Vinton Studios History

Address:
1400 NW 22nd Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97210
U.S.A.

Telephone: (503) 226-1130
Fax: (503) 226-3746

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1975
Employees: 80
Sales: $16 million (2003 est. )
NAIC: 512110 Movie Picture and Video Production

Company Perspectives:

Vinton Studios is one of the foremost character animation companies in the world, seamlessly combining computer animation, stop-motion animation, cel animation and live action. Vinton Studios is the creator of the trademarked stop-motion animation technique called Claymation. The studio has an Academy Award winning director and its projects have won eleven prime-time Emmy Awards and numerous Clio Awards.

Key Dates:

1975:
Will Vinton founds Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon.
1986:
Vinton Studios develops the California Raisins.
1997:
Tom Turpin joins the company as its president and CEO.
1998:
Vinton Studios produces the first-ever stop-motion series for prime-time network television, The PJs; opens its Character Development Lab.
1999:
Vinton Studios produces the Gary and Mike series for television.
2002:
The company acquires Celluloid Studios; Philip Knight becomes the studio's majority shareholder and a member of the board.
2003:
Will Vinton is fired and sues Knight for inappropriate control of the board.

Company History:

Vinton Studios is one of the largest producers of animated commercials in the world and one of the only producers of prime-time network television series using stop-motion animation. Vinton's commercial work includes many award-winning commercials and campaigns for regional, national, and international clients, including: M&M Mars, Kraft, Samsung, Clorox, 3Musketeers, Chili's Restaurants, Nabisco, Gateway Computers, Cadbury, Wrigley's, NFL on Fox, Nestlé, Sony Playstation, Nissan, ESPN, Orkin, Raid, Levi's, Pacific Bell, Domino's Pizza, and The California Raisin Board. The studio also employs computer animation, cel animation, and some live action.

1975-95: The Early Years--A Focus on Advertising

Will Vinton began toying with clay animation while he was an architecture student at UC-Berkeley. After his graduation in 1971, he took a series of jobs at small film production companies while continuing to develop his Claymation techniques in his Portland, Oregon basement. Claymation works by modeling characters and background settings from colored clay. Animators move these by painstakingly small increments and record the "motion" frame by frame on film. There can be as many as 50 different changes between frames and 24 individual frames per second of film. Although Vinton did not make a living at Claymation for at least seven years, he enjoyed pioneering a new art form, as he recalled in a 1988 Wall Street Journal article. "What kept me going is that I really had a following at film festivals."

Vinton's first big break came in 1975, when he and Bob Gardiner won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for "Closed Mondays," a film about a wino who finds himself in a closed museum in which the characters in the paintings come to life. Shortly afterward, Vinton founded Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon. Other awards followed, and, by 1986, when the studio created a group of singing and dancing raisins for The California Raisin Board, Vinton had won every major international film award, except for Cannes. The huge success of the California Raisins brought Vinton Studios increased attention, along with offers to create television commercials and other projects using Claymation.

In the 1980s, Vinton and his team produced some of the most memorable advertising spots on television--ads for Domino Pizza, Kraft Foods, Levi Strauss, Nickelodeon, and the California Raisins. By the time David Altschul joined the company as president of its advertising division in 1982, the company was famous for its characters--and for their edge. Even in its commercials, the studio tried "... to understand what kind of world that characters live in, who the other characters are, and most important, what conflicts exist between them," Altschul explained in a 2000 FastCompany article. "What are their flaws, their vulnerabilities? Without knowing those things, it's hard to tell a story that engages the audience." Some of Vinton's characters, such as the California Raisins, became very well known; actors dressed in raisin costumes marched in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, and a raisin congo line danced at the White House tree lighting ceremony during the Reagan years.

By the late 1980s, Vinton Studios had 60 employees drawn from the sculpture departments of art schools and was experimenting with full-length films. In 1985, it produced and directed The Adventures of Mark Twain, the first feature-length Claymation film, an undertaking that took three and a half years to complete. There was also a half-hour Claymation Christmas Celebration in 1987 on CBS that ranked fifth in the Nielsen ratings.

