Will Vinton (1947-2018) wasn’t the first person to toy with clay figures in stop-motion animation, but his fingerprints are on some of the most famous and successful uses of the technique. He shared an Oscar for a short, “Closed Mondays,” in 1975. His studio’s 1980s commercials with the California Raisins and Domino’s Pizza’s Noid helped turn those characters into pop-culture phenomena. He trademarked the term Claymation. In the 1990s, Vinton worked advertising magic again with computer-animated talking M&M’s.
He was also, judging from “Claydream,” a documentary from Marq Evans, the sort of visionary whose big dreams, business sense and intrafamilial skills did not always operate on equivalent levels. “He had trouble expressing emotions when it wasn’t with clay,” says Mary McDonald-Lewis, identified as a friend of Vinton’s, in the film. His twisted character Wilshire Pig did not catch on like Mickey Mouse. The movie opens by teasing a legal battle between Vinton and the Nike founder Phil Knight, who has been described as having forced him out of what was then called Will Vinton Studios in 2003.
The career-highlights structure is perhaps overly familiar, but “Claydream” benefits from extensive interviews with Vinton and his many associates, and from the fact that Claymation is an engaging onscreen subject. Reading a history of Will Vinton Studios would not have the impact of getting to see the sometimes-ribald early shorts Vinton made in Berkeley, Calif., or of hearing old answering-machine messages left for Vinton by Michael Jackson, who eventually played a Raisin. Evans has made a lively and illuminating tribute, and not always an unduly flattering one.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.