Claydream: how the movie story of Will Vinton’s genius is arguably Laika’s shame

Will Vinton and several of his creations
Share this Article:

Claydream tells the story of Will Vinton, the rise and fall of his Claymation technique, and how he saw stop-motion studio Laika build its dream on the bones of his own.

Creatively and critically at least, stop-motion animation is having a much-delayed, well-deserved ‘bit of a moment’. Wendell & Wild has returned Henry Selick’s hyper-expressive style to our screens for the first time in far too many years, and Guillermo del Toro’s long-promised Pinocchio has finally arrived to fanfare, adulation and Oscars-tinged hype.

Meanwhile, we’re inching closer to Christmas and that season’s regular rewatches of Rankin Bass’ specials, like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and The Year Without Santa Claus. These return visits to their handworn nostalgia feel especially imperative this year, after the recent passing of director Jules Bass.

It feels like the right time, then, for Claydream, Marq Evans’ feature-length documentary about the stop-motion animator and entrepreneur Will Vinton. In truth, this film was originally released in the summer of 2021 in the US so it’s nothing if not long overdue. Still, better is late than never and I’m certainly glad Altitude finally took a punt on this UK release.

On the downside, Claydream’s overall form is both rather simple and somehow a bit lumpy. Thankfully, the film’s actual content is far richer and more interesting than way it has been sculpted.

As well as delivering a friendly primer on Vinton’s career, Evans hasn’t held back from grabbing onto a few elements of the filmmaker’s personal life too. Mostly, however, this film traces the tragic arc of how Will Vinton Studios didn’t, as some predicted, turn the filmmaker into a “Walt Disney of Claymation” but, thanks to the dollar-burning intervention of Nike founder Phil Knight, saw the entire venture taken away from Vinton’s control and transformed beyond recognition.

The surprise for people not fully-schooled in animation history might be that Vinton’s company still exists in the heavily mutated form of Laika, the much-celebrated studio behind Paranorman and Coraline. Travis Knight, now the big dog at Laika, has downplayed the relationship between Will Vinton Studios and Laika but it seems the latter was built from the salvage of the former, Vinton Studios’ engine taken over even while it was still chugging along.

One of the single greatest strengths of Claydream is just how unblinkingly it portrays the beginnings of Vinton’s erasure from Laika history. Footage of depositions from the bitter Knight v Vinton lawsuit arrives onscreen within the film’s first few minutes and the film returns to these proceedings throughout.

When I spoke to Travis Knight in 2017 I asked for “a potted history, starting at the moment you became involved with Will Vinton studios… How did you get from outside, step by step, to where you are now” but I didn’t get one. A shame, really, as Claydream doesn’t tell the story Knight would want the world to hear and I don’t know where his version of the story can be learned.

Knight did tell me “the company went out of business and if it wasn’t for somebody stepping up and saying “We’re going to make something new out of this”, there would be no Laika”, which isn’t quite the history as it unfolds in Claydream. The film even makes use of some excruciating clips from Channel 4 show The Word that show Knight in the ludicrous, youthful guise of would-be rapper Chilly Tee. Most audiences will be embarrassed on Knight’s behalf.

For those more interested in artistry than litigation and industry, there are lots of clips from Vinton’s work in the film, including some hard-to-see early works and a fair amount of behind-the-scenes shots. These snippets provide ample proof of his craft, ambition and eccentricity, and there’s no mistaking the same hand was somewhere at work in each of the clips’ creation, whether it’s Closed Mondays, the short which netted Vinton and co-director Bob Gardiner Oscars in 1975; the indelible California Raisin and chatting M&M commercials; or Vinton’s only feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Because of the outsized impact of the raisins, it might be easy to assume Vinton’s work was more nakedly commercial than Laika’s but just ten minutes of the sometimes esoteric and always uncompromising Mark Twain movie will disabuse anybody of any such misconception. The film is genuinely unique, blending whimsy, imagination, fascinating paradoxes and provocations worthy of the association with Twain, and numerous scenes steeped in sheer, nightmarish, clay-dripping dread.

Meanwhile, Laika also produces lots of advertising work, but simply without the same crater-making cultural impact as Vinton’s.

The documentary finds more tension in the relationship between Vinton and Bob Gardiner, making just a little space for questions about Gardiner’s influence on Vinton and vice versa, as well as their respective contributions to claymation technique. These shorter sections of the film have some nuance but could easily have run for much longer.

Rather than the oft-evoked Walt Disney it seems to me that Vinton’s story more closely echoes that of Richard Williams, the genius animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Williams also climbed his way up the industry through making much-loved commercials and special sequences for other people’s films; he too was stripped of control and freedom by bad business deals; he too made genre-twisting films of his own with pioneering and unusual technique. 

But where Williams was the consummately skilled craftsman, able to shift aesthetics smoothly and create work in a number of varied, distinctive styles, the same isn’t true of Vinton who, if you’ll excuse the pun, seems to leave an abundance of visible and distinct fingerprints all over his work. It’s hard to imagine the peculiar artistry of Vinton could ever have made him into a Disney analog; the uncanny metamorphoses and intermittent realism of claymation simply does not lend itself to theme park business and widespread, whitebread success.

There are some surprise chapters in Claydream, ticking off a few near-misses and dead ends of Vinton’s creative history.

We see how the studio’s temporary dabbling with cel animation on a raisins TV show robbed their work of what had originally made it special, that their expansion into CG was a risky race to embrace a medium they didn’t yet understand, and how a deal with Pixar would have changed animation history profoundly – though it’s not clear from the film exactly how close that particular agreement came to becoming reality. There’s even some crucial material around Vinton Studios’ officially-announced but never consummated agreement to make Corpse Bride with Tim Burton.

Will Vinton was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2006 and retired just two years after and, very sadly, died in 2018. It’s a blessing to Claydream's audiences that he’s featured throughout, speaking in both archive footage and original interviews recorded in the years just before his death. Hearing Vinton speak for himself around nicely-presented clips of his work, going all the way from youthful experimentation to big-budget work and, ultimately, beyond his losing the studio, provides some invaluable commentary and a very personal POV from a true artist, a genuine cinematic one-off who has been too-successfully marginalised in the present day’s popular history of stop motion animation and Laika.

Claydream is available today through and other digital platforms. Fans of stop motion animation and, appropriately given the website you’re reading, stories from behind the scenes of moviemaking shouldn’t hesitate for even a single second.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.


Share this Article:

More like this