Will Vinton is one of those names that you likely don’t know too well, unless you’ve found yourself immersed in his specific field. His creations on the other hand, have become so ingrained in popular culture over the past twenty years, that the man’s work has been virtually impossible to escape.
Vinton has done all manner of work for television, movies, and music videos, but it’s his commercial portfolio that has really captured the public’s imagination. Creators like the Domino’s Noid, the red and yellow M&M, and perhaps most notably, The California Raisins become phenomenons in their own right, taking on lives that far outlast thirty second commercials.
Since leaving his own eponymous studio earlier in the decade, Vinton has taken a more personal approach to his own work, choosing projects over which he could maintain full creative control. Most recently, Vinton has begun his own series of graphic novels, based on the exploit of a 10-inch spy named Jack Hightower.
For more info on that project, please check out the first part of our interview with Vinton. In part two, we’re going all the way back to the beginning.
You have a knack—more so than perhaps anyone else—for turning a commercial into a marketable phenomenon in its own right. Before The Raisins, it’s seems like it was almost unthinkable to have people go out and buy products based on characters they know strictly from commercials.
Yeah, it is a pretty strange thing, and it’s kind of amazing that we were able to pull some of those off. But after I got used to it a little more, I realized that it was the direct result of how much life you breathe into the characters. If you’re able to breathe a fair amount of life into the characters, and people find that character intriguing, it does take on a life of its own, and its separate, in some way from the advertising. Let me give you an example. This goes way back to the Domino’s Noid. When we first came out with, it was a very popular campaign, and immediately people were talking about ‘Avoid the Noid,’ and wearing t-shirts, and whatnot. But at some point, relatively early on, it got separated from the message of delivering pizza, and you had college students dressing up like the Noid, and smashing pizzas with hammers and stuff, which really offended the Domino’s people, this idea that you would beat up a pizza, over this thing. That was definitely the beginning of the end of that campaign, because it was just going, as far as they were concerned, too far.
Was the end of The Raisins your call or the company’s, or did they just sort of peter out at one point?
The Raisins had a long run. We did TV shows for CBS, and specials and things. There was a Saturday morning TV show. Eventually, in my own personal opinion, it was not well marketed, not well merchandised—and I know it’s hard to say that, because it was a merchandising phenomenon. But they let it burn out, and after a while, it just got to be obnoxious, because they let it go so wild, so fast. It was almost like having Raisin imagery on toilet paper. It was just over the top, and speaking for myself, I tired of it, because it just wasn’t as cool as it started out to be. It started out to be cool, and then it evolved into these plastic figurines. It was just cheap and not very good.
It’s got to be tough to work on something someone else owns, knowing that, as soon as they take it away, you won’t be able to work on it, anymore.
Yeah, it’s very frustrating at times, because commercial clients are very, very—as they should be—sensitive about something that might be offensive and hurt their image. With a character that you own yourself, like Jack Hightower, we’ll be very careful to make sure that he’s always in-character, regardless of if there were any merchandising from it. I wouldn’t do it, unless it was very cool, and actually built who he is.
Do you have children yourself?
Does that make you more sensitive to the marketing aspect of things? What kind of quality the products they’re releasing are?
It does. But I was sensitive to that, anyway. My concern rises mostly from my sensibility, because I find that it’s a shame that when you create a character, you get really close to who a character is. It’s very different than if you’re just trying to sell toothpaste, or something.
You opened up a new studio [Free Will Entertainment] fairly recently. Are you still actively doing animation out of there?
I’m doing a couple of short film projects, but it’s really just me and my assistant. We develop projects, and Free Will Entertainment is the producing company on some of the things that we do, but it’s not really exclusive, or anything. It’s focused on my development work.
Do you ever miss animation? Are there any future plans to get involved in it again?
I do miss some of the camaraderie of working in a team, and these projects that are currently in development, we will move forward and doing really low budget feature film that’s in stop motion animation. It’s going to be financed by Starz, so it’s unclear whether it will be a major theatrical thing. It will probably be for home video release, but that was sort of the intent of the script that wrote, anyway. There are some other projects that are shaping up pretty nicely that we may also produce, but other than that, since ’03, it’s just been a couple of short films that were mixes of live action and animation.
Were you ever hesitant to move from stop motion, specifically clay—to CGI?
Yeah, back in about 1992, or something [laughs]. A long time ago I was hesitant, because the software animation frankly wasn’t that good, but around the mid-90s, the software packages really got to be quite good, and I embraced it mostly because it does a lot of things really easily. To me, it’s really more about style now—if I were to do a project that looks and feels like stop motion, about 50-percent of it would be executed with computer animation, simply because the computer is so good at mimicking the style established in the medium and does a lot of things easier. Computer animation is just such an indispensable tool that it’s ubiquitous.
You’ve since moved to CG, and Aardman’s last picture was in CG [Flushed Away], it seems like there are very few people keeping the clay artform going.
Yeah, it’s true, and I feel bad about that, but for the right project, you can really use the clay for styling, and use a combination of stop motion and computer tools. That’s a natural thing to do, these days.
Do you tend to perk up when one of these clay project come out like one of Tim Burton’s or a Wallace & Gromit?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s fun to see the stop motion stuff happening. There’s a lot activities going on in stop motion. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is being done in London. Actually, we initiated the Tim Burton projects in London, back when it was Corpse Bride. They were done for cost reasons—there were a bunch of financial benefits when they’re done in England. It’s great to see that. And I love Aardman’s stuff—they always do great stuff. It’ll be interesting to see what they do now, going forward, to see how they keep using those CG tools. It’s interesting—Flushed Away still had that Aardman/Nick Park style, despite the fact that it was done in computer animation.
Are you a fan of Pixar, as well?
Sure. I think they’ve done some great films. The Incredibles is probably one of my all-time favorite films.
How did you get into this world of stop motion animation, having studied film making—which makes sense—physics, and architecture?
I was at the University of California Berkeley, and I was studying design and organic architecture, and I started doing the process in clay, just because I thought it would be better to organic structures, rather than with a straight-edge and a t-square. It was my experimental film making crossing paths with my clay sculpting that caused me to do some pure clay animation experiments, and I had so much fun with it that I decided that after I graduated, to see what I could do with the clay. Antonio Gaudi’s work really inspired me in architecture, and that led to my picking up clay as a design tool.