Mark Dawidziak Celebrates Will Vinton, Oscar-winning Director, Producer, and Revolutionary Animator

Will Vinton, Oscar-winning director and producer of short-stopped animated films passed away on October 4, 2018 at the age of 70.  Here is his obituary in The New York Times.  To The Mark Twain Studies community, Vinton is best known for his work in the Claymation animated movie The Adventures of Mark Twain.

At Elmira 2013: The Seventh International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, Mark Dawidziak presented the paper “Feat of Clay: Will Winton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain, Being the Story of Mark Twain, Halley’s Comet and a 1985 Film Way Ahead of its TIme.”  Dawidziak is a television critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as an acclaimed author, playwright, director, and actor who often portrays Twain in performances. A recognized Twain scholar, he has edited several books on the author, including Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing (1996), Horton Foote’s The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain (2003), Mark Twain in Ohio (2015), Mark Twain’s Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness (2015), and Mark Twain for Cat Lovers: True and Imaginary Adventures with Feline Friends (2016).  Dawidziak’s paper on Vinton’s animated groundbreaking work is below.

Mark Twain assured us that, “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”  In the mid-1980s, the man with a new idea was Will Vinton, the innovative filmmaker who coined and trademarked the term Claymation.

Vinton was the Oscar-winning director and producer of short stop-motion animated films. That wasn’t the new idea. Stop-motion animation had been around almost as long as filmmaking. Stop-motion (or stop-frame) is that painstaking process where models are moved and photographed frame by frame, creating the illusion of movement. The title character in the 1933 version of King Kong was an eighteen-inch model brought to life by stop-motion photography – move the model imperceptibly, expose one frame of film, move the model, expose a frame, move the model, expose a frame. Do that twenty-four times and you’d have one second of film, since film moved through a camera at the rate of twenty-four frames per second.

Unlike Kong, Vinton’s models were fashioned from clay. Hence the term Claymation. His idea was to make a feature-length film using only this technique.

The result was The Adventures of Mark Twain, a daring and imaginative 86-minute film that was acclaimed by many critics but baffled most audiences when it hit movie theaters in 1985. A feature-length animated film meant only one thing to audiences of 1985: kid’s stuff. Offbeat, whimsical, challenging, and sometimes quite disturbing and dark, The Adventures of Mark Twain wasn’t quite Mickey Mouse fare. The target audiences for Vinton and his team were teenagers and young adults. But, much to the frustration of the people who worked on it, The Adventures of Mark Twain was marketed as a movie for kids.

“I’ve never been interested in doing animation for children,” Vinton said during an interview for this paper. “And when I got started, 99.9 percent of animation was for children. Doing The Adventures of Mark Twain, we were entertaining ourselves, pursuing adult themes, dark humor, and subjects that interested us. We thought what interested us might interest others, too. But it unfortunately got put into a matinee-only release, and that was pure babysitting time at movie theaters. We got great what I’d call highfalutin reviews, but the marketing was completely wrong.”

Predictably, The Adventures of Mark Twain didn’t make much of a splash in 1985.

The reviews were encouraging. While some critics clearly were perplexed, among the most enthusiastic reviews was the one appearing in The New Republic, not exactly the parents’ guide to kiddie-matinee fare. The New York Daily News raved: “The Adventures of Mark Twain is an unexpected treasure. It is a classic.”

High praise, no doubt, but remember that Twain defined a classic as, “A book which people praise and don’t read. In 1985, that familiar quote could have been amended to a film which people praised and didn’t see.

“This isn’t really a children’s movie, and it was never meant to be,” said the film’s executive producer, Hugh Kennedy Tirrell. “We tested it, and it played best with college kids and teens. Then it got a G rating. It killed our target audience before we started. We were stunned and very disappointed.”

Timing is everything in show business, and The Adventures of Mark Twain was both ever-so slightly and light-years ahead of its time. Slightly ahead of its time?

“That’s the part that galls me the most,” Tirrell said. “The very next year, Will Vinton had the California Raisins commercials, which became an international phenomenon. If that first commercial had been a year before this film, it would have got the attention it deserved. So now I hope people will find it.”

He’s talking about the recent blu-ray and DVD collector’s editions by Magnolia Home Entertainment. With the audio and video transfers in the crystal range, this release vividly underscores how The Adventures of Mark Twain also was way ahead of its time. Ten years after its initial release, the Pixar–produced Toy Story made computer-animated feature films all the rage for all ages.

“Today’s digital effects are spectacular, but it’s all done in the computer,” Vinton said. “We were doing it all in the camera, and there is a joy in that purist’s approach. People used to say that stop-motion wasn’t capable of doing incredibly smooth animation. This is the film that proved them wrong, and I like to think it showed the way for those later animated films. When I think of the limitations we had, I’m amazed at how well it did turn out.”

