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What Happened to Will Vinton?

Michael Jackson as a California RaisinThe news that Will Vinton was fired from Will Vinton Studios, the Portland, Oregon company he founded in 1975, came as something of a shock. After all, Vinton was one of the giants of stop motion animation who made his registered Claymation synonymous with clay animation. One only has to think of clay animated classics as The Great Cognito, the California Raisins, A Claymation Christmas Special, the John Fogerty “Vanz Kant Dance” music video, the “Come Back Little Shiksa” sequence for the Moonlighting TV show, among many others. The studio also produced more traditional stop motion series as The PJs and a host of CGI commercials, including the M&Ms' 'Red & Yellow' spots.

Phil KnightVinton's departure was apparently part of a 'corporate restructuring' initiated by Phil Knight (pictured), a co-founder of Nike, who took command of the company last October, when he bought the controlling shares from Vinton. (Knight had been a minority shareholder since 1998.) And the reasons for his departure stemmed from an escalating conflict between Vinton and Knight, which may now play itself out in a lawsuit being filed by Vinton. Because of this, Vinton refused to comment on what happened.

His dismissal, which followed Vinton's resignation from the board of directors on April 14, was the latest in a series of layoffs which has seen its staff shrink from almost 400 during production of The PJs and Gary & Mike to about 100 -- about what it was before The PJs. The studio, which became dependent on commercials, suffered badly from the post-9/11 decline in advertising. The decline, which had been felt by other commercial houses, seemed to threaten the studio's very existence.

The subsequent news that it would produce Tim Burton's stop motion feature, The Corpse Bride for Warner Bros., was not as happy as it might seem, given that actual production will take place in England. Originally, the film was to have been made entirely at theVinton Studios, but will now only use a handful of its artists. One insider felt Burton made the change, in part, because of his involvement with British movie star Helena Bonham Carter and his desire to be in England. Even so, it should gain it a lot more visibility than its first feature effort, The Adventures of Mark Twain (1984)

However, the tipping point in the relationship between Vinton and Knight seems to have revolved around the production of a CGI Popeye TV special. In order to get the project done, the studio became partners with Hearst's King Features. Will Vinton acted as executive producer and co-wrote the script, and was deeply involved in the project. The original script, modeling itself after the original Fleischer cartoons, was aimed at an audience that included both children and adults. A second script was commissioned by the studio that was strictly kid-oriented, which Vinton strongly disagreed with. And it was this dispute which eventually led to the project being abandoned at the pre-production stage -- something the studio could ill afford to do.

Whither Vinton?
It is hard to predict what is going to happen to the studio now that Vinton is gone. If The Corpse Bride is a success, it certainly could help wean itself away from commercials, which tends to be follow the mood swings of the economy. Even so, it's quite possible the company will emphasize CGI work over stop motion.

Stop motion, as done on such shows as The PJs, tends to be rather pricey and involves a lot of overhead, in terms of sets, props and facilities. In addition, unlike cel and CG animation, there is no easy way to subcontract work out to cut costs. This is certainly something Phil Knight is well aware of. (Don't forget Knight was confronted by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine for his subcontracting practices as CEO of Nike.) However, even before Knight took charge, the studio was investigating using overseas CGI studios.

As to Will Vinton, he is temporarily holed up at Happy Hour Entertainment, a small CGI-stop motion shop run by two of his former animators. Although the circumstances of his departure were not easy, he feels rather liberated and is considering a number of options. This could include setting up another studio and/or even moving out of Portland.

Finally, there's an interesting sidebar to the story involving Phil Knight's son Travis, who got a job at the studio as a production assistant and tried his hand at animation. He proved to be so good at it that he is now rated by some as one of the studio's top animators. How this will impact things, though, is something I can't say.

-- Harvey Deneroff
May 1, 2003

2003 by Harvey Deneroff







Will Vinton
Will Vinton: Official Studio Photo.

Will Vinton and Bill Plympton
Will Vinton and Bill Plympton at the 2000 Week With the Masters Animation Celebration in Trivandrum, India.