Review: Claydream Follows the Highs and Lows of a Creator’s Long, Eventful Career in Claymation

The state of Graceland

What I thought was going to strictly be a loving documentary tribute to the beloved Father of Claymation, Will Vinton (head of Will Vinton Studios), Claydream turned into something both celebratory and tragic. Vinton won an Oscar for his studio’s brilliant short, Closed Mondays, and just for good measure he was nominated four other times in the decades that followed. Modeling his vision and management style after Walt Disney, Vinton was a terrific animator, but he had better artists in his employ, and as a result, he turned into a force that made creative dreams come to life as a studio head, from his beginnings in a modest studio in Portland, Oregon, to much bigger spaces and artists that went on to create the California Raisins, Domino’s The Noid, and work on projects with Michael Jackson and other musicians. When Claymation fell out of fashion, the studio got involved with computer animation, expanding its offerings and moving into television projects like “The PJs” (success in the feature-film world eluded the company).

At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, Vinton Studios had hundreds of employees and was practically printing money, but in its worst times, Vinton refused to fire people, earning him a reputation as an anti-businessman, whose personal and creative attitudes painted money-hungry capitalists as the enemy. But when it came time to seek investors, Vinton turned to Nike (also a Portland-based company) founder Phil Knight, who purchased a minority interest in the company with the only stipulation that Vinton had to take on Knight’s son, would-be rapper Travis, as an employee. By all accounts, Travis worked hard from the ground up, took to animating quite impressively, and moved up the company ladder mostly on his merits, with no real desire to move into management. So naturally, that’s where the trouble began.

Director Marq Evans (2015’s The Glamour & the Squalor) frames his work not unlike David Fincher did in The Social Network, where we weave through Vinton’s story via videotaped mediation. After Knight eventually took over the company when it took a nosedive in profits, he fired Vinton without cause (which he was contractually allowed to do) and turned the company over to his son Travis. Vinton sued Knight and lost, but the taped hearing allows us to see the major players all in the same room, generating tension and vitriol as Vinton’s last years at the company are retold.

The wealth of behind-the-scenes material at Vinton Studios is astonishing and so helpful in illustrating the spirit of the place and how encouraging an environment it was, especially in its early years. But it’s also clear that Vinton was so committed to this company that he let his personal life (wife, kids) take a back seat which led to a couple of marriages falling apart and kids that felt left behind, other than when they went to visit their father at work. As much as Claydream is the story of art and commerce colliding, it’s also a bit of a cautionary tale about not finding satisfaction outside the workplace. The highs and lows were many, and they too are well documented. Vinton is also painted as the eternal optimist, even later in life when he was diagnosed with a fatal type of blood and bone cancer.

At this point, I should mention two things: when Vinton lost his company, new CEO Travis Knight changed the company name to Laika, and suddenly the world of feature films opened up to the company with works such as The Box Trolls, ParaNorman, and the exquisite Kubo and the Two Strings, for which Travis is credited as director. Back in 2016, I moderated a Q&A with Travis Knight for Kubo, one of the most beautiful examples of the power of stop-motion animation ever made. While I knew who Knight’s father was, I did not know the history behind Vinton Studios (despite being a huge admirer of “The PJs” and many of their music videos) or Laika, and if I’d known this version of events going into the interview, well, I probably would have still heaped praise on the movie, but I would have looked sideways a bit at the rapper formerly known as Chilly Tee. His commitment to the craft is undeniable, but at what cost?

Claydream isn’t the most polished doc I’ve seen lately, but there is something about the subject matter and the way the film is pieced together that make it wildly fascinating and something you devour instead of simply watch. For the most part, aside from being too trusting and somewhat naive, Vinton seems like he would have been great to work for and an inspiration for all creative spirits. The film manages to demonize the Knights only a little bit, letting the audience finish the job it starts, quite effortlessly. Whatever you may or may not know about Vinton going into the movie, it’s likely you’ll learn something new about some aspect of his world—and what a world he built. By my calculations, getting to spend any amount of time watching a claymation animator work at this level of excellence is reason enough to check out this film.

The film will begin a limited theatrical run on Friday.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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