Tirrell is more emphatic. “Even knowing how far computer-generated animation has gone, The Adventures of Mark Twain holds up gorgeously well,” he said. “This was done completely with clay and stop-motion. No computers. Even the sets were all clay. And we did it all on a shoestring. Nobody got rich creating this.”

He’s not kidding. The budget was a mere $1.5 million. Working in the basement of a house in Portland, Oregon, Vinton and his adventurous crew of about 17 people took four years to complete the film. To put that in some perspective, consider the 2009 Pixar film Up. It had a budget of – ready? – $175 million and a crew of about 1,000 people.

The idea for The Adventures of Mark Twain started with Tirrell, and his interest in Twain was sparked by a youthful encounter with Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of the writer.

“I was the Mark Twain aficionado,” Tirrell said. “It was my brainchild, but the execution was an extraordinary effort led by Will. I originally approached Will about doing a half-hour adaptation of Twain’s diaries of Adam and Eve. The closer we got to it, the more I started thinking about a feature film that also would incorporate some of his other wonderful pieces.”

As Tirrel had hoped and planned, the idea expanded as Vinton got to know more about Mark Twain and his writings.

“Hugh kept talking Twain to me, and I kept putting him off,” Vinton said. “Then Hugh sent me a massive volume of Twain’s works. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I was aware of Twain the humorist, but when I read this . . . wow! With the diaries of Adam and Eve well on the way to becoming a short film, Hugh felt he could raise the money for a feature film. And we had the perfect team for it.

Susan Shadburne wrote the screenplay, drawing on works by and about Twain. Composer Billy Scream tackled the music. And despite the tight budget, Vinton and Tirrell managed to snare James Whitmore as the voice of Twain.

“We wanted Hal Holbrook, of course, but he turned us down,” Vinton said. “So how did we get James Whitmore? That was Hugh again.”

“Jim Whitmore did it because we agreed to fly him to Oregon from Houston, where he was appearing at a dinner theater,” Tirrell said. “We were lucky. He didn’t need to make a lot of money at that point in his career. And we didn’t have a lot of money to give him. We had him for about two days. He was actually terrific, but, while we were recording his voice, he never wanted to hear a playback. He would say, ‘If you like it, then let’s go on. If you don’t like it, I’ll do it again.’ How lucky can you get?”

What emerged from that basement in Portland is one of the very few outstanding films inspired by either Twain’s life or his works – in this case, inspired by Twain’s life and his works. To make that case, let me take you back to 1985. Let me set the scene for you. Try to see it. Try to see the magnificent airship sitting in a Missouri field, surrounded by astounded gawkers. With a paddle wheel at the stern and a gaudy pilot house perched at the top, it appears to be some kind of delightfully bizarre high-flying hybrid: part Wizard of Oz balloon, part Mississippi steamboat, part carnival attraction.

A banner hanging from the red blimpish center proclaims, “Halley’s Comet or Bust.” Standing at the lower deck, Mark Twain addresses an understandably curious crowd, explaining the meaning of those words. Twain, dressed in his trademark white suit and brandishing a cigar, tells the wide-eyed onlookers that he intends to rendezvous with the celestial visitor. “I go to meet the comet,” he proclaims. “Yes, indeed, I surely plan to.”

It is the last adventure, as he well knows. Shadburne’s opening scene with Twain, paraphrases an actual Twain quote. “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835,” Twain said in 1909. “It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that!”

He will make this trip. He will make it in this spectacular vessel of his own construction and design. See it? See it sitting in that Missouri field under an incredibly blue summer sky?  Tom Sawyer sees it, and he can’t resist the temptation to climb on board and share the adventures. Well, how could he? Huckleberry Finn is reluctant to accompany his comrade, but, as Tom tells him, “You couldn’t see an adventure hanging from the end of your nose.”

Before long, the ship is taking off with not only Tom and Huck as stowaways, but a frog named Homer, too. Becky Thatcher is on board, as well, and there might just be some type of mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows. With Twain as our lightning pilot, we are along for the ride as the magical airship makes its way toward his destined rendezvous with Halley’s Comet.

The vehicle and the journey suggest the Jules Verne-ish Tom Sawyer Abroad, one of many Twain tales slyly referenced in Shadburne’s script. There are rattling echoes of this 1894 book, and we quickly see how splendidly Claymation can be utilized to visualize moments from Twain’s writings.

