Will Vinton, pioneering animator who invented claymation, dead at 70

Will Vinton, an Oscar-winning animator who invented the claymation style of stop-motion animation and brought the California Raisins to TV has died in Oregon. He was 70.

Oscar winner who brought the California Raisins to TV in the '80s remembered for hard work and optimism

Will Vinton, animator poses with the characters from Gary and Mike, a UPN show he developed in 2003. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

The man who invented claymation was bright and sunny until the very end, his sister said. 

Will Vinton, an Oscar-winning Oregon animator who created the iconic style of stop-motion animation and brought the California Raisins to TV, has died in Oregon of multiple myeloma. He was 70.

"I miss him already," his older sister Mary Vinton Folberg told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"He was a delightful human being who always lit up the room. He was always so optimistic and so positive and even soldiered into the last stage of his illness that way. Projects always going, you know."

'Lumps of clay somehow coming to life'

Stop-motion is a technique that requires animators to shoot puppets a single frame at a time, adjusting them slightly between frames to simulate movement. Claymation is a type of stop-motion that uses putty or clay figures instead of puppets for a more textured feel.

Vinton first started experimenting with the medium when he was an architecture student at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It was really a case of the filmmaking that I was already into, making short films at the time, and the interest in clay that sort of crossed paths for early experiments that I found astounding," he said during a 2011 speech at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

"The results were amazing sometimes, you know, simple inanimate lumps of clay somehow coming to life."

That type of experimentation was par for the course for Vinton, Folberg said. 

"When he was a little kid, he was always inventing things — tools or designing a new boogie board or, you know, talking Mom into assisting him on an upholstery job after he started driving," she said.

"He was the proverbial do-it-yourselfer who would always do it himself in a different way."

'A tedious business'

Vinton perfected his claymation technique in the '70s with partner Bob Gardner. Folberg remembers the two of them locked away in the basement, working for hours on end.

"Clay animation and stop-motion is just a tedious business. I mean, now people feed it into computers and CG takes over and it's a lot more efficient to do," she said.

"But at the time, they were playing with what clay could do if you sculpt, click, sculpt, click, sculpt, click. And they did that for hours a day."

A screenshot from Closed Mondays, a 1974 Oscar-winning claymation short film. (Lighthouse Productions)

Their 1975 animated short film Closed Mondays won an Oscar for best animated short.

On Facebook, his children penned a touching tribute to their late father.

"He saw the world as an imaginative playground full of fantasy, joy, and character. He instilled in us the greatest values of creativity, strength, and pride in ones own work," they wrote.

"He created stories and characters filled with laughter, music, and powerful lessons that are globally beloved."

California Raisins and Michael Jackson 

The pair later parted ways and Vinton went on to found Vinton Studios in Portland and win three Emmys as a producer.

Vinton Studios was best known for the 1986 California Raisins ad campaign featuring claymation raisins dancing to I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

 

That ad was so popular, it opened up all kinds of doors for Vinton. He even collaborated with pop star Michael Jackson on the Speed Demon music video for his 1988 musical anthology film Moonwalker.

"It was funny because he was staying on the boat one night and Michael calls at 2 o'clock in the morning — 'Hi Will, I have a new idea!" — and, you know, would talk until 4 or 5 in the morning," Folberg said with a chuckle.

"They enjoyed very much working together."

At its peak in the late 1990s, Vinton Studios employed 400 people with annual revenue of $28 million US.

Vinton, however, acknowledged that the business was a financial mess and he sought out Oregon's richest man, Nike founder Phil Knight, for financial assistance.

Knight purchased a stake in the company for $5 million in 1998. He asked for monthly financial statements from Vinton and suggested the studio hire his son, Travis Knight, as an animator.

Losing his life's work 

The company's financial woes continued, and Knight eventually seized control. In 2003, the studio laid off Vinton without severance. Knight renamed the studio and put his son in charge.

"It was almost overnight and he called me and he said, 'I think I've lost the studio,'" Folberg said. "We felt it was unjust. It was his life's work."

Vinton died on Oct. 4, 2018, following a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma in Oregon. He was 70. (The Oregonian via Associated Press)

But her brother, she said, never lost his trademark optimism and penchant for hard work. 

He remained active after leaving the studio. He continued to produce ads, taught at the Art Institute of Portland, and wrote the 2007 graphic novel Jack Hightower.

"Even when he was hurting and he was on a new chemotherapy protocol and his whole body was being wracked by these medications that were just hard on him, he just would soldier on. He just worked all the time," Folberg said.

"I can remember talking to him two weeks ago and his body was beginning to not function well and he was still so optimistic. It was just his nature. It was an incredible quality."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview with Mary Vinton Folberg produced by Katie Geleff. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.