PORTLAND — In 2001, Jeff Auerbach found himself in the cigar lounge in the posh El Gaucho restaurant in downtown Portland. Nike co-founder Phil Knight was hosting a gathering to celebrate his entry into show business.
Auerbach had been recruited from Los Angeles to help run Will Vinton Studios, the stop-motion animation company. He’d recognized quickly that the company was in a death spiral. A couple of animated series made with Vinton’s “Claymation” process had been canceled, and the studio was flirting with bankruptcy.
After several years as a passive investor, Knight had gone ahead and purchased control of the company. Among the army of animators working for Vinton at the time was Travis Knight, Phil’s son.
“(For) Phil Knight the billionaire, it wasn’t a lot of money,” said Auerbach, who was president of Vinton’s studio at the time. “He was only doing it to support Travis and his coworkers. As a father, I really respected that.”
The deal marked the beginning of Travis Knight’s spectacular rise up the Hollywood pecking order. For Vinton, it was a humiliating end.
A new documentary premiering this weekend revisits the pitched battle for control of Vinton Studios, which ended with Phil Knight owning the whole business and Vinton cast out of his own company.
“ ClayDream “ premieres Sunday evening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will stream online for 10 days afterwards.
The movie draws on dramatic footage of depositions from the legal confrontation between Vinton and Knight, which pitted two of Oregon’s most prominent residents against one another, and on The Oregonian’s reporting on the saga.
Vinton had an Oscar for his 1975 short film, “Closed Mondays,” and a reputation as an imaginative, pioneering filmmaker responsible for the Claymation style of stop-motion animation.
But Vinton didn’t have Knight’s Nike fortune or business acumen. Indeed, Vinton later acknowledged that he wasn’t a savvy businessman and had left his studio in bad shape financially, despite a legacy that included the “California Raisins” ad campaign and “The PJs,” a TV show featuring the voice of Eddie Murphy.
“In the end, it was huge mismatch,” said Marq Evans, the documentarian from Bremerton, Washington, who made “ClayDream.”
“It’s an interesting story that many people don’t know,” Evans said. He shot interviews with Vinton over two years for the documentary.
Vinton looked back bitterly on those missteps and the risk he took by inviting Knight’s investment.
“I didn’t think the downside would be as deep as it was,” he told The Oregonian in the aftermath.
Behind the scenes, the fight illustrated the lengths to which Knight would go to get his way — and the enormous clout of Howard Slusher, the former hard-nosed former sports agent who went to work for Nike. Over the years, Slusher became a sort of bad-cop alter ego for Knight.
“He was Knight’s weapon, he was the tool for Knight to do what Knight wanted to do,” said David Markowitz, a prominent Portland lawyer who represented Vinton.
But others saw Nike’s billionaire as a literal white Knight, rescuing a flailing business.
“Phil saved the company,” Auerbach said. “He kept it out of bankruptcy and he allowed Will to stay.”
Well, at least for a while.
As originally envisioned, Vinton was to remain at his namesake studio even though he no longer owned the place. Vinton wasn’t happy with the new arrangement and let people know it. When word got back to Knight, Vinton was done.
In 2002, the animator found himself in a room negotiating his severance with Howard Slusher.
Knight offered a six-figure sum, and Vinton demanded 10 times that.
Vinton walked out with $50,000.
“I’ve never experienced a more terrifying process in my life,” Vinton told The Oregonian in 2002, reflecting on his negotiations with Slusher. “He would say, ‘Three,’ and you say, ‘How about 3.2,’ and he says, ‘OK, two.’”
Under Knight’s ownership, Vinton Studios became Laika, a Hillsboro animation house responsible for a succession of Oscar-nominated films. It opened the door for Travis Knight’s career as a studio executive and director — he helmed Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” then went to Hollywood to direct “Bumblebee,” the latest installment in the Transformers franchise, in 2018.
In the past three years, Travis Knight has been linked to a succession of Hollywood projects, most recently a Netflix vampire film called “Uprising.” Laika continues work on its next animated project — the title, plot and director haven’t been announced — and says it hopes to expand into live-action film, too.
Will Vinton, by contrast, tried to reinvent himself as an independent filmmaker and educator, teaching at the Art Institute of Portland and lecturing on animation. He died in 2018 at the age of 70 after a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer.
“I would like the work that I do to speak for itself, really,” Vinton told The Oregonian in 2005. “That would be my greatest wish.”
“ClayDream” is available to stream for $15 on the Tribeca website from Sunday evening through June 23.