The film begins in a lighthearted mood with the children (and us) charmed by the witty, grandfatherly Twain. Noticing Homer, Twain remarks that he’s “an uncommon fine frog.” It was a frog like Homer, he explains to the children, that put him in “the writing business.” It’s a short Claymation hop from there to a playful telling of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Homer literally melts into the tale, becoming part of the familiar proceedings as a superbly expressive Dan’l Webster. When an outraged Jim Smiley realizes he has been hornswoggled, Homer jumps out of the tale, back with Twain, Tom, Becky, and Huck.

This is just one of dozens of fanciful little touches sure to delight those familiar with Twain’s life and works. When the ship’s load needs to be lightened, one of the items gleefully tossed overboard is the Paige typesetter that caused Twain so much trouble. As we make our way toward the comet, we are treated to excerpts from the “Diaries” of Adam and Eve, “The Chronicle of Young Satan,” and “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” Serving up intriguing insights into Twain’s mind and writing, Shadburne’s script also features regular borrowings from Life on the Mississippi, Puddn’head Wilson, Following the Equator, the autobiography, the letters, and the speeches.

Given the film’s history, it’s not surprising that the longest and most touching excerpts feature Adam and Eve, but the most deeply disturbing is the scene from “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” The film glides into spooky and unnerving territory when Tom, Becky, and Huck wander into a dark room where a young angel named Satan molds a village and people from, well, clay. They watch in horror as an emotionless Satan casually crushes the village and destroys the crude humanoid forms. Satan’s mask transforms into a death mask, shrinking into the merest glint in Twain’s eye. Vinton pulls back the perspective to reveal Twain’s pain-etched face. It’s a haunting and unnerving sequence that brilliantly exploits the flexibility of Claymation storytelling.

“Sometimes the old man seems powerful unhappy,” Huck says. Sometimes he is. Taking on darker tones, therefore, the movie keeps the children guessing why Twain seems so mirthful one moment, so miserable the next. Even the interior of the airship plays skillfully on this troubling contradiction, with bits and pieces suggesting the Clemens family’s Hartford house, a steamboat cabin, and Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, featured in two Jules Verne novels. There is much humor, of course. There are messages of hope. There also is much talk of death and dying. That’s because, before this dreamy, sometimes nightmarish voyage is over, The Adventures of Mark Twain will explore the theory that the writer was an endlessly fascinating study in duality.

Few adages get trotted out more reliably and regularly than the one that assures us, “There are two sides to every story.” This familiar proposition certainly has been assiduously applied to Samuel Langhorne Clemens ever since Justin Kaplan kicked the whole duality approach into high gear with his landmark 1966 biography, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.

The title of Kaplan’s incredibly influential work trumpeted the idea that there were two sides to Mark Twain. And Twain provided no end of fuel for this psychological line of inquiry. There was his deep fascination with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There were all those stories with twins and doubles. There were the numerous and fascinating contradictions. There was that plaintively provocative line from Following the Equator: “Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”  There was his very choice of a pen name, with its tease for two and two for tease.

So, understandably, many a Twain scholar has followed Justin Kaplan’s lead, deciding that this is, indeed, the story of a man with two sides in constant conflict. It has become the stuff of academic studies, analytical criticism, and, yes, rich debate. And how about an animated feature film? Why not?

“It began with the concept of the dark and the light,” Shadburne said. “Anyone who has read Twain, knows anything about him at all, knows that he had a very depressive side, and that his humor – fun and funny and light as it could be – also had a very dark side.”

So Tom, Huck, and Becky are encountering two Twains: the one in the white suit representing the genial humorist and beloved family author; the other, in a dark suit, representing, well, the dark Twain.

“That was in there by design,” Vinton said. “Another thing we worked very hard at was making as many lines as possible verbatim Mark Twain. It was a very long, very involved, but incredibly rewarding process. Through it all, we never lost track of the fact that we were thoroughly enjoying the process. There was nobody in this tight-knit group who didn’t fully understand the vision and mission.”

It turns out to be quite the exhilarating ride, infinitely more faithful to the spirit of Mark Twain than the earlier film titled The Adventures of Mark Twain (the 1944 Warner Bros. “biography” starring Fredric March) or the many disappointing Hollywood adaptations of his novels. A constant marvel in look and content, Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain is a stirring realization of Shadburne’s goal when fashioning the script. “That’s a film that speaks to grownups who are looking for meaning,” she said. “And an awful lot of animation doesn’t do that anymore.”

No, it certainly doesn’t. So, interested? Then I’d advise you to follow Tom, Huck, and Becky. Climb on board this airship and head for the comet. It’s a trip well worth taking, and you couldn’t be in better company. It was, in fact, in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Twain told us, “I have found out there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Travel with this crew and there’s a very good chance you’ll find plenty to like – plenty to intrigue you, and plenty to dazzle and delight your senses. Fueled by an appreciation of Mark Twain and his work, Vinton’s film truly is nothing less than a remarkable feat of clay.