Joan Gratz has worked in Portland’s animation scene since its earliest days. She was one of the first employees at Will Vinton Studios and remembers creating clay figures for films and commercials in a room behind a barbershop at Northwest 19th Avenue and Northwest Lovejoy Street in Portland.

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Back then, Gratz began experimenting with mixing mineral oil into the clay. She created a substance that she said “was really behaving much more like oil paint and not like clay.” She used this material to pioneer a style of animation that she calls “clay painting.”

Using her technique, Gratz spent almost a decade creating the short film “Mona Lisa Descending A Staircase.”  The film earned an Academy Award in 1992, along with many other awards at film festivals around the world.

Her success with the film led to commissions for commercials for United Airlines and Coca-Cola, which gave her distinctive technique extensive exposure on television.

These days, Gratz has discovered ways to incorporate computer technology into her filmmaking. Recent films such as “Puffer Girl” and “Primal Flux” have taught her about Adobe Photoshop and After Effects and the challenges of working with a new technique she calls “high relief.” She still uses a camera and stop-motion techniques to capture images of clay, but then manipulates the files using her computer and adds music.

After almost four decades as an animator, Gratz knows that her style of working is slow, but she says the final result is worth it.

“I still get that same kick of, ‘Oh yeah, this is what it looks like,’” she said. “And then you think, ‘Boy, this took a long time for such a little bit of film.’”