Will Vinton, Oscar-Winning Legend of Claymation, Dies at 70

Will Vinton - P 2013
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Will Vinton - P 2013

He created the California Raisins and made Portland, Oregon, the epicenter for the animation and filmmaking community in the Pacific Northwest.

Will Vinton, the Oscar-winning visionary with the distinctive waxed mustache who coined the term "Claymation" and founded the studio that created the California Raisins, has died. He was 70.

Vinton died Thursday after a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma, his children Billy, Jesse and Alex announced in a Facebook post.

"He brightened any room with his signature mustache and continued to make jokes and laugh until the very end," they wrote. "His work will live on in animation history and will continue to inspire creative thinkers and makers."

The Oregon native saw himself as a filmmaker first and an animator second. With an eye for movement and design, he was a natural when it came to editing and camera work as well.

But one of Vinton's greatest talents was being able to spot talent and bring together groups of energized artists. (A young James Mangold was a writer on Vinton's Claymation Easter special in 1992. And Gus Van Sant shot reference footage for the animators to study poses and expressions of human actors.)

Beginning his film career as a former architectural student, Vinton recruited several other former classmates to shoot the type of miniatures they'd previously built for architectural models. From those humble beginnings, he soon became the epicenter for the animation and filmmaking community in the Pacific Northwest.

Vinton won his Oscar (shared with Bob Gardiner) in 1975 for the animated short film Closed Mondays. He later was nominated for other animated shorts Rip Van Winkle (1978), The Creation (1981) and The Great Cognito (1983) and for his visual effects work on Walter Murch's Return to Oz (1985).

He also won outstanding animated program Primetime Emmys for A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987) and for his Easter special and was nominated three other times.

In the 1980s and '90s, Portland, Oregon-based Will Vinton Studios became the largest stop-motion studio in the U.S. and the force behind iconic advertising characters including the California Raisins — memorably dancing to the Motown hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on the way to a spot in the Smithsonian Institution — and the Domino's Pizza Noid.

In 1985, Vinton directed his sole feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, voiced by James Whitmore.

In the days before CG animation, the clay creations of Will Vinton Studios became incredibly popular as a novel way to see dimensional animated characters. (Michael Jackson specifically asked to be made into a California Raisin caricature, and Vinton directed a segment of his 1988 film, Moonwalker.)

Vinton's studio continued to push innovation and visibility for stop motion, producing the first primetime network stop-motion animated series with The PJs in 1999. The studio pioneered digital image capturing techniques, which allow stop-motion animators to see in real time how their performance is unfolding.

While Vinton was eventually forced out of Will Vinton Studios (which would go on to become Laika), his influence made Portland a destination for stop-motion fabricators, animators and filmmakers, continuing the vibrant animation community that was built by him.

Vinton is the subject of a documentary, Welcome to My Daydream, to be released next year.

A celebration of his life is set for 3 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the No Vacancy Lounge in Portland.

Pete Levin is a Los Angeles-based director, writer and stop-motion animator.