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Animation Pioneer Will Vinton Documentary Review

Will Vinton surrounded by his clay creations.

Image: Oscilloscope Labs

Claydream, Marq Evans’ new documentary about animator Will Vinton, addresses the elephant in the room immediately: yes, this is the guy who lost his company to his most deep-pocketed investor, Nike founder Phil Knight. It’s something that looms over the film, but it’s not the only melancholy element that colors this portrait of Vinton’s life and career.

Made with the cooperation of Vinton himself, who died of cancer in 2018 but is interviewed extensively here, Claydream offers a visual history of his remarkable accomplishments. Not only do we get a look at the progression of Vinton’s work over the years (from Closed Mondays, the Oscar-winning 1974 short he created with Bob Gardiner, to his company’s instantly recognizable commercial work from the ‘80s and ‘90s, including the California Raisins), we also get access to home movies, as well as firsthand accounts from friends, family members, and former coworkers. After sparking to filmmaking while at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, Vinton (who prized experimentation and creative fulfillment above all else, and was definitely a bit of a hippie) set up a small workshop with his collaborators in Portland, Oregon, a location that kept their productions deliberately removed from the Hollywood machine—the same machine he’d end up pursuing years later, when Will Vinton Studios was at its peak.

Most of Claydream keeps the focus on Vinton’s work—again, this movie is a visual feast, jam-packed with clips and other ephemera (including answering-machine messages from a California Raisins-obsessed Michael Jackson) that illustrate the narrative of Vinton’s career every step of the way. But for all his success, and for the admirable way he bounced back from his periodic failures and missteps, he never achieved the heights of his idol, Walt Disney, whose life trajectory he emulated, down to plans for a never-realized “Claymation Station” amusement park. Though he was well-liked as a person, not everyone he worked with is full of praise; there were issues over the years of sharing credit with the other animators who toiled on his projects, as well as some bad business decisions that meant, for instance, that Will Vinton Studios didn’t share in the licensing for the insanely marketable California Raisins—and also that Vinton passed on selling his company to Pixar during its pre-Disney era. A contentious split with the troubled Gardiner soon after their shared Oscar win haunted Vinton until Gardiner’s death in 2005. But as Claydream amply illustrates, the Phil Knight debacle ended up being the biggest tragedy of Vinton’s creative life.

Neither Knight nor his son Travis Knight are interviewed in Claydream; we see them in deposition and archival footage only. Travis Knight, now a film director known for the stop-motion feature Kubo and the Two Strings as well as the live-action Transformers spin-off Bumblebee, comes off particularly badly just on the basis of the facts presented: a failed rapper, he was hired at Will Vinton Studios after his father invested in it, where he developed his (by all accounts) true talent and passion for animation. But there’s no escaping the “nepotism baby” aroma that envelops him in this context, especially when the documentary points out that he became head of Will Vinton Studios—renamed Laika—after Vinton, who was unable to rescue his financially struggling company, was pushed out.

It’s juicy show-biz stuff, for sure, but Vinton makes a point of turning what was obviously an incredibly devastating blow into something positive. Looking back several years after he lost his studio, he sounds genuinely proud of its continued success, specifically in the way that Laika—which has since become a Hollywood powerhouse with acclaimed titles like Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Missing Link, and Knight’s Kubo—brought stop-motion to an ever-wider audience while innovating on the art form. It couldn’t have been easy for Vinton to make peace with the situation, but Claydream sure makes it seem like he was able to. Perhaps, as in his earliest days as a counterculture animator, it all came down to what really mattered: making an end product that was cool as it could possibly be. Even if Vinton wasn’t directly involved in any of Laika’s titles, his legacy lives on.

Claydream hits select theaters today, August 5.


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