Gumby at 50

With two stop-motion features hitting theaters this year, Gerard C. Raiti looks at another trailblazing stop-motion legend Gumby, who is celebrating his 50th year, with a talk with Clokey Prods. head Joe Clokey, the son of Gumby creator Art Clokey.

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Gumby, with his pony Pokey, are celebrating their 50th birthday with a new push to get the show back on the air. Unless otherwise noted, all images © Premavision, Inc. 2005.

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While a student at USC, Art Clokey (seen above in the 1950s) made Gumbasia, a short film. The following year, Clokey signed a deal for a TV series and the world of Gumby was born.

In 1955, a pupil of legendary animator Slavko Vorkapich produced a short clay animated student film at the University of Southern California. The pupils name was Art Clokey and his short film was Gumbasia. The following year, Clokey signed a deal for a TV series with a protagonist based on his clay film. The world of Gumby was born, and 50 years later, Clokey and Gumby are celebrating their golden anniversary by trying to get Gumby back on the air.

To commemorate both the 125th anniversary of his alma mater and to help kick-start the 2006 Gumby at 50 festivities, Clokey made what is these days considered to be a rare appearance on Sept. 28, at the USC School of Cinema-Television as part USCs DADA (Division of Animation and Digital Arts) animation seminar. After sustaining a fall and breaking some bones, coupled with a series of minor strokes over the last six months, Clokeys mobility and speech are limited. Although his mental faculties are perfect at age 84, without full speech capabilities, Art has been obliged to have his son Joe speak on his behalf. Joe Clokey has taken over the executive duties at Premavision, the umbrella company for Clokey Prods.

At 50, Gumby is undoubtedly a part of Americana. Although never as popular as the likes of Mickey or Bugs, everyone seems to have a particular memory of Gumby or Pokey of their adventures, of their innocence and of their fun. Exhibits celebrating both Art Clokey and Gumby began this past summer at the Lynn House Gallery near San Francisco and at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. While it has been nearly 20 years since Gumby last graced the small screen in original episodes, Clokey Prods. is set to keep Gumby alive and a part of America well into the 21st century. So Animation World Magazine sat down with Arts son Joe to discuss the significance of Gumby at 50 and the future of clay animation.

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Gerard Raiti: Why has Gumby been so popular for 50 years?

Joe Clokey: Theres something that captures peoples imagination with Gumby. My dad told not only wonderful stories but created this character that embodies wonderment and adventure. Gumby has these surrealistic journeys where he goes through Toyland, in and out of books, in the future and in the past that sense of imagination has a very potent draw for Americans. He captures the imaginations of children and adults. Gumby lives on because he represents my dads artistic vision, but more importantly, Gumby represents his love of children. My mother and father have a real strong love of children, and they wanted to give something of love back to children. Thats what Gumby represents. Because my dad is such an adventuresome guy, his stories are fun. Gumby represents that pure character that my dad is.

GR: With all the advancements in computer animation over the last two decades, why does stop-motion animation still work today?

JC: Stop-motion animation has a textural appeal. When you watch a 2D movie, its drawn; its flat. When 3D came along, all it tried to do was copy stop-motion because stop-motion is naturally 3D. Now computer animation has gotten better and everythings gotten so smooth that it lacks texture. With clay animation like Gumby, there are real sets with real puppets. They all exist in real life. You can touch them. Youve also got a real camera taking a picture of the action. Its a magic trick: you take 24 still frames to get one second of action. So when a good animator puts it together, that life you see is amazing because its real. When I sat down and watched Corpse Bride with my five-year old, everyone loved it. [The audience was] captured by the textual quality of what they saw on the screen. Its hard to put it in words, but its more real than other types of animation. Kids love it because the puppets come to life. Its an imaginary world.

GR: Speaking of Tim Burton, do you feel that part of Corpse Brides success is attributable to the legacy created by Gumby?

JC: Well I know Tim is a Gumby fan. Some of his first movies had Gumby and Pokey in them, like the Pee-Wee Herman movie. So I know that his love of stop-motion animation comes from many sources, but one source of his inspiration is Gumby. And Im excited that a well-known director like Tim is carrying on the great tradition of stop-motion. Corpse Bride is a wonderful film wonderful to watch.

GR: Will Gumbasia appear on any of the forthcoming Gumby DVDs?

JC: It will be on the Rhino box set, fully restored. Ive just spent the last four months remastering a selected group of episodes from the 50s and 60s. I went back to their original a/b camera rolls. There are no scratches. Theres no fading. Its amazing how good they look! Gumby never looked this good, even when he originally aired. When Gumby aired in the 50s, he was shot in color but aired in black and white. In the 60s, they used prints off of negatives. Im using the a/b rolls that actually created the negatives. Theyve never been used at all. Its as if they were made yesterday. Ive transferred everything to high definition and then put it down for regular DVDs. In the future, theyll be ready for HD-DVDs. We have the highest quality possible. It looks more 3D than it ever has! I can see things Ive never seen before, like the texture on the set and the grain on the wood. Its amazing! Theyll be released in March [2006].

A production meeting for The Gumby Show takes place in the 1960s. The look of the show changed through the decades. The 50s episodes had a surrealist feel while the 60s featured a certain sophistication.

GR: As the Gumby shorts progressed from the 50s through the 60s and then the 80s, the storylines became more linear and borrowed more and more from Western literature and popular culture. Why is that?

JC: Well, they were different studios and different crews. My dad was in different phases of his life. The 50s episodes were more organic looking because Gumby was poured clay, made with rolling pins. Gumby was more in awe of Toyland and the various adventures he went on. There was more of a surrealist, stream-of-consciousness, trippy kind of feeling. There was more of the Vorkapich kinesthetic film movement in the 50s. My dad was fresh out of USC. He was fresh to explore the kinesthetic film principles and movement for the eye how the camera moves and how the editing is done.

