Claymation is a registered trademark. It didn’t get used as one much when I was a kid, but then, when I was a kid, pretty much the stop-motion we saw was Claymation, from Will Vinton Studios. Stop motion has always been more niche than cel animation, but there was a stretch when I was a kid where you saw it regularly—because Will Vinton had a contract with the California Raisin Advisory Board, and one with Domino’s Pizza, and one of the best Christmas specials. Not to mention a single feature film that doesn’t get talked about often enough.
Will Vinton was an Oregonian native, though he studied physics, architecture, and filmmaking at Berkeley. Starting in the ’70s, he developed techniques for stop-motion animation; his second short produced with then-collaborator Bob Gardiner, “Closed Mondays,” won the Best Animated Short Oscar for 1974. Vinton developed his Portland-based studio; he didn’t necessarily do his own animation for all the classics, but he still kept his hand in with design work as late as 2008. He even helped design the M&Ms mascots, after he’d started adding computer animation to the studio’s output.
It’s a little disappointing to me that he will probably be best remembered for the California Raisins. They were bizarrely successful—not a lot of mascots get primetime specials and successful albums, after all. But I even thought their segment of the Christmas special was so-so, and not just because I’m also not a huge fan of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It is a tribute to Vinton that he managed to make a group of raisins cute; after all, raisins are not best known for their looks. But there it is, I suppose.
Better, I think, to remember the dinosaurs, Rex and Herb—created for an educational short about, what else, dinosaurs. Rex is a carnivore and Herb is an herbivore. They went on to host the Christmas special, and Rex’s disapproval of Herb is half the fun. There’s also his fairy tales. The incredible artistry of the “Joy to the World” sequence, wherein the animators paint with clay. Indeed, Vinton’s studio is believed to have developed the technique of working in actual clay as far as it could go, and they developed new techniques for working with foam instead.
And, yes, The Adventures of Mark Twain. An underrated, underseen film. Creepy as all get-out in places; the Mysterious Stranger is lifted from a Twain story I’ve not read, but the way he’s brought to life by the film is alarming and probably responsible for a lot of nightmares over the years. But there’s more to the movie than the Mysterious Stranger, and the rest of it is alternately funny and tender and thrilling. If it were all of Vinton’s legacy, it would be a legacy worth having.