A History of Clay Animation

In 1917, the first female animator of any kind, New York’s Helena Smith Dayton, used real doll clothes and human hair to add realism to her clay depictions of fairy tales and classic literature, including Romeo and Juliet.

The B-Movie Guru

Jump forward a few decades to find another special-effects master interested in fairy tales. Ray Harryhausen made clay dinosaurs as a kid, then got his first job as a model animator on George Pal’s Puppetoons.

Later, assisting Willis O’Brien (the genius who in 1933 turned an 18-inch-tall cat fur-covered model into King Kong), Harryhausen worked on Mighty Joe Young in 1949.

In films like 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts (which includes the famous animated skeleton sequence that took 4 1/2 months to create), Harryhausen perfected his craft. In 1992, he received a special Oscar for inspiring an entire generation of animators and special-effects artists.

Harryhausen’s first employer, the Hungarian Pal, created the Puppetoon series for Paramount. “The NAACP thought they were racist,” says Frierson, “and they are. He mistakenly thought he was doing folk tales.” Pal used 100 carved wooden replacement heads to animate the characters. So not only did racial tension ensue, but also a controversy over just what is clay animation: If the heads are carved wood, is it still clay animation?

He’s Green, He’s Gumby

Meanwhile, with movies being replaced by television throughout the 1950s, Warner Bros. cut back on its cel cartoon output by a third, stopping completely by 1969. A less sophisticated made-for-TV style, by Hanna-Barbera, had taken over. The time was right for clay’s first superstar: Gumby.

“The whole motivation for making Gumby was to give children something of real value,” says the green guy’s creator, Art Clokey. “Gumby was expressing my love for children by telling stories from the heart.”

NBC gave Clokey a contract to produce a series from 1956-1963. Gumby and his orange horse Pokey became icons.

Not many people realize that Clokey was also the creator of another curious series of that era: the moralistic Davey and Goliath. “The Lutherans saw Gumby on WPIX in New York and called me,” Clokey says. “It was shown more than Gumby, actually. The church gave the films to the stations for free. It was an act of service to society.”

Gumby’s Long Shadow

Clokey, now 76 years old, is still zealously engaged in clay animation. Gumby has his own personality cult and was immortalized in an Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live.

Davey and Goliath references have recently popped up everywhere from The Simpsons and Mad TV to the work of Todd Haines, director of the glam rock chronical The Velvet Goldmine. (Haines also made the now-banned Karen Carpenter Story, a very dark comedy told with hand-held Barbie dolls.)

Finally, the prolific team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass produced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snow Man and several other holiday classics. Premiering on NBC in December 1964, the Rudolph special promoted the appliances of sponsor General Electric with a soundtrack LP featuring narrator Burl Ives. Rudolph and Frosty were big hits with kids, and the Rankin and Bass specials remain holiday perennials.

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