I can count on a single hand the people who have had the same effect on the creative endeavors of my early life as Will Vinton, as three years of sculpture class and countless ceramic sculptors adorning my parents’ home in Northern California can attest. Vinton’s name isn’t particularly well-known amongst the public-at-large, but his remarkable ability to turn transcend the advertising campaigns to which he has been assigned, has left its mark countless times on our collective consciousness, from his early work with the Domino’s Noid to the talking M&Ms of the last half-dozen years—and of course those Motown-singing Raisins in-between, which made perhaps the largest splash of any musical dried fruit in recent memory.
Vinton’s animation studio did the effects for Michael Jackson’s Captain EO and feature films such as Return to Oz and Divine Madness, but its his pioneering work with Claymation—a term coined and trademark by his studio—that has made him the go-to name for American stop-motion animation for the past two decades.
In 2002, Vinton lost majority control of his own studio. Since then, the animator has spent his time working with a new-found sense of freedom, writing and developing his own projects, including, most recently, the Darkhorse series, Jack Hightower, which was justification enough to interview one of our idols for this here comic book blog. Yet one more example of Daily Cross Hatch hero-worship, after the jump.
Were you ever a big comics reader?
When I was really little, I was into comics—when I was a kid. I became more of a fan with the advent of graphic novels, because there were so many cool things being done, especially things like Frank Miller.
And you went going to school in Berkeley, in the 60s. Where you reading R. Crumb and that lot?
Yeah, definitely. R. Crumb is kind of a minor hero, for sure—or anti-hero—during that period.
What were you reading as a kid?
I was reading Dell Comics, and Superman and Spider-man, of course.
How did the new project with Dark Horse come about?
I happened to be friends with [founder] Mike Richardson, and I mentioned at one point to him that I had a project that I really liked, and wanted to do some time. He said, “god, that would be great, lets do it. We can do a graphic novel with it, and it will be fast. It will be something that you can experiment with it,” because I was thinking of it as a movie idea. He said it would be a fast thing to do with it, and now, two years later, we finally finished it.
That’s quick for you, though right, coming from the world of stop motion?
Well, it is sort of quick, but two years is a long time, even in the world of film animation. But yeah, I’m sort of used to long, drawn out processes, to get a rewarding result.
What’s the idea behind Jack Hightower, in a nutshell?
In the first story, Jack Hightower is this 6’5, unbelievably macho guy, who has the world on a string—a secret agent-type. He runs into his arch-nemesis, who is a brilliant scientist, who shrinks Jack to the size of a 10-inch tall figure. Unfortunately, in the first book, you have to tell all of that backstory, but the new version that we’re doing is so much more streamlined and fun, because you can get right into the adventure. What really intrigued me is this idea that there’s this incredibly macho guy who had it all, and suddenly has an unbelievable handicap. He still has the same sort of urge to get together with women, and all sorts of things like that. Suddenly it’s this amazing macho energy stuck in a doll-sized guy. This particular adventure is Jack coming to terms with what’s happened to him—short of killing himself—and going after his arch-nemesis, Dr. Savante—partially just to get him, and partially to get himself to return to full-size, assuming that, if this genius can do it one way, he can probably do it the other. He does succeed in capturing Savante, but blows up the machine, in the process, so, going forward, we have a story where Savante’s in high-security jail, probably holding the knowledge of how Jack can be returned to full-size, but not divulging the information freely, or anything. In future episodes, there are further people to battle, but Savante continues to be on the side.
So the series will be continuing on, indefinitely?
Yeah. We’re already two-thirds of the way along with the next story, and we know where it will go, down the road. The one thing is that it’s pretty easy to write for us, because you just throw this little macho character into these situations and he just kind of writes himself.
So it’s safe to say that you’ve been having a pretty good time doing this graphic novel thing?
Yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. They only thing that took me by surprise is how long the actual process takes. Andrew Wiese—who’s my writing partner—and I worked at a variety of things, screenplays and whatnot, but we really like Jack Hightower. He’s kind of our favorite. It’s probably an unusual graphic novel. It’s not as dark as most, by any means, in fact, it’s kind of comedic in tone, which is something that I like. It’s got some edgier stuff more in its relationship to women, than anything else, but, in terms of who he is, it’s an action-adventure comedy, really.
I’ve always associated your work with being aimed at a younger crowd.
And this might possibly skew—it’s hard to say, really. My hope is that it will have appeal across the board. It’s interesting, because I’ve done signings, which is kind of a new experience for me, and there was a lady who just seemed like a very unlikely graphic novel reader, who insisted that she was absolutely ready to give it to her book club. And I thought that’s going to be a very interesting group for a graphic novel.
Are you enjoying writing for a slightly older crowd?
I am. I’ve always written for myself, in order to entertain myself. I don’t know how to do anything else, which means that, whatever I find funny, that’s the direction I tend to have. And I guess I’m older now, so I guess that’s right… And while I’m really enamoured with the graphic novel, I really do want to see Jack come to life, in some form, just because I’ve messed around, visually with 10-inch tall guys, in the live action world in some animation that I’ve done. It would be fun to see it realized in some real way.
When you’re putting together the concept for something like this, are you visualizing what it’s going to look like, or what kind of animation you’re going to use?
I can’t help but do that, a little bit. In fact, I see this in live-action terms, more than animation terms. I see it as the real world, with an animation character who looks kind of cartoony, living and trying to get by in a realistic, real world, so I’ve always seen it as a live-action concept, except for the lead character, of course.
If, on the off-chance someone where to ask you what you do for a living, would you call yourself an animator?
Sort of. That’s what I’ve been, most of my life. In ’03, I left the company. I’ve been focused, 100-percent on creating my own projects. I kind of promised myself I’d do that. I spent a career doing commercials and focusing on other people’s work, so I really just want to focus on doing my own thing. I see myself, right now as a writer/developer, probably more these days, because I’m focused on creating stories and characters, more than animating.
Were the advertising jobs restrictive, in terms of the type of content that you could create?
Sometimes they were, but sometimes they were very open. Some of the best campaigns I worked on had a lot of freedom, and allowed me to contribute an enormous amount to the creative process. Like early on in the M&Ms we contributed a lot, and with the [California] Rasins, we did a lot. Going way back—I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the Domino’s Pizza Noid [am, in fact-ed.]—that was one that we really developed internally, hand-in-glove with the agency. It’s was great fun.