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: