Feat of Clay: The Forgotten Adventures of Mark Twain
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.
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.
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…
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.