Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

Claydream (Film Review)

4 min read

You might assume that Claydream will be a mundane documentary about animator , but it ends up being a kind of soul-destroying look at the conflict between creativity and commerce in a capitalist society.

Vinton was a Portland, Oregon based animator who popularised the idea of Claymation in the early 1970s. People had used that technique in the past (for example the Gumby series, which started in the 1950s), but usually it was pretty simplistic. Studios in the UK was also founded in the mid-1970s, and that was Vinton's only proper competitor—Aardman didn't really take off until Nick Park came in as the master animator there.

Along with his friend , Vinton came up with early Claymation techniques while living in Berkeley, a process that involved a lot of LSD. They ended up winning an Oscar for the short, Closed Mondays in 1975, but then had a falling out. But then Vinton became an “overnight sensation” due to the adverts he did for the California Raisin Advisory Board. This came after he had done the first Claymation feature-length film, The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Vinton was one of the worst businessmen in human history, with no inkling of how to capitalise on his success or even much interest in doing so. He just wanted to make animated movies, which sadly he rarely got to do. He claimed to be aiming to be “the Walt Disney of the Pacific Northwest,” with all kinds of grand plans –including a Disney-style theme park, Claymation Station, that he wanted to turn a chunk of Northwest Portland into. These plans didn't happen, but with Claydream we do get a wild trip through Vinton's very interesting life story, starting when he was a young hippie and through to the bitter end. We see Vinton trying to create his own niche, having some success with projects like the Eddie Murphy show The PJs, and biting off far more than he could chew. The only way his company really made money was making adverts and music videos.

A big villain soon comes into the picture, Nike exec Phil Knight. By the end of the ‘90s, Will Vinton Studios had done lots of successful work, and they were seeking some outside funding. Knight was probably the richest person in the Portland, so he was an obvious person to approach. Knight took a 15% stake in the company in 1998, on the condition that his son Travis Knight, at that point a failed wannabe rapper known as Chilly Tee, could be a paid intern. To his credit, Travis ended up being a talented animator and filmmaker, so he found his calling. But from the start Phil Knight had ulterior motives for purchasing a stake. He would deny it, but it was apparent that he wanted to set up his son with something he could run. Within a few years he had gotten a majority stake and kicked Vinton to the curb with just $50,000 to his name, taking the company Vinton had put his heart and soul into. Knight rebranded it as Entertainment, and it has gone on to great success.

This was all happening around the time that The Corpse Bride was supposed to be produced in conjunction with Will Vinton Studios. Vinton had done work with Tim Burton way back, in Beetlejuice and on The Nightmare Before Christmas amongst other projects.

It is a really well-made documentary about a very charming guy who, even with all the stuff that happened to him, had a smile on his face about the whole thing. There are also some really funny stories about his former creative partner, Bob Gardner, whose trajectory went very much downhill. He was known to walk around Portland with his Oscar in his pocket using it to get people to buy him drinks. At one point he even threatened to assassinate Vinton at the Rose Parade! It's the story of one of the most important figures in animation of the last 50 years, who has never really gotten his due. He made some shorts and a few features, but most of his work was in advertising—which is of course frowned on by many critics. But there is good work done in that field too, and just because you are trying to sell something doesn't mean it can't be something creative.

There is really great use of clips from the various short films, especially a segment on The Adventures of Mark Twain. It's an entertaining and cinematic doc, with a very dark turn in the last third of the film. If you don't know the story already, which I did not, it has really engaging narrative flow with the way the film is edited together. 

Claydream is out now to buy/rent digitally.