Weekly Update 1 – Will Vinton at the Art Institute

This week’s Weekly has my visit with Will Vinton, creator of the California Raisins. NOTE: The story’s only available online, not in the paper itself. Below is the copy with some pictures. More pictures at flickr.

The California Raisins’ creator hits Philly

Will Vinton surrounded by his clay animation creatures.
Will Vinton surrounded by his clay animation creatures.

You might not know the name Will Vinton, but you know his creations—the California Raisins and those talking M&Ms. He’s the “father of clay animation,” and coined and trademarked the term “claymation.”

In 1975 Vinton, right out of college, won an Oscar for the short clay animation Closed Mondays, and he’s racked up the awards since then. He was in Philly last month to lecture at the Art Institute, where a collection of animation cels, drawings, storyboards and claymation figures from Will Vinton studios is now on view in the gallery.

An Oregon native, Vinton lives in Portland, where he’s artist in residence at the Portland Art Institute. His current projects include writing a second graphic novel—about a 10-inch-tall secret agent.

Bald, soft-spoken and serious (and with an outstanding handlebar mustache), the 59-year-old was happy to make his first trip to Philadelphia. He likes the architecture here and the walkability of the streets and parks.

How did you get your start in animation?

“I was a filmmaker first. I’ve been making films since college—live action and animation. I graduated with a degree in architecture from Berkeley in 1971. I did a lot of art. My first love is art.”

It’s quite a leap from architecture to clay animation.

“I was inspired by [surrealist architect Antoni] Gaudí. His architecture has organic shapes. I felt I needed to design in clay. I did it as an experiment, crossing paths with filmmaking. I was already doing stop-motion animation. I was surprised how people hadn’t gotten into it.”

Will Vinton - Mark Twain figure
Mark Twain figure from Vinton’s collection, now on view at Art Institute.

Have you ever designed a building?

“I designed the studio building and two houses. I built one house for my family and sold it. Now I live next to it. I like to look at it. On the side I’m very interested in messing with green architecture, green plastics, turning it into building systems, structural insulated panels. I started with an art director friend and ended up designing a whole bunch of materials that weren’t out there before. We patented them—‘Insulastics.’ We might license it and see where it goes.”

Will Vinton, Jack Hightower
Jack Hightower, graphic novel written by Vinton with art by Brazilian artist Fabio Laguna.

You like characters and stories. Where did that come from?

“I’ve always done a lot of creative writing, and always had a theatrical bent. I did a little bit of theater as a kid. That’s what entertainment is. I love stories and storytelling. Now I’m back to my roots. I just did a graphic novel, Jack Hightower. I scripted it and worked with an artist from Brazil, Fabio Laguna. I found him on the Web. We worked one and a half to two years, and I talked to him almost every day. But I’ve never met him.”

Will Vinton- Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs. Vinton made an educational film, “Dinosaur!” that I saw years ago with my kids at the Natural Sciences museum. It was terrific!

Any advice for students who want to go into animation?

“I try to tell students how important basic art skills are. I tell my kids—they get wowed by the digital tools and the tools are so powerful—but the thinking and internal character development is so important.”

Will Vinton’s Closed Mondays which won the Oscar for animated short in 1975.

“Will Vinton Studios”
Through Feb. 29. Free. Art Institute of Philadelphia Gallery, 1622 Chestnut St. 215.567.7080.