Feat of Clay

Using its "claymation" technique, Will Vinton Studios has pioneered award-winning ads and innovative TV comedies. But its greatest art is combining creativity with a dirty-fingernails approach to getting the work done.

These days, if you want to win at business -- any business -- you need original, compelling answers to two connected questions: How do you come up with creative ideas? And, once you come up with those ideas, how do you implement them? Increasingly, work and competition exist along the boundary where ideas meet execution -- and where soaring creativity meets tough-minded business logic. If you want an animated lesson in how to combine those elemental forces, then visit Will Vinton Studios, in Portland, Oregon. It's a company that blends colorful, raucous, freewheeling artistic creativity with focused, rigorous, dirty-fingernailed business discipline. Run by Will Vinton, 52, and Tom Turpin, 40, Will Vinton Studios serves as a model (some might call it a "clay" model) for all companies that are struggling to define the principles that are necessary to sustain a high level of creativity, to run cost-efficient projects -- and to make a lot of money in the process.

It's a mixture that Vinton has been wrestling with for more than 25 years -- ever since his "Claymation" technique (which uses clay, rather than illustrations, to create animated film) garnered him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1975. The Oscar earned Vinton immediate attention, along with a rush of offers to create television commercials and other projects using Claymation. But, despite the huge amount of work that he was getting, Vinton knew too little about the business of animation. "I was an artist, and the only people I hired were fellow artists," he remembers.

In the 1980s, Vinton and his team produced some of the most memorable advertising spots on television -- ads for Domino's Pizza, Kraft Foods, Levi Strauss, Nickelodeon, and, perhaps most notably, California raisins. By the time Will Vinton Studios hit the 20-year mark, in 1995, it certainly looked like a business: It had more than 100 employees and a roster of blue-chip clients. But Vinton knew that the company had been focusing too much on art and too little on commerce. "For a long time, the only thing that we cared about was whether it would be fun to do the work," Vinton says. "Whenever we took on a project, we failed to ask whether that project would make us enough money to build the infrastructure necessary to do longer projects in the future."

Then, in 1997, Vinton brought in Turpin (a Harvard MBA and a former Goldman Sachs banker) to build business practices that would support the company's artistic goals. Soon enough, the blend of art and business began to pay off: Will Vinton Studios is now producing a second season of "The PJs," a weekly "Foamation" comedy on Fox that stars Eddie Murphy as the voice of a housing-project superintendent. (Foamation is an animation technique that's similar to Claymation -- but it uses foam instead of clay.) And sometime this year, a second Will Vinton Studios-produced comedy, "Gary & Mike," will premiere on the same network. The creative burst has been matched by commercial success. Over the past three years, the company has chalked up an enviable financial record: Revenues have grown at a compound annual rate of 50%, and the company is starting to see profits (in previous years, it usually had just broken even) . And, over the past two years, the number of employees has tripled, bringing the total to 400.

How have Vinton and Turpin joined hands to knead together art and commerce, creativity and discipline? By implementing effective project management, by learning to manage artists -- and by managing to have an edge.

It's All about the Projects

"Toy Story." "The Lion King." "The Simpsons." By the mid-1990s, animation was the hot way to make movies and television shows. But Will Vinton Studios was mostly making commercials. "We didn't have the efficiency required to make larger projects," says Vinton. "In terms of talent, we genuinely felt that we were the best company in the world. But we didn't have the management chops to produce high-quality work on a low-enough budget." The only way to get a shot at the bigger jobs that the company wanted, Vinton realized, was to bring discipline to the way that it went about handling projects.

The pivotal challenge came in 1997, when Hollywood producer Ron Howard called to pitch an idea for a Foamation series that Eddie Murphy had dreamed up: a humorous look at life in an urban housing project. Vinton and Turpin flew down to Los Angeles for a meeting, and eventually they agreed to produce a pilot for the show, which was titled "The PJs" . Fox picked up the series, and suddenly the company had to figure out how to produce an innovative series on a tight budget -- not an easy task, given that the economics of Foamation are unlike the economics of any other kind of animation.

What's the best way to control expenses -- to bring them down from $250,000 or $500,000 per minute of film (which is how much Vinton usually spent when doing commercials) to something closer to $50,000 per minute? According to Turpin, the real trick is to make sure that the team producing "The PJs" doesn't fall prey to Hollywood-itis. "When you watch the filming of live-action programming, it's amazing to note the number of stars and other highly paid people who stand around doing nothing all day," Turpin says. "We wondered what would happen if we removed every single idle moment from our own production schedule. Would doing so burn out our animators? We hoped to convince them that, because they were our most valuable resource, they shouldn't have to wait around all the time."

