Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Marq Evans
By Joan Amenn
There is something magical in animation, as anyone who has ventured to try creating in the visual style knows. Clay animation is a special kind of crazy magic; crazy, because of how a shapeless blob can be given movement and form but also because of the time and focus that is required for it to be done well. Maybe Will Vinton was a special kind of crazy for his incredible talent that took animation to a new level, but the personal cost to him and to those who believed in his dreams proved devastating. “ClayDreams” (2021) is a cautionary tale of how art and finance don’t necessarily play well together, sometimes with heartbreaking results.
“ClayDreams” tells the story of Vinton’s rise to fame and the many struggles he endured in building his own studio, occasionally using a clay animated television to show clips of his clay animated films. It’s a fun framework that keeps the tone of the film light even when some menace and ugliness creeps in, such as when Vinton’s former partner becomes increasingly unstable and threatens his life. There are many such unexpected twists to the animator’s story which makes this an unusually engaging documentary.
Of course, those of a certain age will remember the “California Raisins” television ad campaign that exploded in popularity. Suddenly, raisins were appearing on all kinds of merchandise and the ads made Vinton a popular talk show guest to discuss his genius. One of the more amusing scenes of the documentary is the recreation of the voice messages left by Michael Jackson to Vinton in the hopes of working with him. This led to Jackson himself being immortalized as a clay raisin and it seems that he had very specific ideas of what his raisin entourage should look like as well. The energy and detail that went into these short animations and their perfect choreography make them enchanting even now. As Vinton admits, he was looked upon as an overnight success but by the time the California Raisins were created he had been working on animated projects for fourteen years and had already won an Academy Award in 1974. That early success led to four more Oscar nominations before he single-handedly created clay animated advertising for television. He also coined the word “Claymation” for the process he perfected much like Jim Henson created the word “Muppet” as a fusion of puppet and marionette.
“There are many such unexpected twists to the animator’s story which makes this an unusually engaging documentary.”
The ups and downs of running his studio took a toll on his ability to create and leads to a sad conclusion to the documentary. Will Vinton’s studio lives on but not with his name on it. He himself was pushed out in an especially painful process that the film does not shy away from although it definitely deflates much of the goofy fun that is a running theme. Vinton himself is almost always seen smiling behind his signature handlebar mustache, even toward the end of his life. This is a lovely remembrance of a creative icon who is probably not recalled much today but deserved so much better than he ultimately was left with. If you are a fan of animation, this film is a must see.