Feat of Clay: The Forgotten 'Adventures of Mark Twain'

Oscar®-winning director Will Vinton looks back on his one-of-a-kind 1985 animated creation.

If – like me – you enjoy looking up obscure animations online, you may have already come across a YouTube video entitled “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV.”  Who could resist a title like that?  The clay-animated clip follows three young children as they create a miniature civilization with the aid of a being by the name of Satan.  Deeming humanity selfish and expendable, he proceeds to destroy it all with a casual wave of his hand, as the kids look on in horror.  On its own, it’s a provocative example of the storytelling power of a now largely forgotten artistic medium.  Luckily, there’s much more where that came from…an entire movie, in fact.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is a feature-length animated gem by the father of Claymation himself, Academy Award® winner Will Vinton.  Combining elements from Twains various writings – including The Mysterious Stranger, The Diary of Adam and Eve and Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven – with lavish clay animation, the picture tells the story of how fictional rascals Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher met their eccentric maker and stowed away on his flying airship, destined for a rendezvous with Halley’s Comet.  It’s a uniquely ambitious work which managed to completely fall off the public’s radar following its release in 1985.  Now available as a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray packed with special features and crew interviews, Twain is getting a second chance to find its audience, to the relief of its director.  Reflecting on his one-of-a-kind creation, Vinton recently opened up about working in the “Kiddie Ghetto,” his take on Pixar’s aesthetics, the possibilities of a Claymation comeback and the truth behind whether or not that aforementioned clip was actually considered too disturbing for broadcasting.

Will Vinton, Father of

Will Vinton, Father of
Claymation and director
of Twain

James Gartler:Would you say that your experience making this entirely clay-animated film felt, as Mark Twain says in the movie, was “like following a hall at home in the dark - even if you feel some fear, you know no harm can come to you because you’ve traveled that hallway a hundred times in nothing but bare feet and faith?”

Will Vinton: Well, I think that’s actually a pretty accurate description of things.  We’d been doing Claymation for a decade by that point so we knew where we were going pretty well, but from the outside it probably looked a little crazy!  Everything in the film was hand-made using clay.  It is pretty amazing to think about the sheer amount of hand-sculpted work that went into the picture.

JG: Did the film really begin as a short purely about Adam and Eve?

WV: Executive Producer Hugh Kennedy Tirrell was a huge fan of Twain at the time, more so than I, and he sent me The Complete Works of Mark Twain when he was trying to talk me into doing the project.  It worked!  There were all these books around and I couldn’t help but go through them.  I was used to stuff like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, those books, but I hadn’t seen or read enough to really know all that much about Mark Twain himself, or the more sophisticated and darker elements of his writing.  So, we did start on The Diary of Adam and Eve while I was still reading Twain, and by the time we had that together, I started to feel like there was a very cool, very unusual movie that could be made.

Mark Twain’s airship prepares for takeoff.

JG: Is it true that a 17-person crew produced the film on a 1.5 million dollar budget by working in a basement for four years?

WV: Well it’s all true, though that’s probably exaggerating a bit.  Seventeen or so represents the full-time staff and then freelance people came and went, plus you have musical talent and writing talent and things that go beyond that number.  We shot the film in a converted house that had a barbershop in front of it, so we called it the Barbershop Studio.  The bedrooms and things were editing rooms and offices.  The high-ceiling basement was conveniently connected to a four thousand square foot studio that we built in the back, and that basement was where the animators and sculptors worked on the characters.  So, yes, we spent a lot of time in the basement!

JG: Were those happy days?

WV: You know, it was really fun.  The crew was small, but every one of those people either continued on with me or went on to do really wonderful things, like Craig Bartlett who created Hey Arnold! and Dinosaur Train.  It was just a dynamite time.

JG: The characters display an impressive range of emotions throughout the movie, given that you were gently manipulating their lips and eyebrows the entire time.  Were portions of their faces solid, or at any moment could the sudden jerk of a finger mangle their delicate features?

WV: It’s a good question and the answer is that it was all clay.  After that, we developed a lot of techniques for casting the head or hair in other materials so they would be hard and you wouldn’t smoosh them when you grabbed the character to turn it.  Part of it was that I was a complete purist about the idea that everything in Mark Twain be made of clay.  That came from seeing a lot of puppet animation in the past, Eastern European and Asian and so on, where the materials got in the way of the story, because you’d be watching it and getting into it and then all of a sudden you’d see the clothing is clearly a cheap piece of burlap, or you’d see corrugated cardboard at the edge of the set.  It blows the scale and takes you out of the story.  So my rationale was to let everything be clay so that you never run into that.  I’ve softened my purist quality since then (laughs), but I do think that it gives the film a rare appeal and particularly interesting quality, especially dealing with things like water and clouds…

Vinton’s meticulously clay-sculpted clouds.

JG: I was going to say that the clouds in the airship scenes were especially stunning…

WV: And that’s all clay painting done in multiple passes and layers to create depth and transparencies.  It was pretty complex but it works and I think it gave a kind of artistic feel.  I’m actually still a bit of a critic of some things, even in Pixar films, where you have wonderful character designs that are pretty imaginative and fanciful and then you have extremely realistic backgrounds.  The design of the characters and the design of their world needs to be of a piece, so they don’t feel like they’re transplanted into an alien environment or something.  There needs to be a natural connection.

