Frame by Frame
Published: January 6, 2011
Perhaps animators just don’t get the respect they deserve. Even after a half-century of cinematic auteur theory, we seldom talk about “the great animation directors.” For every Walt Disney or Chuck Jones, there are dozens of unsung creators – not to mention thousands of individual animation artists. They can create whole worlds from imagination – whether it’s cartoon animation or computer-generated imagery – while making sure we care about the characters, hardly an easy task. And only a few of the medium’s trailblazers ever get their due.
One of those unsung animation “auteurs” was Art Clokey. Except for the most engaged fans of animation history, few noted Clokey’s death on Jan. 8, of complications related to a bladder infection, at his home in Los Osos, Calif. A pioneer in clay and puppet animation, he is perhaps best known as the creator and voice of the green, clay humanoid character known as Gumby.
Born Arthur C. Farrington on Oct. 12, 1921, in Detroit, his brief childhood ended in a series of tragedies. His parents divorced when he was 8, and his father died shortly afterward in an automobile accident. He left Michigan to join his newly remarried mother in California, but was placed in an orphanage because his stepfather didn’t want him. Adopted by Joseph Waddell Clokey, a teacher, organist and composer of secular and spiritual music, young Arthur suddenly had opportunities to learn, travel and explore his artistic abilities. Back on his family’s Michigan farm, he’d made clay figurines out of a mud and clay mixture he called “gumbo,” but now his adoptive father taught him to draw, paint and shoot film, and took him on trips to Canada and Mexico. The young man changed his name to Art Clokey and hardly looked back.
After serving in World War II as a reconnaissance photographer over North Africa and France, Clokey found himself in Hartford, Conn., studying to become an Episcopal minister – until he met and married a minister’s daughter, Ruth Parkander. Instead of preaching from the pulpit, they felt they had a better idea, even if it sounds a bit hokey today: making films to spread the gospel. They rushed out to California, and Clokey enrolled in night film classes at the University of Southern California where he studied film under movie magician Slavko Vorkapich. Famous for making haunting montage sequences with complicated cinematographic techniques, including lap dissolves, superimpositions, mattes and fades, Vorkapich was eloquent and passionate about using cinema to test the creative boundaries of the imagination.
It must have left quite an impression on Clokey, whose class project, a three-and-a-half minute film titled Gumbasia – a take-off on Disney’s Fantasia – broke new creative ground with pulsating, growing and shrinking pieces of colored clay set to jazz. When the father of a fellow student saw the film, he proposed funding a short film of this clay animation – a technique that would, in 1976, be trademarked as “Claymation” by animator Will Vinton. Recalling the strange clay figures he’d made as a boy back in Michigan, Clokey fashioned a thick-footed, green character designed to be easy to pose and animate – Gumby. Gumby’s trademark uneven head was inspired by an old photograph of Clokey’s biological father as a boy, an unruly cowlick sending a shock of hair up on one side.
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