June 25, 2023

CLAYDREAM: The Highs & Lows of a Local Legend

2021 / 96 min
Review by Fluffy the Fearless😺

Will Vinton was a big deal in my neck of the woods, especially after his animated short, “Closed Mondays,”  won an Oscar in 1974. Wow…a guy from Portland, Oregon won an Academy Award! 

And despite his success, Vinton stayed in Portland, expanding his studio and reputation as a creative genius (with help from others who didn’t get near enough credit). His greatest success as founder of Will Vinton Studios was creating the California Raisins, and he had dreams of an Empire similar to Walt Disney’s. Unfortunately, he was always a better artist than a businessman.

Will Vinton did not invent clay animation, but he brought it into the mainstream, even coining the phrase, Claymation. Though things didn't end well for him, he remains a local legend in Portland. And without his original vision, Laika Studios would literally not exist.

Claydream is a fascinating, affectionate retrospective documentary about the highs and lows of Vinton’s career (and there was plenty of both). The story briefly summarizes his childhood before diving into his college days and eventual fascination with stop-motion filmmaking. We learn he once had a partner, Bob Gardiner, a free-spirited artist who co-created “Closed Mondays.” That relationship quickly soured, which the film suggests was a combination of Gardiner’s flaky behavior and Vinton’s personal ambition. Whatever the case, Vinton moved on, growing his studio staff and producing more shorts, while a bitter Gardiner became a footnote in the studio’s history.

Will Vinton and friends.

Speaking of which…even though Claydream often plays like a love letter to an animation pioneer, it doesn’t portray Vinton as a complete saint. As discussed by many who knew him well, his ambition tended to alienate family members and some of his artists, who felt like he was taking all the credit for everyone’s collective efforts. He also made some questionable business decisions, such as trying like hell to emulate Disney by expanding into a media empire (including plans for a theme park). 

The film also shows the studio’s greatest financial success was creating animation commissioned by other studios and companies. Few of Vinton’s personal projects really got off the ground, and those which did - such as the feature-length film, The Adventures of Mark Twain - were largely unsuccessful. And as the novelty of Claymation faded, the studio turned to computer animation to stay afloat.

However, the most fascinating parts of Claydream involve Vinton suing Nike founder Phil Knight, who agreed to invest in the studio on the proviso that his son, Travis, got a job as an animator. But Knight eventually bought a majority of the company and fired Vinton. The studio was eventually renamed Laika, with Travis calling the shots. While Travis isn’t quite a nepo-baby (he’s actually a skilled director in his own right), the film definitely does not depict the Knights positively.

Throughout the film, Vinton himself discusses his life and career through archive interviews, right up until his death in 2018. Claydream ends on a bittersweet note, with his studio taken from him and later years marred by illness. Still, his life is an engaging story with many highs, lows and poignant moments, making the film a must for animation buffs.


WILL VINTON SHORTS - All 11 of Vinton’s animated shorts released during the 20th Century.

“GONE FOR A BETTER DEAL” - A hippy-dippy feature-length documentary Vinton made back in the ‘60s.

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By director Marq Evans, producers Tamir Ardon & Kevin Moyer.




No comments: