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On View : A Feat of Clay : THE CREATOR OF CALIFORNIA RAISINS MOLDS AN ANIMATED EASTER SPECIAL

Bob Rusk is a writer based in Seaside, Ore.

“No one around here knows what’s going on. The animators aren’t even sure what they’re doing,” laughs Mark Gustafson of Will Vinton Studios in Portland.

Gustafson is the director and co-writer of Will Vinton’s “A Claymation Easter,” an animated half-hour special molded out of clay that airs Saturday on CBS. It’s the silly story of a big pig named Wilshire who plans to bump off the sweet little Easter bunny, so he can take over Easter and turn it into a holiday for fellow pigs.

But long before the animators picked up their clay and brought Wilshire to life, they had to assume a pig’s personality. And that’s not an easy task. Only in show business could grown men get away with walking around wearing large snap-on snouts, while grunting and groaning at each other.

This may seem like a strange way to earn a living, but it’s all in a day’s work for the animators. They can only create characters if they first can act like them.

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“A good animator is also an actor,” Gustafson explains. “An animator has to perform through the characters he’s creating. When it comes right down to it, the characters are giving as much of a performance as human actors.”

Some animators even like to stand in front of mirrors, looking at themselves and making funny faces--exploring facial features and expressions they can give their characters.

Bringing Wilshire Pig to life is one thing. In fact, it’s actually quite easy compared to bringing, say, some clay raisins to life. But Vinton and the animators at his studio have done that, too. The Oscar- and Emmy-winning Vinton created the super-cool California Raisins for TV commercials developed by the San Francisco advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding to promote raisin sales.

Vinton’s Raisins have also starred in several prime-time TV specials and a Saturday morning cartoon show.

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It’s been said Vinton’s success started with those wrinkled Raisins, but he knows it really started with a lump of clay. Vinton, creator of the clay-animation technique known as Claymation, discovered that he liked working with clay while studying architecture and film at the University of California at Berkeley. Fascinated by the designs Spanish sculptural architect Antonio Gaudi created with clay, Vinton began exploring a merger of clay and film.

“Clay is a natural material for animation,” Vinton says. “Clay characters can show a wide range of emotions, and they’re able to transform easily from one shape to another.”

After graduating from Berkeley with a degree in architecture, Vinton returned to Oregon, where he grew up in the lush Willamette Valley, and set out to create a cast of clay characters he could mold into success.

Vinton’s first effort was the 1974 film “Closed Mondays” (co-created with Bob Gardiner). “Closed Mondays” went on to win the Academy Award for best animated short film.

Now Vinton wants to bring some acclaim to pigs. He may not have things so easy this time around. The notorious Wilshire, who takes his name from the Los Angeles boulevard, is a rather belligerent swine. Wilshire was introduced to viewers last year in CBS’ “Claymation Comedy of Horrors” special.

“Wilshire was co-founder of the ‘me’ generation,” Vinton says. “He’s a pig of simple wants. He simply wants fame, money, and power.”

All of this silliness is a lot of fun for Vinton and company, but putting together such a program is also serious business. “ ‘Claymation Easter’ is a very complex production,” says director Gustafson. “We worked on it for about a year-and-a-half. The animation work alone required a year to complete.”

That animation was an extremely slow process. The character’s movements and expressions had to be adjusted 24 times for every second of the program--equaling an entire day to film every three seconds of “Claymation Easter.”

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“And that doesn’t include set-up time, construction and design,” Gustafson says. “A typical shot, depending on how complicated it is, can take a day to set up. It can take as long as three days to set up a shot, because nothing exists for us. If we need a coffee cup for a shot, we have to build one. If we need a car, we have to build one.”

But doesn’t all of this laboring quickly become tedious? “Never,” Gustafson says enthusiastically.

“There are so many things to think about, so many things to do. We’re constantly working to breathe nuances into our characters. I think being an accountant would be tedious, but animation isn’t.”

“A Claymation Easter” airs Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

THE VINTON WAY

Claymation characters are sculpted out of an oil-based modeling clay called Plasticine. Animators create a rainbow of clay colors by melting different colored clays together.

As the clay cooks, it becomes stiff yet remains pliable--never fully hardening. The clay is then molded onto flexible metal skeletons.--B.R.


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