Published: December 22, 2010
FRAME BY FRAME
Art Clokey Animator, creator of "Gumby"
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 made 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, as well as taking 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, where 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 entitled 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 stand up and animate — Gumby. As for Gumby's trademark uneven head, that 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. (The homage suggests tender feelings for his dead father, despite his obvious love for Clokey the elder.)
When the animated short aired during an episode of The Howdy Doody Show, Clokey became a pioneer of TV animation as well, leading to The Gumby Show in 1957.
Although Gumby was a decent character who struggled to do right in the face of strange adversaries and wild antics, Clokey still dreamed of using film to promote a Christian ethos. Then, in the late 1950s, Lutheran churches suggested such a series. This culminated in the somewhat hokey puppet animation series Davey and Goliath, in which Davey wrestles with ethical and moral issues, assisted by his talking dog Goliath. If seen at all today, the characters are often given a heavy satirical treatment. (In one Simpsons episode, a puppet animation show called Gravey and Jobriath has an ersatz Davey gearing up to bomb an abortion clinic, for instance.) But the show did deal with complicated issues, including racism, religious intolerance and mortality. Even in today's ironic age, it harks back to when children were more innocent and religion was somehow less shrill. What's more, the techniques pioneered by the show were later adopted by the technicians of Rankin-Bass, creators of the TV special Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
In addition to The Gumby Show and Davey and Goliath, animation jobs just kept coming Clokey's way, ranging from stop-motion commercials to animated title sequences for major films (1965's Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, among others). Meanwhile Gumby had become an enormously popular flexible toy. Still, by the late 1960s, it seemed Clokey's glory days had passed, his television work seen mostly in reruns at odd hours.
Then, in the early 1980s, Eddie Murphy's skits on SNL brought Gumby back into the spotlight. Casting the kindly green naf as a cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed rascal, Murphy roared, "I'm Gumby, damnit!" Though Clokey didn't completely approve, the cultural reference resonated, bringing newfound attention for the little green man. Soon, Gumby dolls were back on shelves, and Clokey found backing for fresh ventures.
Starting in 1988, Clokey directed almost 100 episodes of Gumby Adventures for TV over the next 14 years, and made Gumby: The Movie in 1995. Clokey broke no new ground artistically or thematically, but — much like his adoptive father and his old USC film teacher — he seized the chance to take a new generation of animators under his wing. More than half the animators who worked on Tim Burton's the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) had labored on Gumby productions under Clokey's guidance. His disciples worked on classic stop-motion productions, including James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone, and many would go on to work for Pixar, Disney and other computer animation studios, and on such projects as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Corpse Bride and Coraline. Onetime Clokey animator Timothy Hittle, for instance, created the animated sequences for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
> Email Metro Times staff