JG: My first exposure to this movie was a clip of the scene with The Mysterious Stranger, which was labeled online as being banned from television…

WV: That’s nonsense.  (laughs)  The internet is such a rumor mill of misinformation!

The stowaways meet The Mysterious Stranger.

JG: Was that segment removed from television airings of the movie?

WV: No.  Absolutely not.  Nobody ever asked for it to be removed.  As a matter of fact, we were hoping we’d get a PG rating in the first place because we didn’t want it to be thought of too much as a kiddie film, because we knew it wasn’t a kiddie film.  So we got a G rating and we were almost going to appeal, but that would have cost us!

JG: So you think it hurt the picture, in the end?

WV: Yes.  Part of the challenge there is that you have to think about the time it first came out.  It’s really much more appropriate in some ways for today’s audiences because when it was released there wasn’t much of a market for adult animation in big movie theatres.  It was pretty much the Kiddie Ghetto (laughs).  I guess I felt like some of the shows that were kid-oriented really talked down to kids badly, even back then…especially back then.  So, we always did things that adults and kids might like.  Our approach on Mark Twain was pretty sophisticated.  We were talking about things like his dying, and the Mysterious Stranger notions and the dark stuff that Twain wrote about.  It seemed really important to deal with the fact that Twain himself had this folk hero light side and a very dark somewhat cynical side as well.

JG: Were the investors at all concerned at the outset that the content might be more adult than people were expecting?

WV: I don’t think our investors were particularly concerned about it.  They wanted us to do what we thought was the right thing to do.  I think they trusted our senses on that, having had some success before.  Maybe they shouldn’t have (laughs) because that first release didn’t make a lot of money back.

JG: Was it difficult to have worked on Twain for four years only to see it fail to find its audience?

WV: Yeah, that’s the only thing.  The money aside, we knew that it was a beautiful piece.  We had fans from the very beginning who thought it was amazing.  I had critics call me up and say what an astounding film it was, but it was released initially by Atlantic Releasing and the thing they were trying to promote at the end of their lives – they were almost going into Chapter 11 when we signed the deal, which we didn’t know – was a package called ‘Clubhouse Pictures’, which only played for matinée performances.  And so it opened and got fantastic reviews in places like The New Republic.  Not a lot of kids are reading The New Republic and the adults who were intrigued couldn’t find it anywhere.  It was really sad.  The matinée thing didn’t work at all.  Our point of view would have been almost the opposite: ‘we don’t need to show at all at matinées, just evening performances!’

The transforming face of Satan.

JG: One of the best things to come out of the movie, I think, is that Mysterious Stranger sequence.  How did you guys come up with the suit of armor design for Satan, complete with a mask that transforms as he speaks?

WV: There were a number of things that intrigued us about the Mysterious Stranger.  First off, it was just such a bizarre character, to start with.  In fact, I haven’t seen a character quite like that in almost anything else – someone who has this power but no feeling one way or another and just sort-of tells it like it is regarding the future of humanity.  We wanted it to be about metamorphosis, visually, and make that a big part of sequence.  He transforms and grows up and down from the earth and appears out of nothingness. The design of the character came from an early drawing that Barry Bruce did, where a jester was holding his face on a stick.  I thought it was a really interesting way to play it.  I ended up doing the voice of the Stranger with a female performer.  We wanted it to be almost androgynous, so she and I did it together and made a point of not trying to hide it, even.

JG: Stop-motion animation has been doing well as a medium of late, with The Pirates!, Frankenweenie and ParaNorman all having been Oscar nominated last year.  Do you think another feature could come along that would bring Claymation back into the spotlight?

WV: Yes!  Actually I’m very pleased to see stop-motion getting its due. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve heard people pronounce stop-motion dead, and a couple of years later there’s a so-called revival.  This past year there were more major stop-motion feature films released in theatres than ever in history, so that’s cool.  To me, it really depends on the story and how you want to do a visual interpretation of that story.  Sometimes, animated films aren’t using the best technology or designs for the stories they pick, and I think that’s the issue.  If you have a story that really works well with the strengths and attributes of stop-motion, it’s ultimately rewarding.  Having said that, any stop-motion film these days is going to be about 40% CG.

As far as Claymation is concerned, there are projects in the works.  In fact, there’s one my writing partner Andrew Wiese and I wrote that we’d love to do at some point if we get the chance.  It’s really made for Claymation because it’s a retro project that comes right out of the popularity of Claymation stuff twenty years ago.  There’s also a project entitled Azumma that I’m co-producing with a Korean company called H-Culture that is perfect for Claymation styling, even if we use a lot of different techniques, with a little CG in it as well.

JG: Any time frame on those?

WV: We’re actively looking for financing for some of these projects.  We’d like to do them independently as opposed to with a major studio.  It makes it harder but it’s also, I think, a better way to go.  Mark Twain is a really good example of what happens when you have strong creative people doing things without too much so-called commercial oversight, where everything is scrutinized to the nth degree and designs have to be shown six different ways and an executive picks one for whatever reasons.

Twain and his crew encounter the Great Sphinx of Giza.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is available now on Blu-Ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment.

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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