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How Will Vinton Lost His Studio to a Rapper Named Chilly Tee

Laika does amazing work as a stop motion animation studio, no doubt about it, but its history is mired in controversy. The company was built on top of Will Vinton’s eponymous Portland studio in a shrewd corporate takeover by multi-billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight. After Knight took control of the company in 2002, he placed a failed rapper named Chilly Tee with slight experience in animation, who also happened to be his son Travis Knight, in charge of the entire company.

The story of how Vinton Studios became Laika has rarely been told, or if it has, it’s been told from the glossy perspective of Laika. Now, we have a 5,000-word piece, “How the Father of Claymation Lost His Company” by Zachary Crockett, that tells the sordid tale from Will Vinton’s perspective.

My sense is that Vinton isn’t the naif that the story makes him out to be. He was the one, after all, who allowed Knight to invest millions in the company in the first place, and then continued to run a money-losing operation. The piece is nonetheless quite informative and fills in a lot of the gaps in the Will Vinton/Laika story. It’s also a valuable cautionary tale for any animation studio owner who has ever dreamt of having a rich businessman invest capital into their company:

On a rainy autumn afternoon in 2002, Will Vinton sat alone in a board room, reviewing his severance package.

His desk, now barren, had once displayed the emblems of a storied career: an Oscar, six prime-time Emmys, a slew of Clios and innumerable other honors. He had brought clay animation back to life. But his creations, once animated on silver screens, were now housed in cardboard boxes, frozen in various states of bewilderment.

Over thirty years, Vinton had built his firm, Vinton Studios, into a $28-million-a-year enterprise. He’d produced, directed, and brought to life the most memorable characters of the 80s and 90s — the California Raisin, Thurgood Stubbs, the “Red and Yellow M&Ms.” He not only coined the term “claymation,” but was its unheralded king.

And now he was in the board room, tracing over the language that seized his kingdom. Hours earlier, he’d handed over his company and all of its trademarks to Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The billionaire’s son, an animation intern and ex-rapper with no management experience, would be assuming his place.

  • Max W

    It’s a very well-written and informative piece, but depicting Travis Knight as nothing but an animation novice is just wrong. He’s animated on many of Laika’s projects and frankly, he’s an incredible animator. But the failed rapping skills I can’t comment on.

    • Max W

      Nevermind, here’s some commentary about the rapping.


    • AmidAmidi

      The article makes it clear that Knight had just 4 years of animation experience, a lot of it is an intern/low-level production artist, before joining the studio’s board of directors. Look, I’ve heard nothing but good things about Knight’s skills as an animator, but the reason he originally got a job at Vinton’s and now runs the company has absolutely nothing to do with his skills as an artist.

      • Paul N

        And how much production experience did you have before you were hired at Spumco? Were you hired on the strength of your work – clearly the best candidate out of a pool of candidates – or were you hired because of your name recognition and your previous writing on animation history?

        Four years is a decent amount of experience, even at a “low-level production artist” position. Yes, he’s on the board because dad bought the studio, but that’s hardly a unique event.

        Who you know (or are related to) happens in hiring all the time, and not just in the animation industry. At least in this case, Knight seems to be using the opportunity to create some great work.

      • Ant G

        I would bet majority of people ranking up in their respective industries, has nothing to do with how skillful they are at their craft but who they know and if the people with power likes them or not. It just so happens Travis Knight is the son of the majority share holder. So what? It’s more respectable to me than someone ranking up because he kissed a lot of ass, which is the most common story.

  • Beamish Kinowerks

    At least Vinton owns the rights to most of his studio’s films, though. I really hope he can get a proper restoration for THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    “It’s also a valuable cautionary tale for any animation studio owner who
    has ever dreamt of having a rich businessman invest capital into their

    No doubt it comes back to bite you in the end.

  • Snatchah

    he also runs the studio horribly if you take a look at glassdoor.

    • Erik Butter

      Reading those reviews makes me wonder how films like Paranorman and Coraline turned out to be good films…

      • winnie

        i actually worked there and can confirm that every negative review is pretty much spot on. its a pretty crappy place to work at.

  • Adam

    I’ll ignore the mean-spirited, muckraking headline, intended only to incite controversy and mock one of the animation community’s most talented members. That’s par for the course on this site.

    I’ll focus instead on this: despite how the Knight family’s takeover of Vinton Studios went down, in retrospect, it was clearly a great decision. Vinton was struggling, losing money, making commercials and mediocre television. Laika, under Travis Knight’s leadership, has become a groundbreaking film studio making movies that nobody else in the industry dares to make. Using technology nobody else dares use. Creating a kind of stop-motion beauty we don’t see coming from anywhere else. We should be grateful.

    In full disclosure, I’ve worked at Laika and with Travis Knight. He’s shown himself to be nothing but intelligent and fearless… AND, I might add, respected by the artists at the studio as a brilliant animator. I’d rather have someone like that running a studio than another number cruncher any day.

    As regarding his high school rap career: I don’t think any of us would want what we did as awkward teenagers to be what defines us as adults.

    • AmidAmidi

      I’d be fearless too if daddy gave me a couple hundred million dollars.

      • tony.b

        The first part of that sentence is true, but you should have stopped there, as the second part is unfair to Travis: he’s not responsible for his dad’s actions and moral choices, is he?

        • AmidAmidi

          That’s a question for an ethicist, but my personal feeling is this: If I understand that my father built his fortune from unethical practices, and I choose to use that money for my own personal gain, then I am guilty, too.

