How did a sneaker mogul and an animation virtuoso meet in a bizarre legal battle? The documentary Claydream shows us the ups and downs of an animation empire, crushed dreams and the legacy of artistic collaboration.
There are some successful animation houses like Disney Nelvana, Jim Henson, and Toei, to name a few, and stop-motion animation already had its devotees to the styles of greats like Ray Harryhausen and Art Clokey. A filmmaker named Will Vinton followed in their footsteps with his own big dreams built with clay. This Berkeley architecture student became fascinated with stop motion and film in the 60s, which led him to create Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon. He had a partner, the eccentric and intense artist Bob Gardiner, and together they brought their visions to life, winning an Oscar in 1975 for their animated short Closed Mondays. Bob and Will had different work styles and would eventually part ways. While Will worked to create his vision of becoming a famous animator like Walt Disney; Bob stewed in resentment. There’s also a cost to Vinton’s fame, paid with mismanagement, tunnel vision, a link to Nike mogul Phil Knight that had disastrous results, and betrayal.
Directed by Marq Evans, Claydream chronicles the fascinating rise of the late Vinton’s trademarked “Claymation” in pop culture. His characters like The California Raisins and Domino Pizza’s Noid packed a huge punch, catching the eye of music icons and corporations, and Vinton and his team were able to ride the fame wave with their work. While Evans did show Clokey’s characters of Gumby, I was a little disappointed that Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen weren’t mentioned in terms of historical reference. Instead, Evans focused on how Vinton and Gardiner refined these animation techniques, and interviews with those who worked with and loved the creators. You’re left with the impression that Will Vinton, with his signature handlebar mustache, was a complicated but classy guy who was too focused on artistry to see the minutiae of running a business. He took the high road with his company’s demise instead of being bitter about the fight for his studios.
Claydream is a fascinating look at how a bunch of clay characters and their makers rose to fame, and the ensuing turmoil with lawsuits, hurt egos and jockeying for success.
Screening digitally in the US only June 13. Get tickets here.