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Even in retirement, animation legend stays on cutting edge; Northwest Film Center presents a screening of 'The Adventures of Mark Twain,' Feb. 3-4

COURTESY: WILL VINTON ENTERTAINMENT - Claymation pioneer Will Vinton has stayed busy in recent years after his storied career that included commercials and movies. He's even written his own musical play, 'The Kiss,' which he hopes will be staged in the near future. He's also still involved with some film companies, including Aardman Animations.During the nearly four years it took to make the movie, Will Vinton and his colleagues knew they had something special in the making.

"We were bucking the tide in the marketplace," he says.

Regarded as the world's first claymation movie, "The Adventures of Mark Twain" is a sophisticated movie that appealed to adults, although originally released as a children's film in 1985. The movie, made entirely from clay, followed Twain (with voice-over by James Whitmore), chronicling a fantastic voyage in a magical airship with Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher to rendezvous with Halley's Comet. Along the way they encounter a variety of Twain's storybook characters from "The Diary of Adam and Eve," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Mysterious Stranger" and "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

"I found all these characters and the dark side of what I thought was folk storytelling," Vinton says.

"I really grew an appreciation for Mark Twain. Twain had this dark, but brilliant, side."

Today, "The Adventures of Mark Twain" stands as a breakthrough movie, an example and beginning of animation films appealing more to adults. Then, in the 1990s, animation became an adult and all-ages medium.

"I'm delighted to help push that long," he says.

Fans of the multi-award-winning Vinton and claymation and stop-motion films will get the opportunity to see the film again, and hear from Vinton on the making of the movie. The Northwest Film Center will screen "The Adventures of Mark Twain," 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 3 and 4, at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets are $6-$9 and available at

Vinton's career has taken him from the heights of fame with the making of the M&Ms and California Raisin commercials to movie success with Will Vinton Studios to a falling out and eventual sale to a company that became Laika. Now Vinton is happily retired, but is still active with projects. He and Dark Horse Comics worked on the "Jack Hightower" graphic novel. He's doing consulting work with a South Korean company, H culture. He's possibly going to work with Aardman Animations of Bristol, United Kingdom, on a film. And, he's written a musical play, "The Kiss," which he wants to eventually stage as a world premiere.

His company's name is now Will Vinton's Freewill Entertainment.

COURTESY: NORTHWEST FILM CENTER - Will Vinton's landmark movie 'The Adventures of Mark Twain' will be shown at Whitsell Auditorium, Feb. 3-4.It's fun for Vinton, 70 and a McMinnville native, to reflect on the early days, including "The Adventures of Mark Twain."

A movie entirely made of clay? That was cutting-edge stuff. It also was the first animated movie made in the Pacific Northwest.

"There are a lot of things about it I really liked," he says. "Every inch, every square centimeter of the whole show was made out of clay.

"At the time, stop-motion films might see a clay puppet but with burlap clothing, or the edge of the set have corrugated cardboard. Those things completely took you out of the story. My theory was make sure everything — skies, clouds, water, characters, air ship, comet — was all made and done in clay. Joan Gratz, who was part of the team, is a great animator and does clay painting, and she did layers of skies through clay painting. It was a tiny crew — we had between 15 and 18 core people — and it was a four-year process."

The California Raisins campaign and its "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" song helped make Will Vinton Studios a household name.

Meanwhile, he still gets a kick out of seeing M&Ms commercials and their colorful characters, the predecessors of which Vinton helped bring out during the historic ad campaign.

"It's fun to see them, and it can't help but bring back memories of shooting them," he says.

Today, Vinton admires the work of Laika, despite an acrimonious ending to the relationship with Phil and Travis Knight that led to his unceremonious exit from the company. The screening of "The Adventures of Mark Twain" is part of a series of films being shown in conjunction with Portland Art Museum's "Animating Life: The Art, Science and Wonder of Laika," through May 20.

Dozens of former Will Vinton Studios employees still work at Laika.

"People ask me and I tell them I'm delighted that Laika, which has deep pockets, can take on these projects and move them and pay people well and keep the animation industry going," he says. "It's never easy to run a creative business. We always had to be profitable, which was a huge challenge. I envy the situation that Travis Knight is under."

Vinton also admires the work of Aardman Animations, which makes the "Wallace and Gromit" movies, as well as Pixar.

He realizes that computer-generated imagery (CGI) has taken over the film business.

"There are so many great tools for animation now, digital tools that have come to full fruition, but people are also doing stuff that is simple and handmade," he says. "If I were doing a claymation show today, I would use computer animation in probably 50 percent of it, on tough shots. Close-ups and signature shots would be done in clay."

Vinton ventured into the world of theater with "The Kiss," which features music by award-winning David Pomeranz. He has done some character workshops at the complex of designer Michael Curry in Scappoose and some readings.

"It's a musical comedy. It's a very adult version of the 'The Frog Prince,' a battle of the sexes thing," he says.

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