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'Claymation' Reshapes Prime Time, Video After Dancing Raisins

November 10, 1987|BRUCE HOROVITZ

PORTLAND, Ore. — Some critics have accused Michael Jackson of having feet of clay. Now, Will Vinton Productions is going to make sure of it.

The folks that made those soulful clay raisins dance across TV screens nationwide are about to turn Jackson into their next clay creation. The Play Doh-like version of Jackson will join company with such advertising luminaries as the pogo-sticking Domino's Pizza "Noid" and the walking, talking can of Spam.

Of course, Jackson won't be selling pizza, raisins or even Spam. Instead, a look-alike clay version of him will be singing and dancing by January in a video being produced from his latest album. That Jackson has turned to clay is a clear signal that clay animation is successfully branching out beyond the world of advertisements.

In October, for example, Vinton transformed Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd into clay animated characters in a segment of the "Moonlighting" television show. A CBS Christmas television special featuring the dancing raisins is in the works. And CBS is also looking at a half-hour TV series that would feature Vinton's clay creations.

Then, there are those people who want the California Raisins dancing on the fronts of their T-shirts and the backs of their bed sheets. So, the same company that licensed the Smurfs is now licensing California Raisin products.

"For characters with no TV shows or movies behind them, this is absolutely amazing," said Jack Morrow, vice president of licensing at Applause Inc., the Woodland Hills company that has already signed up more than 50 California Raisin licensees. In fact, he said, "they could end up with more licensees than the Smurfs."

But the most lucrative market for clay animation is still advertisements. Vinton--who is generally regarded as one of the world authorities on clay animation--tried adding some charm to the painstaking production process 13 years ago when his company began to call it "claymation."

$5 Million in Revenue

No matter what it is called, however, claymation is a tedious task. The biggest drawbacks are time and money. Just one second of each commercial can cost $3,000 to $6,000 to film. That's because clay animation is very time-consuming. Much like the way cartoons are pieced together with thousands of separate drawings, commercials with clay animation require thousands of separate photographs to depict movement. For each second of film the viewer sees, the camera must film 24 different frames of the clay creations. And a 30-second TV spot takes about five weeks to animate.

It is only recently that Vinton has had a reason to smile. Thanks, in part, to a handful of dancing raisins, his production company is posting annual revenue of about $5 million. Of course, Vinton never expected a bunch of clay raisins would be his claim to fame.

"Even the Steven Spielbergs of the world have to suffer through this sort of thing," said the 39-year-old Vinton in an interview at his studio in Portland. "No matter what he does, Spielberg will always be known as the director of 'E.T.' " And Vinton, on a smaller scale, knows that he will forever be the King of Raisins.

Despite all his acclaim, Vinton didn't actually create the ads that feature clay raisins dancing to tune, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." He just made the clay figures. The rights to them are owned by the California Raisin Advisory Board. And the idea came from the San Francisco office of the ad firm Foote, Cone & Belding. But since the ad first appeared on television nearly two years ago, it is Vinton's office that has been besieged with requests from advertisers.

And no wonder. Raisin sales were in the dumpster two years ago. "On an emotional plane, raisins were not very contemporary," said Alan Canton, manager of advertising for the California Raisin Advisory Board. "In fact, people who ate raisins were considered nerds." But less than five months after the campaign broke, national raisin sales jumped 6%, and suddenly raisins are considered every bit as hip as frozen yogurt.

Since then, Vinton's clay animation ads seem to be everywhere. Kentucky Fried Chicken ads feature a chicken made of clay. Nike has used clay animation in ads for its children's shoes. And in Japan, Coca-Cola uses clay animated figures in some of its ads. Most recently, a New York-based competitor, Broadcast Arts, has produced clay animated commercials for Joy dishwashing detergent and Chex snack mix. But because of the high production costs, only a few other competitors work with clay.

Executives at Broadcast Arts believe that clay animation's life span may be near an end. "There's bound to be a fallout in clay animation," said David Starr, executive producer at Broadcast Arts. "Everyone's going to have to prepare for it, including Will Vinton."

Fad Passing?

Needless to say, Vinton disagrees. "We're still just scratching the surface," said Vinton, who envisions successful prime-time TV shows with clay animated characters and several mass-appeal motion pictures.

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