Tuesday, January 12, 2010

With Art Clokey’s recent death, I though it would be appropriate to post an interview piece that is included in my book, “Escape: How Animation Went Mainstream in the 1990s.”

This piece was originally published in 1995.

He’s lean, green and, now, is going to be a star on the movie screen. Art Clokey’s Gumby has been a staple on television since the character’s debut in 1956 on the Howdy Doody Show. Now, the clay-animated character is on his way to theaters for the first time in Gumby - The Movie.

The movie’s release capitalizes on Gumby’s newest success in television, a show on Nickelodeon featuring both older episodes and ones produced in the mid-Eighties.

“Years ago, they thought Gumby had had it. It would just come and go like fads. Fortunately, we got a chance to make a new series back in 1986 and ‘87. They combine that with the old ones on the present Nickelodeon show” explained Clokey. The Nickelodeon show has received solid ratings from both new and older fans.

Indeed, Gumby has maintained his place in the American pop culture for almost 40 years. The original episodes were widely syndicated after their network run, and then enjoyed distribution on home video. Gumby merchandising has almost been a constant in the marketplace for years. Clokey, more than any other animator, has popularized the medium of clay animation.

Clokey who had wanted to produce a feature, took the profits from the television deal to underwrite the feature, which he and his wife Gloria produced in their Marin County, CA studio.

“We did the movie in 1988, ‘89 and ‘91. We just finished some of the post-production a few months ago,” said Clokey. Since the Clokeys were financing the feature themselves, Clokey reported with pleasure that they could work “like humans” on the film with a schedule of 8 hour days, instead of the 14 hours demanded by the new television work.

The movie was a family affair with Art Clokey co-writing, directing, and storyboarding the film while his wife Gloria also co-wrote the script, did the set breakdowns and wrote some of the songs. Art performed three voices, including that of Pokey, while Gloria was the voice for Goo, one of Gumby’s friends.

Those looking for another animated musical fairy tale will be disappointed. Gumby - The Movie is indeed animated, and has music, but follows the style long established by Clokey. As anyone who has watched Gumby can tell you, Gumby is..well..different than other animated characters. Clokey’s sense of the abstract and surreal and his strong religious and moral beliefs produce a singularly individual animated film.

In this case, when was the last time you saw an animated film in which cloning, rock’n’roll and low interest loans were key plot points?

Producing the new television episodes provided the Clokeys with a way to find the talent necessary for a feature film.

“We were able to train animators on the new series we did in 1986-88. We had 18 animators. We found them from all over the country and trained them,” explained Clokey.” That’s why the new series is uneven in its quality. Some episodes have good animation and some don’t. Lorimar [the company] who was financing the series wanted to have it done in 18 months. Well, we did it in 20 months. If you realize the 99 episodes we did was equal to six to eight features films, you see we couldn’t be very perfectionistic in our shooting.”

The feature film was made under different conditions.

“We picked out some of the best animators to do the movie after we did the series. We had all the equipment, studio, and artists and so on to do the movie. The first version was completed in 1992, and since then we’ve made changes and the last changes were made about six months ago. We improved the soundtrack and got a new composer, and did some editing and so on. We added a song over the end credits so people won’t want to get up out of their seats.”

Gumby - The Movie is an independent production which is being released by a small New York-based distributor, Arrow Releasing, Inc. Clokey could have gone with a larger distributor, but decided against it.

“Warner Brothers and Universal both registered some interest in distributing it. Warner Brothers wanted to put Eddie Murphy in it, and Universal wanted to change the script too much. So we passed them by and decided to do it ourselves.”

In this time of computer-generated animation, Gumby is comfortably and reassuringly low-tech in many ways. Gumby and his co-stars are still wire-reinforced models made of the clay-like modeling compound plastocene. While Gumby the character has proven to be durable, Gumby the model is not. Eighty to ninety Gumby figures are used to make a single television episode.

While much remains the same, Clokey noted there have been changes to the production techniques.

“The big changes were in the new materials, the new plastics that came out in the time between we were making the old series and the new, like styrofoam, and foamcore board and various types of tape. One of the things we used that we never used before was a motion controlled camera. We had the camera mounted on a device that was controlled by the computer. We could program in exact movements we wanted the camera to make.”
Something else new for Gumby is a girlfriend named Tara, which Clokey points out means “star” in Sanskrit. This kind of detail, and a strong moral core are some of the most appealing aspects of Clokey’s work. His background and interests are reflected in his films, but Clokey said it’s not deliberate.

“It comes out of my subconscious when I’m writing a script, it’s almost like daydreaming. The subconscious is a very spiritual place sometimes,” Clokey explained.

“No, we don’t set out to make a moral issue. It just happens spontaneously. I was brought up going to be an Episcopal minister. After graduating from the university, I went to seminary in Connecticut, but after the first year I decided I didn’t want to be a minister in the Episcopal or any church. I, what you might say, fled to Hollywood where I could make religious films. I couldn’t make religious films there because I had to be a member of the union to get into any of the production companies.”

Calling himself “an idealist,” Clokey recalled that for the first seven years of Gumby’s run, he would not allow any merchandising because he wanted the character to be “a gift to children and not exploit children.” Clokey also produced the religious animated children’s show Davey and Goliath, underwritten by the Lutheran Church, for a decade.

Clokey has maintained a deep interest in the world’s religions, and has been particularly involved with the teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a guru from India. In fact, Clokey attributes much of the new interest in Gumby to an event that happened in 1979 when Clokey went to India to meet Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and the religious leader blessed Gumby. Gumby - The Movie is dedicated to this teacher.

What’s next? Arrow Releasing has announced an October date for the distribution of the video of Gumby - The Movie, and Clokey has already completed the script for the next Gumby feature, Gumby II.

I don't believe Clokey ever got the second feature off the ground.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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