Monday, August 08, 2022

Claydream: The Will Vinton Documentary

It is a great irony animation-filmmaker Will Vinton scored tremendous success with his commercial work, but was undone by bad business decisions. Despite the popularity of his “California Raisons” campaign and three seasons of The PJs, a primetime TV collaboration with Eddie Murphy, he lost control of the studio he built. His frustrating story offers applicable lessons for aspiring animators throughout Marq Evans’ documentary, Claydream, which opens Friday in Los Angeles (and is now playing in New York).

Closed Mondays, his first film to receive heavy festival play, Vinton and co-director Bob Gardiner won the Academy Award for animated short. They had a bad breakup shortly thereafter. Subsequently, Gardiner’s questionable working methods undermined his promise, while Vinton steadily gained prominence in the industry.

Sadly, Vinton’s first and only full-length feature,
The Adventures of Mark Twain was mishandled by its distributor. Yet, the success of the “California Raisins” and Domino’s “Avoid the ‘Noid” commercial campaigns generated a lot of revenue for his studio. However, the Raisins could have earned so much more, if Vinton had negotiated a part of the merchandising rights. Sadly, face-palm-worthy business decisions will be a recurring theme in Claydream, especially when he brought in Phil Knight as an investor.

Yes, that is Phil Knight of Nike, which actively lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. What kind of corporate citizen opposes such a measure? Apparently, the sort that wrested control of Will Vinton Studios from its founder. It is now known as Laika.

What makes
Claydream so compelling is that it is equal parts film and business documentaries. If Vinton, who died in 2018, might have made more masterworks like Mark Twain, if he had better understood and more proactively managed the business side of the studio. Knight’s son Travis, who now runs Laika, is only seen in deposition footage and his old (excruciatingly painful) rap video, but it might have better served Laika’s interests had he sat for an interview. His father, who obviously never intended his deposition video would see the light of day, comes off terribly.

Even though Vinton is no longer with us, Evans had plenty of archival interview footage with Vinton, much of which was recorded by local Oregon media and likely not familiar to most animation fans. The way he and editors Lucas Cellar and Yakima shape that footage makes it look like Vinton was able to philosophically comes to terms with his setbacks, which hopefully was true.

At times,
Claydream will have the audience pulling their hair out, but that is because it strikes such a resonant chord. It will also spur viewers to revisit Vinton’s classics, like Mark Twain and The Little Prince, whereas news of future Laika releases will leave a bitter taste in their mouths. Evans fully captures the bitter ironies of a very dramatic story. Highly recommended for fans of Vinton and the stop-motion animation genre, Claydreams opens this Friday (8/12) in LA, at Laemmle Noho 7 and Monica Film Center (and it is now playing at the Quad).