      • Satoshi Nakamoto

        Class envy? Nobody puts a gun to anybody to work for nike… unless governments that do put a gun to everybody’s head to collect taxes. Conditions overtime get better, those are poor countries, the result of corrupt goverments with a lack of respect for free markets and private property. Singapore, Honk kong are part of countless examples that capitalism, (not the fascist corporatism of most countries) works.

        • May1979

          Poverty will have you do lots of things you wouldn’t generally do.

          In any case, nobody put a gun to Phil Knight’s head and told him to operate sweat shops in developing nations, either. But hey, it’s about “free markets,” “property rights” (above human rights), and sneakers made by poor people abroad to be sold at high prices to poor people at home. Capitalism … It works!

          Now, let’s go back to talking animation again.

          • Satoshi Nakamoto

            we put a gun to your head to confiscate your hard earn money. statism and government, it works! Property rights is a human right. Those countries are poor because people can not own their land and corrupt governments force them out of them because corporations bribe them…so the problem here is not capitalism but corporatism…corporations are a legal entity created by governments…but keep blaming capitalism and misunderstanding it, that,s what trendy people that believe that they have the moral superiority do

          • kego

            You seem to think abuses of labor only came after corporations were allowed to form. You then blame government for the creation of corporations, and dismiss the fact that corporations are pursuing capitalistic goals when these abuses happen.

            How is it different when a wealthy capitalist does what a Corporation does? You imply that there is a difference.

            Who put pressure on governments to allow them to form? Capitalists and entrepreneurs who wanted to form associations, that’s who.
            And how are governments corrupted? What is the number one reason? Influence of the wealthy…in other words…capitalism.I am not against capitalism…but unrestrained capitalism is pure folly and is self destructive if government doesn’t interfere.

  • Toonio

    In corporate America, you can always count on nepotism to go up the ladder.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Should’ve learned that, though my dad’s profession wasn’t something to write home about.

  • Aaron R.R.R. Nance

    I think the real takeaway from the article linked above is that a rapper’s success will vary in inverse proportion to the temperature of his/her name.
    For instance, below is a non-scientific ranking of some of the top 12,350 rappers of all time:
    #1 – Ice Cube (undeniably a great rapper)

    #1262 – Vanilla Ice

    #12344 – Chilly Tee
    #12345 – Tepid Loc

    • adamoliver

      This is by far the best response to this post. My mind is awash with questions now…have any other rappers transitioned careers? Are there any name correlations related to their success, location or other measurable entity? I feel a TED talk coming on…

  • Taco

    Fact: That is a very good, timely and well written/researched article.
    Fact: Mr Vinton very worked hard for a very long time & it’s very sad that he didn’t get a better outcome.
    Fact: Travis Knight & the folks currently working at Laika seem to be doing nothing by great work, I’m sure it’s not all sunshine & rainbows, but their work speaks for itself.
    Fact: Phil Knight helped financially feather Travis Knights “NEST” and set him up Laika. Some families have truckloads of money, and such things happen. To a more or lesser extend an equivalent could be said of Lasseter & his boys, Catmull & his Daughter, etc… Most families that are financially able to will go out of their way to help support their future generations. The fact that we don’t all get a silver spoon in our transition from home to work & adult life just is what it is…

    I’ve been a fan of the old Vinton Studios & it’s new incarnation as Laika. I hope that Mr Vinton does something that puts him & his art back on the map. I hope Travis & all the talented artists & directors at Laika continue on their current trajectory and achieve even greater success.

  • The story behind this studio almost sounds like a documentary film waiting to happen.

  • schwarzgrau

    I don’t want to question the facts in this article, but it’s extremely corny opening, the title and the fact that they try to reduce Travis Knight to his high-school rapper alter ego feels a bit like cheap propaganda to me.
    But maybe I’m just a bit too skeptical.

  • Adam P

    Its an interesting story, and one I’ve never heard before. And as much as the idea of inheritance bothers me, you’ve got to admit he did a bang up job with it. If I had hundreds of millions of dollars, I honestly don’t think I would have been able to do it as well as he did. He could have easily sat and done nothing with his life, but instead he worked his ass off and made one of (if not the) best animation studios in the world. And anyone that animated the zombies coming out of the ground in Paranorman has serious skill. And like some people are saying, I’m sure we all did things in high school we’re not proud of :p

  • Psycho

    Coraline and ParaNorman were both financial disappointments for Laika. Hoping the upcoming film does much better, but the trailer promises otherwise.

  • Marc Hendry

    Laika are probably the best feature studio in the US at the moment. They might not make a billion+ dollars with each film, but they’re doing such fantastically different stuff than the usual mainstream American stuff that they’re really at the front of the medium. Even if it was a little unfair to put a seemingly under-experienced animator in charge of the company, he’s certainly not wasted the opportunity. It was a little cheap to paint Travis Knight as spoiled rich kid who’s never earned anything, and Vinton as an innocent artist who was silenced by ‘the man’. Vinton can’t have been naive about the business if he himself had been in business for 30 years.
    It seems like it was the best possible outcome from the situation.

  • Ant G

    Just reading his return to disney on his wiki page is enough to show how that turned out. He’s making a live action now after disney bailed on a stop motion he was making due to “creative differences”

  • Kickin Thakunt

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Defamatory, rude, or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

  • nevilleross

    Without Katzenberg, we wouldn’t have had the great movies we’d have (live action and animated) coming from Dreamworks. Yes, there have been some failures, but there have also been successes, too (commercial and artistic.) Are you pissy because Dreamworks didn’t do a R-rated animated movie with characters having sex? Or is it something else?