A brief excerpt from an archival interview with Travis Knight is intentional. He was asked if he got the animation bug at Laika, where he co-owns with his father Phil Knight while also serving as President and CEO; His answer is: “No. I started at another studio.” It’s not a lie. He began his career at Will Vinton Studios after Phil became a minority shareholder. It’s not the whole truth either – Laika is Will Vinton Studios, or at least what Will Vinton Studios became after the elder Knight initiated a hostile takeover. There was a very conscious attempt to separate the two despite this lineage because the origins ultimately turn out to be messy. Personally, I had no idea about the connection until almost seven years later.
While that shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise (companies are bought and sold every day), read around the time paranorman published that Knight urged founder Will Vinton to give it to his son — a former silver-spoon rapper known as “Chilly Tee” — it hit hard because Vinton left an indelible mark on my childhood. I grew up listening to the California Raisins. Hers was my first tape and I trawled the TV schedules every year to know what night her Christmas special was playing. Vinton’s pedigree also included an Oscar for his first short film (closed on Monday with Bob Gardiner), a feature film (The Adventures of Mark Twain) and several music videos, but these commercial creations were everything to me.
So the documentary by Marq Evans clay dream There couldn’t be more need to memorialize Vinton and put his career into context while trying to set the record straight for how it all fell apart. The whole thing uses this sinking as a kind of narrative scaffolding to occasionally dive in through filmed statements from “Vinton v Knight”. The end thus becomes the inevitable climax of what happens when an artistic dream is slowly being taken over by capitalist imperatives. How could a man who reached such great heights so early jeopardize his vision of moving toward profitability? How did his personal pursuits at the expense of (perhaps) exploiting his employees lead to overwork and the bad business decisions that opened the door for Knight?
Ask some of its animators. Each of those interviewed might have had issues with Vinton’s eventual business practices as the creativity of a small studio in a house in Portland, Oregon grew into a four-building complex, but they all loved the man. And they will say it was the aspiration to become Walt Disney. Whether or not he consciously sought this goal is a moot point; His actions show it’s true. Plans for an amusement park style attraction. With the commercial failure of Mark Twain To switch ambitions to bankable characters, he could market and sell à la Mickey Mouse. He put his name to the fore despite his role, primarily as a producer while others did the tedious work. He aspired to that level of fame and nearly got it.
It’s sad to think that Travis Knight would finally be the one to cross the finish line and transform a studio with astronomical ambitions that ultimately found its niche in marketable character designs like California Raisins and M&Ms. (Vinton has failed to get a slice of the million-dollar industry these grapes have become.) And that’s not to say Knight didn’t deserve the critical and box-office success that Laika has found; the work clearly speaks for itself. It just goes to show how important capital always is to any artistic venture. With Phil Knight’s Nike money behind you, you can focus your time and resources on fewer projects. You have the luxury of not always accepting commissioned work in order to remain solvent. Vinton just didn’t have the business sense.
He admits that in his interview with Evans. Stories like Pixar’s offer to take the studio under their wing for a stock swap are crazy because hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Secure, toy story was a hit in 1995. The Will Vinton Studios were no wimps back then either. Knowing in retrospect that today that deal would have made him a major shareholder in Disney itself is the stuff of nightmares. But Vinton can only laugh. Heard from ex-business partners, ex-wives, entertainers and friends, this cheerful manner and tireless optimism was both his best trait and his biggest flaw. One interviewee admits that Vinton never thought of backup plans. He believed in himself and his team and never took the focus away. This belief worked until it didn’t.
It’s not like Vinton didn’t have his own drama during the studio’s inception. A key takeaway is the fact that his former partner, Bob Gardiner, may have had a legitimate claim on “Claymation” that went beyond just hiring help. When you’re dealing with multimillion-dollar intellectual property, shareholders, and the compromises necessary to afford to fly high, things inevitably get messy—that’s exactly what happened here. We hear rumors that Vinton is more focused on work than his family, and observe his desire to take the tax responsibilities off his shoulders so he can get back to misfiring art. Just because you create something doesn’t mean you automatically know how to manage its sustainability. It’s an unfortunate lesson learned countless times out of hubris and naivety.
Vinton’s journey had a bit of both, but the work stayed strong throughout. It was a real blast from the past to see so much of it on screen here – Domino’s Noid, The PJs or Wilshire Pig. And those characters and movies I didn’t know about: Now when I see the craft and ingenuity, I want to go back and correct the mistake. (I don’t care if the story behind it The Adventures of Mark Twain it does not work. It looks absolutely gorgeous.) That Evans can keep things reasonably objective, despite his goal of making sure Vinton smells as good as possible, only helps clay dream‘s appeal. It’s hard to dispute — schedules, video evidence, and a subject willing to admit their mistakes rarely lie.
clay dream is now in limited edition.