Will Vinton’s “Closed Mondays” & “Mountain Music” were highlights of Night Flight midnight movie fave “Fantastic Animation Festival” (1977)

By on October 8, 2018

We were saddened to learn of the recent death of Oscar-winning Claymation filmmaker Will Vinton, who lost his 12-year battle with multiple myeloma cancer on October 4, 2018. He was 70 years old.

We thought fans of the mustachioed animator’s incredible work might want to take another look at the influential 1977 midnight movie fave Fantastic Animation Festival, which featured two of his pioneering “Claymation” shorts (only one of those, Mountain Music, is available here as Closed Mondays was not included in the original July 4, 1981 broadcast due to licensing issues).

Read Night Flight contributor Marc Edward Heuck‘s original post about Fantastic Animation Festival, now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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Will Vinton (b. November 17, 1947, in McMinnville, Oregon) studied filmmaking at the University of California at Berkeley, recruiting former architecture classmates to shoot his short films using clay figures like the ones they’d built for architectural models.

Vinton used the already old-fashioned stop-motion technique, which requires animators to shoot their films a single frame at a time, adjusting the figures slightly between frames to simulate movement.

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Vinton graduated in ’71 and began working as a freelance animation filmmaker, making his first animated clay short film, Closed Mondays (1974), in collaboration with CCAC art student Bob Gardiner.

The plot follows a skeptical wino who wanders into a closed art museum and then reacts as the artworks breathtakingly come to life.

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It was released by Pyramid Films, a leading distributor of award-winning short films and videos produced primarily for the educational market.

Closed Mondays — which would win an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1975  — essentially marked the birth of what Vinton later coined and trademarked as “Claymation.”

As we said above, the eight minute-long short wasn’t included in the original July 1981 broadcast on “Night Flight,” but you can watch it here:

Vinton and Gardiner parted ways during the production of their second short, Mountain Music, which Marc describes as a “cautionary environmental reverie.”

The film was inspired by Vinton’s first paid project, a commercial for Rainier Beer, who’d tasked him with creating a “full mountain ‘scape complete with a bunch of animals singing the praises of beer.”

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Read more about Will Vinton below.

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Vinton formed Will Vinton Studios in his native Portland, Oregon, initially employing six others (his old architecture buddies and artists), working with clay that was melted, colored and molded at the studio. Despite their early success, the studio earned just $5,000 in its first five years of operation.

Vinton would soon be Academy Award-nominated for other animated shorts — including Rip Van Winkle (1978), The Creation (1981) and The Great Cognito (1983) — and for his visual effects work on Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985).

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1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain, voiced by actor James Whitmore, took three and a half years to create.

Vinton’s wife, writer-director Susan Shadburne, based the storyline on characters from Mark Twain’s work and American literature — Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher — who stow away a futuristic hot air balloon, where they find that Mark Twain himself plans to pilot the dirigible high into the atmosphere so he’ll be able to find Halley’s Comet.

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The plot includes portions of several stories written by Twain, including The Mysterious Stranger.

Check out our previous Night Flight blog post about The Adventures of Mark Twain right here.

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By 1985, the studio had expanded to thirty staffers.

Vinton expanded his studio’s capabilities to multiple markets, including numerous TV commercials, broadcast TV specials, motion picture features, music videos, theme parks, interactive videos and various merchandising and licensing markets.

In 1987, Winton would win an outstanding animated program Primetime Emmy for A Claymation Christmas Celebration, (1987) and for A Claymation Easter (he was nominated another three times too).

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By the late 1990s, Will Vinton Studios was the largest stop-motion studio in the U.S., with annual revenue of $28 million.

Some four hundred employees worked for clients that included Procter and Gambel, Nissan, M&Ms Mars, Chevron, Bristol Myers, Nike, Disney, and Johnson & Johnson.

Vinton created many memorable characters, including the “Noid” commercials for Domino’s Pizza, “Stomachs Anonymous” for Alka-Seltzer, and “Chick Burger” for KFC.

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His most popular characters were the singing and dancing California Raisins — singing Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”–originally appearing in TV commercials for the California Raisin Advisory Board in 1986.

Their popularity led to several TV specials and various merchandising opportunities (t-shirts, lunchboxes and spin-off video games) and a CBS Saturday morning TV series, “The California Raisin Show.”

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Vinton also worked on projects for Michael Jackson — including 1988’s Moonwalker and the Captain EO attraction at Disney World — and on Eddie Murphy’s short-lived animated TV series “The PJ’s,” which was a hit with critics, but struggled to find its audience. It lasted just three years, winning several Emmy’s before it was discontinued in May 2001.

Vinton would eventually by laid-off from his own company, without severance, after losing control of the majority stake to it’s major investor, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who seized control in 2003 (Vinton sought damages and sued for his name, resulting in Knight renaming the studio Laika in 2005).

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Vinton formed a new company, Freewill Entertainment, and returned to making short films again, mostly focusing his energies on developing, directing and producing a series of character-driven film productions.

Vinton also taught classes at the Art Institute of Portland. He retired in 2008.

R.I.P. Will Vinton.

Fantastic Animation Festival — which also features Bambi Meets Godzilla and The Mechanical Monsters, a rarely-seen Superman cartoon from the 1940s — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.