Gumbys a different character in the 60s; youre right. When my dad produced the 60s episodes, they were definitely more sophisticated. Gumby would have adventures relying more on clever stories and gags based on traditional storylines. It wasnt as stream of consciousness or trippy. But it was still Gumby.

The 80s series had both aspects and was all over the map. They are definitely two separate eras between the 50s and the 60s.

When you see the 50s and the 60s episodes with their original soundtracks and especially when you see them restored, which nobodys seen ever, they look like completely different episodes. In about a month, were going to have them broadcast on the National Lampoons network across college campuses. College kids grew up on Gumby, and weve picked some cool episodes for them to check out.

Aspects of Art Clokeys personality are displayed in Gumby: Pokeys cynicism is Clokey in real life; Gumby represents optimism; Prickle shows his analytical side and the Blockheads (above) represent mischievousness.

GR: In addition to what Tim Burtons been doing lately, Ive also heard that Vinton Studios is now doing some stop-motion under Henry Selick. Does that in any way affect what you guys are doing?

JC: Absolutely not. It never has. We support stop-motion wherever its being made. Its a wonderful art form! What weve always done for 50 years with Gumby and Davey and Goliath is 223 Gumby episodes, 65 Davey episodes, six Davey specials, a Gumby feature film and a Davey movie that aired last Christmas. The characters my parents created are what our studio produces. When other studios do stop-motion or clay animation, we support it because it supports the art form of stop-motion. We are story driven just like Pixar. We are driven by telling Gumby stories. We are very much in the camp that clay animation has an appeal that cant be matched.

GR: Does your father have a favorite Gumby character?

JC: Well, theyre all him! Hes the voice of Pokey and Prickle. Pokey is his personality in real life more cynical and wanting to have an ice cream cone rather than go on an adventure. But Gumby is my dad too. Gumby is what my dad sees as the best parts of himself the optimism and the strong character. My dad really believes in character as power. Gumby represents my dads soul. Pokey represents my dads human form, as does Prickle because hes more analytical. The Blockheads represent my dads mischievous side. Its very telling. If you watch Gumby episodes, it opens up my dads psyche to the world.

Gumby is a part of Americana. His kind of physical humor like Laurel and Hardy, is timeless and he connects with kids.

GR: Is there any particular reason why you guys are pushing for this resurgence in Gumby right now?

JC: My mom Ruth and my dad Art wanted something of value for children. They still feel that way today. They said to me seven years ago, Our mission to you is to get Gumby back on TV, because they want kids to be able to experience the joy of Gumby episodes again. Thats why Im doing it. We want to produce a new movie. We have a couple new scripts. One is based on one of my dads classic scripts that he never produced. We have a new script that our studios creative team has made. Were excited about doing a new Gumby series and remastering the old series and getting them back on TV. The reason were doing the resurgence is because weve heard from thousands and thousands of fans that they want Gumby back on TV. Because they love Gumby.

GR: How does Gumby fit into the childrens mediascape as everything now seems to be dominated by edgier channels like Cartoon Network?

JC: But that was always the case. I mean Bugs Bunny and Road Runner were edgy too. Gumby wasnt competing with those shows. Gumby is a different world. In the 80s, Gumby was very 80s. He did lots of things that paralleled with the times. When you watch Gumby now, he will reflect the times and kids today. Gumby and Pokeys characters always stay in tact, but the adventures they have change with the times.

GR: You mentioned a forthcoming Gumby movie. Since Gumby was designed as a character for animated shorts, will the characters wit and charm be sustained across an 80-minute feature?

JC: Yes. Its funny, you know, back in 1956 and 1957 the first Gumby episodes produced for NBCs The Gumby Show were 12-minute shows with six minute shorts. Then in 1960, my parents cut them in half and theyve been two separate shows ever since. Im putting those shows back together when Im remastering them, back to their original 50s form. When I put them back together, there is a definite beginning, middle and end. Its like a 12-minute Pixar movie. So my dad was telling his stories like that when he originally made Gumby. Stories are always the most important thing.

Corpse Bride carries on the tradition of stop-motion. One source of inspiration for Tim Burton has been Gumby. © 2005 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

GR: In a best case scenario, what would be the best thing to happen in the world of Gumby over the next two years?

JC: The best thing is for Gumby adventures to be on TV, for a new series to be added to the old series and to make a series of Gumby movies. We have a lot of great scripts; Gumby has a lot to say in the modern world. What we want to do is become a full-time working studio where every few years were coming out with new Gumby adventures whether it be movies or TV shows. And then we could sustain that as they did in the 50s and 60s. There was a 15-year period where Gumby episodes were being constantly produced. We want to do the same thing.

Gumby has stretched now five decades. He is a part of Americana. Gumby connects with kids. He did back in the 50s and he does now. His kind of physical humor like Laurel and Hardy is timeless. Gumby has a bright future. Its a new era. We have a new studio with creative writers. The animation techniques will continue to improve, but the love and imagination behind Gumby will always be there.

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While it is clear that Gumby will return in 2006 and beyond, it is uncertain whether Gumby shows or movies that are not made by Art Clokey will again capture the hearts and imagination of children and adults everywhere. Nevertheless, Gumby has been a permanent fixture in the lives of Americas youth for the last half century, and it doesnt look like hell be going anywhere anytime soon.

Gerard Raiti currently resides in Los Angeles where he is pursuing a graduate degree at USC Annenberg School for Communication. He holds an MSc in global media and communications from the London School of Economics and a B.S. in English and music from Vanderbilt University. His recent research has focused on the globalization of Cartoon Network in Australia, Brazil and Italy.

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