But despite the studio's creative success, Claymation had become so thoroughly associated with the California Raisins that other companies were reluctant to hire Vinton to work for them. Ad executives feared that as soon as consumers saw a Claymation commercial, they would think of raisins instead of the product advertised. Thus in 1991, Vinton visited Madison Avenue agencies to try to convince them that Claymation was not overexposed. "The important thing when you get pigeonholed, as we did with the raisins and Claymation, is to show the range of what else is possible," he said in a Wall Street Journal article in 1994.

That range included evolving beyond the studio's hallmark characters and creatures to develop a complicated animation technique that melded three forms of production--Claymation, stop-motion animation, and computer animation--to create a three-dimensional effect on screen and to enable its artists to achieve desired results in less time than it took to achieve them entirely in clay. "Claymation served us well for a very long time. ... But now we have something new that we desire to show to other ad agencies," Vinton announced in the Wall Street Journal. Vinton Studios employed this new technique for the first time in a 1994 Chips Ahoy! commercial in which the brand's signature punctuation mark leaps off the package. In 1996, Vinton Studios wowed the ad world again with its innovative approach to advertising in a spot for Nissan cars that featured Barbie-type dolls making a getaway in a Nissan Z car. But while the ad won Best spot of 1996 by Time magazine and Rolling Stone, sales at Nissan fell.

By the mid-1990s, animation had become the hot new way to make movies, and there were box office hits such as Toy Story and The Lion King and television shows such as The Simpsons. But despite success on Madison Avenue and with award juries, Vinton Studios was still making mostly commercials. Vinton desired to branch out into feature-length productions, but two things prevented this. There was, first, as he explained in FastCompany, the fact that the studio "... didn't have the efficiency required to make larger projects. ... In terms of talent, we genuinely felt that we were the best company in the works. But we didn't have the management chops to produce high-quality work on a low enough budget." Secondly, "[t]here was a stigma attached to dimensional animation," according to Vinton in a Forbes article in 1994. Vinton Studios had been relegated largely to film festivals, and Vinton's dream of breaking into feature-length films seemed unattainable.

Becoming a Force in the Entertainment Industry

However, by the time Vinton Studios hit the 20-year mark, Vinton was determined to build the infrastructure necessary to do longer projects in film. In 1997 the company, which by then had more than 100 employees and a roster of blue-chip clients, recruited and hired Tom Turpin, a Harvard M.B.A. and former Goldman Sachs banker, as its president and CEO. Turpin's role was to build the business practices that would support the company's artistic goals. Under Turpin's lead, between 1997 and 2000, the company chalked up an enviable financial record; revenues grew at a compound annual rate of 50 percent, and the company began to see its first profits.

Hollywood producer Ron Howard also called Vinton in 1997 to pitch an idea for a Foamation (a more realistic version of Claymation) television series created by Eddie Murphy. The studio partnered with Imagine Entertainment, Eddie Murphy Productions, and Touchstone Television in 1998 to produce the first-ever stop-motion series for prime-time network television, The PJs. The series premiered on the Fox network to record-breaking ratings. After two seasons, it had won three Emmy Awards, and director Mark Gustafson had won an Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing. "What we're doing with The PJs is really the first step in where we want to be going," announced Turpin in the Los Angeles Times in 1998. "Our core strength is in character development and creation, and we really want to be into original programming." Each episode of The PJs took about 28 weeks to produce.

Vinton Studios and Big Ticket Television partnered to produce the studio's second prime-time television series, titled Gary and Mike, which aired on Fox in 1999 at a cost of slightly more than $1 million per episode. To support the company's shift into prime-time entertainment, the studio hired an additional 150 people, boosting its payroll to 400. In addition, the studio formulated a strategic plan that involved looking for private investment money. Vinton still held his studio's majority stock interest, with minor interests belonging to longtime employees and members of the board of directors. In 1998, Phil Knight, cofounder of Nike, joined the company's list of investors, when he purchased a minority share of its stock.

