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Chances are whenever you see a group of cartoony 3-D fruits, Hershey's kisses or other inanimate objects prancing around on your television screen, animator Will Vinton is to blame. As founder and head of Portland, Ore.-based Will Vinton Studios, the 51-year-old inventor of Claymation (his registered trademark) is responsible for various forms of stop-motion, Claymation and other "dimensional animation." Now Will Vinton is animating his first prime-time, adult-oriented sitcom: The PJs, Eddie Murphy's successful (and controversial) ghetto comedy on Fox. Even though Vinton may have a resume that suggests he is the next Matt Groening or even Walt Disney, he is taking all this activity in modest North-western stride. "For me, it's never been about doing commercials or TV or a movie," he says. "It's about bringing characters to life and finding ways to make them breathe."

So how did The PJs come about? "Eddie had this great idea for a puppet show, similar to the 1960s Thunderbirds, but based in an urban project, which I thought was really funny," says Vinton. The show focuses on the Sanford and Son-meets-Good Times hijinks of an urban housing project superintendent and his neighbors. Featured, among other figures, are a potsmoke-shrouded rastafarian, a crack addict who makes the average corpse look good, and neighbors so obese they can't leave their apartments. Except for the super's wife, brain cells are in short supply. Despite the fact that Murphy himself is, of course, black, the stereotypes have created a stir in parts of the African-American community, and prompted Project Islamic H.O.P.E. to complain about The PJs' "offensive jokes" even before the show's debut in January. But the show has done well enough that an undeterred Fox ordered up 22 more episodes (a huge number in the TV industry), which insures a long life for The PJs, as well as thousands of manhours for Vinton and his staff (it takes a whole week to animate just two minutes of an episode). The work is worth it, says Vinton: "Eddie is an unbelievably talented creator and performer."

Working with Hollywood is a long way from Vinton's roots in experimental filmmaking, though any hullabaloo created by The PJs stands in line with the touchy subjects brought up in his first film, Gone For A Better Deal, which chronicled the undergraduate mood at Berkeley (where Vinton studied architecture and physics) during the Vietnam era. While there, he also developed a fascination for the surreal and playful creations of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Then came clay. "My first serious experience designing with clay came when I studied Gaudí," he recalls. "His was a very organic and fluid work that I felt could only really be expressed in a sculpted medium. The experimental filmmaking and the Gaudí-esque clay crossed paths in what ultimately became Claymation for me."

Vinton's initial brush with greatness came in 1975, when his short Closed Mondays won the Academy Award for best animated film. The Oscar led to Vinton's first commercial gig, a spot for the then-edgy Northwestern beer brand Rainier Ale. Vinton's company still makes experimental films, but the bulk of its business remains rooted in creating animations for commercials.

In 1986, Vinton's Motown-style singing California Raisins, via FCB, put the studio on the advertising map; the spot won a Clio. More recently, and perhaps more memorably, Vinton demonstrated his advertising prowess with his fabulous stop-motion "Toys" spot for TBWA Chiat/Day and Nissan. He was also responsible for reinventing the M & M figures as full CGI characters. "In terms of commercial work, I'd say it's the character campaigns that are the most exciting to us," he says. "In the case of M & Ms, there was a history and a shape to the characters already, but BBDO wanted them to have more personality. We created numerous sketches of the two lead characters in different situations showing how their personalities would be projected, and how the characters would look in those situations."

Vinton and his team also injected plenty of personality into other classic characters, including a CGI version of Mr. Potato Head. The classic kids' toy was given a hip showman's personality for a series of Shaft-spoof Burger King commercials featuring Isaac Hayes. "Vinton and his team worked very hard with us in honing the nuances of what Mr. Potato Head's personality would be," says Carmon Johnston, who worked on the campaign as Uniworld's director of broadcast production. "[The character] had to be a contemporary, current individual with hand and body movements worthy of having Isaac Hayes sing." That Vinton's Mr. Potato Head strongly resembles the CGI tuber face from John Lasseter's Toy Story was perhaps inevitable, due to Hasbro's strict specifications on its property.

Vinton and his new CEO, Tom Turpin, are currently working on another pilot for Fox, Klay's-TV (a satire of a TV station). They're also developing a new show for NBC, so far titled Animals Anonymous. Each of these shows will use the technique developed for The PJs, called "foamation" -- a combination of foam/latex puppets and computer animation -- that Vinton is in the process of trademarking.

Given the popularity of such adult animated shows as The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Dilbert, the current TV production bustle at Vinton's company is no surprise. "I would say that animation has come of age," says David Altschul, Vinton's president for production. "Saturday morning has never been our sweet spot. In the early days, Will had to resist a lot of opportunities to divert our attention to children's programming. It's to his credit that he held our focus and didn't let us get diverted to whatever the market wanted us to do."

Vinton isn't complaining, either. "The dream for me is to keep busy with wonderful concepts and projects," he says. "I'd like to just always be known for

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