Review: 'Claydream' is a Tragic Story of a Creative Studio's Undoing
by Alex Billington
August 4, 2022
Have you ever heard of Will Vinton? How many people still know who he is nowadays? Vinton was the co-founder of a stop-motion animation studio based in Portland, Oregon. He created this studio in early 1970s, known as just "Will Vinton Studios" at the time, and it ended up becoming a mainstream success - you will definitely recognize their work. They're most well known for The California Raisins, as well as a few other films including Rip Van Winkle and Dinosaur. They even won an Academy Award in 1975 for an innovative claymation short film they created (called Closed Mondays). But all that is in the past, and it's not a story anyone can recall anymore. There isn't even much info about Will Vinton Studios on Wikipedia. Why? Well, you definitely know the other name of the animation studio as it's now known today - Laika. Claydream is a film taking us back through the entire story of Will Vinton and what exactly happened to him, his success and his downfall. It's the tragic story of a beautifully creative studio's undoing at the hands of a rich bastard.
Claydream is a documentary film made by Marq Evans, and it originally premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The fascinating film is telling two stories at once - the unfiltered history of Will Vinton Studios and their creative genius; as well as the story of their downfall, following Nike co-founder Phil Knight investing in the company and eventually kicking out Will Vinton, taking over everything and changing the name (and handing ownership over to his son, Travis Knight). One of the biggest problems with the documentary is that it seems unsure of what story it's trying to tell. Of course both stories are intertwined and connected and you can't tell one without referencing the other, but after a while it gets so drowned out by the tragedy of Phil Knight that it almost stamps out the glory of their early years. Vinton's original studio was a brilliant place - everyone who worked there loved working there because they were passionate about creating and innovating and always trying to do something new. That's the ultimate lasting legacy of Will Vinton Studios.
This documentary joins a growing list of documentary films that (re-)establish the legacy of someone who truly deserves the acclaim but hasn't received it or has been forgotten with time. Claydream, most of all, reaffirms Will Vinton as the rightful king of claymation / stop-motion animation. It was his creativity and his passion, along with his co-founder & friend Bob Gardiner, that lead them to the success they eventually achieved. There are multiple times in the film where Vinton admits that he started to feel like the next Walt Disney, and after the success of The California Raisins, the media went all in on proclaiming this, too. But it seems that much of an ego and that kind of obsession went a bit too far, as it kept him from realizing his true potential. His goal never should've been to be the next Disney, but to be something else, to be a name that people remember for quality and creativity rather than piles of money and overpriced theme parks. By the end of this, I became a Vinton fan. And I think he deserves the praise that has faded away over the years.
As a small business owner in the movie business myself, I felt it deep in my bones how horribly depressing and unbelievably frustrating the takeover was. Claydream almost feels afraid of even bringing up the name "Laika" or discussing Phil Knight because of the wrath this wealthy asshole might bring down upon them. But it's quite clear in the way it portrays him as the evil monster that carelessly tramples over all the magical creations that Vinton and his team built. I will fully admit that before watching this I had no idea that Laika, one of my favorite animation studios still working today, was created when Knight ousted Vinton from his own studio. I had no idea who Vinton was, either. Before watching, I'd heard none of this and now I am in awe. I'm in awe that I never knew this story, never heard it told, and never knew about Vinton. But I'm glad this doc exists, even if it's a bit aimless, because it offers everyone a chance to learn the truth about who Vinton was, and hear in his own words the story of his studio and his dream to tell stories entirely with clay.
His legacy will live on thanks to Claydream and more and more people will learn about his story. Ultimately it's another cautionary tale demonstrating the dangers of greed and hubris. The truth may get covered up, or it may be forgotten, but history can never be changed, as long as the stories are recorded for all to hear. The history of Will Vinton and his claymation studio deserves to live on. I only wish all of Claydream was about those glory days, about all the wonderful things they made out of nothing more than just clay and ingenuity.