It’s a summer night in 1973. Two young animators are in a basement in Northwest Portland, experimenting with stop-motion clay animation. It’s an experiment that will soon revolutionize the animation world.

Will Vinton, an architecture student at the University of California Berkeley, was fascinated by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s wild, swirling, organic forms. He began creating his own outlandish forms out of clay, and animating them on film, one frame at a time.

When Vinton moved back to Oregon after school he convinced former classmate and accomplished sculptor Bob Gardiner to come join his experiments in clay animation.

“You have to remember,” Vinton said, “this is a time when around the world about 98 percent of animation was 2-D cell animation. You know, the classic Looney Tunes kind of kind of animation. Just to even do this was way out there.”

Claymation pioneers Bob Gardiner and Will Vinton.

Claymation pioneers Bob Gardiner and Will Vinton.

Courtesy of Will Vinton

As they worked, Vinton and Gardiner encountered a problem: When their character walked, it was impossible to keep his movements even and smooth — he wobbled. Later, Vinton would figure out how to keep movements stable. But in this early experiment they found a different solution: They decided their character was inebriated, and couldn’t walk straight.

Almost a year after the adventurous artists began, their film was completed. They called it “Closed Mondays.”

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It tells the story of an inebriated man wandering into an art museum late one night. In his altered state, he sees the paintings and sculptures vibrantly come to life.

“The transformations from one thing to another were something we really wanted to show,” Vinton said.

It was the perfect chance to show the wild possibilities of clay animation.

They submitted their film to the Northwest Film Festival. It was promptly rejected.

“We were devastated,” Vinton remembered. “I mean really devastated. Because, you know, I thought it was pretty good!”

But a Northwest distributor loved the film, and began screening it at theaters up and down the West Coast. By screening it at a theatre in Los Angeles, it qualified for the mother of all awards: an Oscar.

“I was so honored to be nominated for a film that was a kind of a first,” Vinton recalled. “The Academy had never had a stop-motion film nominated.”

In a few short months, “Closed Mondays” went from being rejected by the Northwest Film Festival to being nominated for best short animated film at the Academy Awards. And then, they won!

Will Vinton holding his Oscar for "Closed Mondays."

Will Vinton holding his Oscar for “Closed Mondays.”

Courtesy of Will Vinton

“Winning the Oscar was a total shock,” Vinton said. “We were up against Disney and Warner Brothers — really good stuff! Having an Oscar handed to you with all these celebrities, it’s an amazing thing. It’s really a surreal experience, all the way around.”

With an Oscar in hand, Vinton’s career path was permanently changed. He discovered that everyone wants to talk to an Oscar-winner. “Starting the week after that happened, to this day, there’s no meeting I can’t get!” he said.

Over the next nearly 30 years, Will Vinton built an animation company creating award-winning commercials, music videos and more short films. He received four more Oscar nominations, eight national Emmys, and turned the California Raisins into celebrities. By the late 1990s more than 400 people worked at Portland’s Will Vinton Studios — the largest film studio Oregon had ever seen.

“I’m really proud of what we built here in the region,” Vinton said. “We pulled in, wherever we could, artists from the local community to fill the ranks of the company, that we nurtured and supported. I’m really proud of that.”