Friday, October 5, 2018

Will Vinton (1947-2018)



I just learned the sad news about Will Vinton's death.  In the 1980's and 90's he was a real force in animation and a magnet for creative artists to move to Portland, Oregon, which helped make it the Mecca of animation that it is today. 

I first met him way before I got into animation, back in the late 1970's or early 80's, on one of my annual trips back to Portland, my hometown.  I desperately wanted to get into the field, so I though I'd just visit his studio, unannounced and uninvited.  Back then his studio was based out of a little house in N.W. Portland.  They were the friendliest people: Mark Gustafson, Joan Gratz, Craig Bartlett - I guess they'd seen my illustrations. 

I would usually visit Will whenever I was in town and they'd give me a tour of their quickly-growing studio as they went from short films to features, to commercials and T.V. shows.  Will became famous after he received an Oscar for "Closed Mondays", the short film he made with Bob Gardiner.  And I became closer friends with Bob later on - Will and Bob split up for creative reasons and after a while, Bob became extremely jealous of Will's huge success.  I used to hang out with Bob in the bars of Portland, he loved to drink, and would rail against Will's success.

It's my theory that Bob was sort of the real genius behind Claymation - he was an extremely talented artist, musician and storyteller but like a lot of artists, he was very disorganized.  So Will took over the production, post-production and distribution, and therefore became in many ways the key to their film's success.  Will was definitely a genius when it came to sales, promotion and attracting talent - Will drew some of the greatest 3-D animators in the U.S. and through Will's fabulous talent, his studio rose to the great heights of animation success.

Then, the story goes, he got two TV shows side-by-side - "The PJ's" and "Gary and Mike", so he had to expand the studio immediately.  He was taking over more Portland real estate just to shoot more stop-motion, so in order to keep his studio going, he turned to his friend Phil Knight of Nike fame for a big loan.  Unfortunately, both shows got cancelled in quick succession, so poor Will was stuck with a huge unpaid loan.  Phil Knight knew that his son, Travis, who was a great animator working for Will, wanted to make feature films, so Phil Knight and the board that ran Will's studio turned the studio over to Travis, and Will instantly found himself without a studio.  Gradually Will Vinton Studios became Laika, producer of "Coraline", "The Corpse Bride" and "Kubo and the Two Strings" fame. 

I never could figure out why, if Will was able to build Will Vinton Studios so quickly, after losing control of it, why couldn't he do it again?  He was so great at promotion, gathering talent, sales and producing, plus he had a big name and reputation in the business.  But it just didn't happen. 

Will Vinton and Bill Plympton in 2000 at the Week With the Masters in Trivandrum, India
I visited his house about 7 years ago, and he took me water-skiing on the Willamette River - he was very athletic for his age.  We then went out for dinner and he complained to me how he had 50 shows that he was trying to sell, and couldn't find a buyer for one.  This was very mysterious - the great Will Vinton couldn't make a sale?  It didn't make any sense to me.  I heard he had a producer's read-through of one of his Broadway show ideas, called "The Kiss" to attract investors, and it didn't go very well.

Apparently there's a documentary about him in the works (they interviewed me for it) and I'm dying to see how they'll portray the two most controversial episodes in his life - the Bob Gardiner fiasco and the Phil Knight disaster.  Anyway, he was an amazing guy and a real inspiration.  Here's to Will Vinton -

--Bill Plympton

May 26, 2012 "Bill Plympton Day" at the Mission Theater in Portland, OR with Will Vinton (3rd from right)

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