A Portland film legend passed away today. Will Vinton, animator extraordinaire, died at the age of 70. Vinton founded Will Vinton Studios in 1976 and created multiple award-winning works, and other notable films, commercials, and television series; the studio contributed to the vibrant animation community for which Portland is world-renowned.
I spent an afternoon with Vinton in 2009 at his home on the Willamette River, interviewing him for my dissertation. He was very proud of his studio and its work, and he was committed to building and sustaining the Portland film community. By locating his studio in Portland, rather than in Hollywood, Vinton provided a home for talented animators and fostered a sense of family for many Oregon-based filmmakers.
Some brief history of Vinton and his animation:
Vinton’s first short film, a clay-animated stop-motion production called Closed Mondays (Vinton and Bob Gardiner, 1974), was rejected from the local Northwest Film and Video Festival, but screened at the Seven Gables theater in Seattle and went on to won an Academy Award for best animated short film in 1975. The next year, Vinton started his own studio, Odyssey Productions, which blossomed into a full-fledged animation studio and which eventually developed the technique – and coined the term – of Claymation. Vinton and his studio gained notoriety through a number of short films, feature films (such as The Adventures of Mark Twain in 1986), commercials (most notably, the California Raisins), and television series (The PJs, which aired on Fox in 1999-2000 and on the WB network in 2000-2001) (Erickson, 2011).
Vinton engaged in multiple initiatives to rally support for the film production community; some were successful and some were not. Along with other filmmakers, he started the Portland Creative Conference in 1990, which hosted filmmakers from Los Angeles as well as filmmakers from the local area. The intention was “to show off the region,” according to Vinton, “so filmmakers would visit now and make a film here later.” Vinton and others also founded the Oregon Film & Video Foundation in 1992, which was committed to the educational and professional growth of filmmaking in the region. An unsuccessful venture was the proposed “Claymation Station,” a $70 million theme park, retail arcade and motion picture studio to be located near northwest Portland’s Union Station.
By the mid-1990s, Will Vinton Studios experienced high productivity, employing over 400 people and generating $28 million in annual revenues. Unfortunately, Vinton’s studio eventually required an infusion of capital, which was the long haul to the transferral of the studio to the Phil Knight empire and the subsequent rechristening of the studio as Laika Animation Studios in 2005. In our interview, Vinton did not much want to address these events, and understandably so, but he did continue to speak very highly of the Portland animation community.
Vinton was an integral part of the growth and vibrancy of the Oregon film community, and his passing suggests that we take a moment for reflection on the history of what he helped to build.
Also, he had a phenomenal handlebar mustache. He, and the mustache and his animation genius, will be greatly missed.
Closed Mondays, produced in 1975, was awarded an Academy Award.
A set of commercials featuring the Claymation animated California Raisins. Vinton Studios also produced the A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987) and other primetime specials featuring the Raisins and other Claymation characters, and won Emmy awards for the work.
Read more about the history of the Portland film community (as well as Seattle’s) in Independent Filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest.
Mary Erickson is founder and director of the PNW Media Research Consortium. She teaches media studies at Western Washington University. She remembers people dressed up as the California Raisins for Halloween performing a dance routine to “Heard it through the Grapevine,” around the time when the commercials were at their height of popularity. She wrote about Vinton on this blog in 2014.