He began to make educational shorts and commercials, although he notes wryly that in his first five years he netted "about $5,000." Similarly, fame eluded him. "We were extremely well known by a select group of animation buffs around the world," he says.

By 1980 that following had begun to grow. Vinton made a 30-second trailer for Bette Midler's 1980 movie Divine Madness. He did a video for John Fogerty's song Vanz Kant Danz. He created the "Nome King" for Walt Disney Pictures' Return to Oz, one of that flop's few features to win critical acclaim.

Then last September the raisin spot hit the airwaves and fan mail began flooding TV stations around the country. The success took Vinton's gang by surprise. "It's a nifty spot," says design director Barry Bruce. "But when we think about its popularity in comparison with some of the other work we've given our all to, all we can say is 'Boy!' "

Such surprise is mixed with relish, however. Vinton is counting on the raisins' popularity to help sell a compilation of his shorts titled Festival of Claymation and, more important, to stoke a revival of his only full-length feature so far, the 90-minute Adventures of Mark Twain. Released 14 months ago, Twain was a curiosity: a sophisticated, ruminative film about the humorist that was praised by the highbrow New Republic but, because it was animated, was released as a children's matinee offering. It's no surprise that the film failed in that venue, but Vinton is convinced that the intended audience will discover it in its current home video release. "It should have residual value for 20 years," he says. "I don't think the style will go out of date."

Meanwhile, "the style" keeps Vinton and his family (moviemaker wife Susan Shadburne and her three children) in a "bungalow-cum-Victorian" hillside home next to a 2,000-acre wilderness park in Oregon, or floating on their 42-foot cabin cruiser on the nearby Willamette River, and Vinton keeps refining his golden moldies. There are new raisin and pizza ads slowly accreting on tiny soundstages, plus another full-length movie whose subject Vinton won't divulge. Whatever its plot, there will be a lot more people out there waiting to see it than ever anticipated a Claymation work before. They know it will be lively. They heard it through the grapevine.

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