The new millennium brought new challenges for independent studios such as Vinton as consolidation became common in the industry. Vinton still earned 70 percent of its revenues as the largest provider of animation and effects for commercials in the United States, but it encountered hard times as both The PJs and Gary and Mike were placed on hiatus. Warner Brothers Network eventually picked up The PJs for its third season, and UPN picked up Gary and Mike from Fox, but, in the interim, the studio enforced its first staff cutbacks in six years. Still, determined to see itself on prime-time and in film, Vinton Studios went ahead with plans to open a Los Angeles office to handle productions, sales, and interaction with television networks.

The studio also began making strides in another area in the late 1990s. In 1998, it had opened its Character Development Lab as part of its advertising division with the aim of helping agencies and advertisers update aging brand symbols and create new personas for commercials. In 2000, the Character Development Lab handled five development projects for Kellogg's, Nabisco, and a brand in the Dr. Pepper/7Up Line. In 2001, it reworked the lonely Maytag repairman into more of a can-do sort of guy, who set out to bring perfection to realms other than washing machines and dryers. In 2001, when Jeff Farnath, a former Disney Animation executive, took over the reins at Vinton Studios from Turpin, he began to position the studio for major growth in its Character Development Lab and for a much bigger focus on feature-length animation films.

In 2002, Vinton Studios acquired Celluloid Studios, known for its cel animation and for a variety of hand-rendered and digital media, which it used to create a broad range of animation styles. As a leader in cel animation for more than 20 years, Celluloid had produced spots for national and international broadcast and was responsible for such character icons as the Raid Roaches, Cap'n Crunch, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, the Keebler Elves, Lucky the Leprechaun, and Hawaiian Punch's Punchy. Celluloid had produced the pilot episode of South Park as well as the earlier "Jesus vs. Santa" short upon which it was based. It became a fully integrated division of the Vinton Portland facility.

Battle for Control

Also in late 2002, the company issued additional stock for Knight to purchase as a means of improving its finances. Knight became the studio's majority shareholder and a member of the board and appointed his son, a Vinton employee, and two others to the board of directors. Farnath had begun meeting with Knight upon his arrival at Vinton Studios in 2001 to propose that Knight become more involved in the company financially.

In March 2003, Farnath again turned to Knight for a cash infusion to help Vinton Studios through hard times. Vinton objected to the terms of the additional financing, and when the company implemented additional layoffs, Will Vinton was among them. Vinton sued Knight and other members of the board of directors after he was dismissed, claiming that his firing had been orchestrated by Knight. Knight's lawyers argued that Farnath had fired Vinton per the terms of an agreement Vinton had with the studios that specified that he could be fired without cause. In September 2003, Knight's Phight LLC became the sole shareholder and director of Vinton Studios. A county judge dismissed Vinton's claims that Knight had improperly induced his termination.

Under Knight and Farnath's direction, Vinton Studios continued to plan for its future in feature-length animation. In 2004, in addition to its full slate of commercial work, Vinton Studios was hard at work producing the animated feature film, Corpse Bride, in association with Tim Burton and Warner Brothers. The film was due for a Halloween 2005 release.

Principal Competitors: Aardman Animations Ltd.; Light and Magic; Pixar Animation Studios; Pacific Data Images.

Further Reading:

  • Braxtin, Greg, "Puppetz N the Hood," Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1998, p. F1.
  • Brenneman, Kristina, "Vinton Studios' Latest TV Show Is Fox's Answer to South Park," Portland Business Journal, September 17, 1999, p. 3.
  • Darlin, Damon, and Joshua Levine, "Stars Who Don't Throw Hissy Fits," Forbes, February 28, 1994, p. 94.
  • Goldman, Kevin, "Claymation's Creator Develops New Wizardry for Chips Ahoy!" Wall Street Journal, February 9, 1994, p. B1.
  • Hauser, Susan, "Everything's Coming Up Raisins," Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1988, p. 1.
  • Liever, Ron, "Feat of Clay," FastCompany, April 2000, p. 230.
  • Manning, Jeff, "Portland, Oregon-Based Animation House Will Vinton Studios Goes to Nike Chief," Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, September 7, 2003, p. 1.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.63. St. James Press, 2004.

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