Turpin's idea led to the creation of a production staff that precisely choreographs every minute of every workday. That team maps out each moment of each episode on the "Big Board," an enormous chart that shows which animators will use which characters at which moment on which stage during every minute of every 10-hour workday. On the Big Board, the staff can post 63 simultaneous schedules involving dozens of people and hundreds of characters -- as long as it first runs a series of computerized conflict checks. "We've taken FileMaker Pro to places where it's never been before," says Ollie Green, 27, scheduling supervisor. "I often feel like I'm an air-traffic controller. I look out at all of those stages and think that this must be what it's like to land 100 planes on time every hour."

The Art Is in the Artists

So what is Vinton's biggest insight, the one that gives him a huge edge in the war for creative talent? He knows that none of his artists really wants to be working for him in the first place. "It seems that the kinds of artists we want to attract all have a strong desire to do their own work," Vinton says. "That's especially true if you're feeding them a steady diet of commercials."

To attract the very best artists, and then to give them plenty of reasons to stay, Vinton has instituted programs and policies that are designed to show his support for the artists he hires. The Walkabout, for example, is a program that allows employees to take a 13-week paid hiatus, or Walkabout, that gives them the time and the freedom to work on their own projects. Every year, the program results in two or three short films, as well as many other personal projects. The logic behind Vinton's decision to implement the program is unassailable: The best people will find a way to produce their own films, whether he wants them to or not. So why not make it harder for them to leave his company by encouraging them to produce projects of their own on his premises?

Vinton has also created a policy that allows animators to use any of the company's equipment at any time -- as long as it's after regular business hours. That way, employees can continue to work on their own projects, even after a Walkabout. And, like the Walkabout program, this policy lets employees know that the company understands their passion for the art of filmmaking.

Turpin suggests that such freedoms are a part of a human-resources approach that any company might want to consider. "Every organization values creativity," he says. "But creative people need a huge amount of variety in their lives. So why not encourage it? The biggest moneymakers in any organization are always the people who know how to be different."

To Have a Competitive Edge, You Need to Have a Creative Edge

Turpin's comment on the value of being different may sound strange, given the amount of TV-commercial work that Will Vinton Studios has done. After all, the hallmark of most advertising is a kind of inoffensive blandness. "All agencies have guidelines for characters," says David Altschul, 54, president of Vinton Studios's advertising division, who joined the operation in 1982. "And those guidelines always read exactly the same way: Every character should be endearing, energetic, and likable."

The characters that Will Vinton Studios has created tend to violate that principle. "We try to understand what kind of world the characters live in, who the other characters are, and, most important, what conflicts exist between them," Altschul explains. "What are their flaws, their vulnerabilities? Without knowing those things, it's hard to tell a story that engages the audience." The company's characters tend to have an edge; they're more likely to be mischief makers than rosy-cheeked heroes. And, as a result, they stand out.

A classic example of this philosophy at work is a commercial that Will Vinton Studios did for Nissan -- a 60-second soap opera that aired in 1996. In the spot, which was made using stop-motion animation, a fatigues-wearing male doll escapes from the clutches of a giant monster, drops to the floor, and hops into a miniature Nissan convertible. To the tune of Van Halen's version of "You Really Got Me," the hero races down a hallway to a little girl's bedroom, where he promptly "rescues" a beautiful redhead from a preppy-looking male figure wearing a tennis sweater. The hero and the girl then jump into the convertible and drive away. (The spot was creative to the point of controversy: In 1997, Mattel sued Nissan, claiming that the company had appropriated the images of Barbie, Ken, and GI Joe.)

Trying new things consistently pays off on a show like "The PJs." Not only do the show's characters look different from anyone else on television, but they sound different as well. "With animation, you can be a little more dangerous in the way that you treat the material," says Mark Gustafson, 39, supervising director of the show. "Viewers will often accept something coming out of the mouth of an animated character that might appall them if a real person said it."

Even Will Vinton himself occasionally falls victim to his company's blending of make-believe and reality. On a recent tour of the prop shop on the ground floor of the company's headquarters, Vinton picked up a pear from a worktable and prepared to take a bite. Only when he held the pear in front of his eyes did he realize that it was made of latex.

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Visit Will Vinton studios on the Web (www.vinton.com) .

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