Rating: 3 out of 5.

Written and Directed by Marq Evans, Claydream is a fascinating doc that debuted at 2021’s Tribeca Film Festival. Taking us all the way back to the early 80s, the “father of Claymation,” Will Vinton, has a surprising and revolutionary key role in creating this beloved format. For the uninitiated, Claymation essentially boils down to animation using clay figures, photographed specifically in stop-motion. This often pain-staking, detail-oriented process adds a layer of sheen and personality to every single Claymation project, yet also frequently takes years to steer across the finish line. Claydream is an extensive look into the creator of the craft that would take the entire world by storm.

A bulk of Claydream’s focus stems from the legal battle between Will Vinton and Nike co-founder Phil Knight over the control of Vinton Studios. However, the journey to get there is far more interesting. Informed by the fluid nature of architecture and the magic of imbuing clay with life, Will’s earliest collaboration was with genius creative Bob Gardiner. Together, the duo created the first short done entirely in Claymation, eventually earning an Academy Award! However, success soured Bob and drove him down a dangerous path. The two split ways creatively. Will always had grander ambitions—he wanted to be the next Walt Disney.

Claydream is careful to point out that emulating Disney isn’t exactly a road to success, or the greatest idea either. Disney’s success story is not one that can be easily replicated. Likewise, Vinton’s trajectory after winning the Oscar seems to have been a series of happy accidents and hard work. Each time when he was right on the cusp of pushing his concepts and ideas to the creative extreme, Vinton appears to have hit roadblocks deterring his work from completion. Claydream presents a complex portrait of not only the man but also all of the projects he was involved with. 

Most intriguing to me was Vinton’s involvement in the California Raisins and the M&Ms as we know them today. Much of the studio’s work emphasizes character and specificity, rather than just being generic caricatures. In a surprise twist, Vinton Studios would eventually become Laika—one of the best modern animation studios, in my opinion, delivering the likes of Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. Vinton could have had a piece of the marketing rights for California Raisins, or become a majority shareholder for Pixar Studios. Either of these moves would have made the man a millionaire. 

I didn’t fully appreciate the extensive focus on the court case aspect, which kept popping up throughout the movie in a sort of phantom bookend. Eventually, it quickly skirts past the resolution and dives straight into how Will Vinton feels about the situation in modern day. Having passed away in 2018, Vinton is looked upon fondly by those who knew him, but never as some perfect godlike entity either. Claydream avoids the trap of fluffy smoke-blowing docs by diving deep, flaws and all, including exciting vintage footage.

Claydream sculpts its way to limited release theaters on Friday, August 5th.

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