During the 1960s, Vinton studied physics, architecture and filmmaking at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was influenced by the work of Antoni Gaudí. During this time, Vinton made a black-and-white feature-length documentary film about the California counter-culture movement titled Gone For a Better Deal, which toured college campuses in various film festivals of the time. Two more films about student protest followed, Berkeley Games and First Ten Days, as well a narrative short Reply, and his first animation, Culture Shock.
Meeting clay animator Bob Gardiner in the Berkeley, California area in the early 1970s, Vinton brought him to Portland and they commandeered Vinton's home basement to make a quick 1½-minute test film of clay animation (and the supporting armatures) called Wobbly Wino, completed in early 1973. Gardiner refined his sculpting and animation techniques while Vinton built a system for animating his Bolex Rex-5 16mm camera and they began work in mid-1973 on an 8-minute 16mm short film about a drunk wino who stumbles into a closed art museum and interacts with the paintings and sculptures. Completed in late 1974 after 14 months of production, the film combined Gardiner's sculpting skills and comedy writing talent with Vinton's camera skills. Closed Mondays won an Oscar for best animated short film in the spring of 1975, the first film produced in Portland to do so.
Vinton and Gardiner parted ways during the production of their second short film, Mountain Music completed by Vinton in 1976. Gardiner focused on producing PSA spots for local political issues (eventually evolving into other artistic media such as music and holograms) while Vinton established Will Vinton Productions (later Will Vinton Studios) in Portland to capitalize on the animation technology Gardiner had developed for their animated short Closed Mondays. Quickly expanding his studio by hiring new animators, Vinton produced dozens of commercials for regional and then national companies.
Still with only a handful of animators, Vinton produced a trilogy of 27-minute fairy tales in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Martin the Cobbler (1977), the Oscar-nominated Rip Van Winkle (1978), and The Little Prince (1979). These films were later released theatrically under the umbrella title Trilogy, and later to video as The Little Prince and Friends. In 1978 Vinton produced the documentary Claymation: Three Dimensional Clay Animation a 17-minute film featuring the behind-the-scenes technical processes used. The term "Claymation" was later trademarked by Vinton, and has become synonymous with clay animation in general.
Graduating to 35mm film, other short films were produced during this time: Legacy (1979), Dinosaur (1980), The Creation (directed by Joan Gratz, 1981, Oscar nominated), The Great Cognito (directed by Barry Bruce, 1982, Oscar nominated), and early music videos: a longform "video" called A Christmas Gift for Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Vanz Kant Danz (1987) for Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty. VHS video compilations of these films were released in the 1980s as Festival of Claymation and Son of Combo II.
Vinton, no longer performing animation himself, later produced special effects scenes for TV shows and movies, including a sequence for Bette Midler's Divine Madness! movie (1980), an Emmy-winning sequence for the Moonlighting TV series (1987), the opening and closing title sequences for the feature comedy film Brain Donors (1992), and his own feature-length movie, The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985). His studio's animation effects for Disney's Return to Oz (1985) were also nominated for a special effects Oscar.
Following his work on Return to Oz, Vinton was hired by the Disney studio to produce animation effects for their Michael Jackson Disneyland-Disney World film, Captain EO in 1986 (September 12, 1986) and the Speed Demon music video for Michael Jackson musical anthology feature-length film, Moonwalker (1988).
Prominent among his hundreds of now international commercial creations were the California Raisins, the Domino's Pizza Noid, and the M&M's Red, Yellow, Blue, Green and Crispy(Orange) characters.
The California Raisins' first big hit was the song "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" in the first of their series of TV spots for the California Raisin Advisory Board. They became such a media phenomenon that they went on to star in their own pair of primetime specials for CBS television, Meet the Raisins (1988) and The Raisins Sold Out (1990). A couple music albums of songs from the specials, produced by Nu Shooz pop-rock band leader John Smith were also released.
CBS also commissioned three more prime-time specials, A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1988, an Emmy winner), The Claymation Comedy of Horrors, a 1991 Halloween special, and A Claymation Easter (1992). All were later released to video and DVD.
During the 1990s, the Vinton Studios produced the animated series The PJs for the FOX TV network. The series was conceived and executive-produced by Eddie Murphy. Another animated series was produced for the UPN TV network by the Vinton studio, Gary and Mike, now a cult favorite. Both series used a refinement in Vinton's style of dimensional animation. Most of the clay figures were replaced by models of moulded foam rubber, eliminating many of the limitations, and maintenance issues, that are inherent with clay, which had been developed by Vinton and his technical teams as far as it could go. Vinton soon coined a new term for this process, Foamation.
In the 1990s a variety of Vinton's 400 + animators and technicians helped with new creations and films of their own using the Vinton facilities called the Walkabout Program. Craig Bartlett created his Arnold Escapes From Church short film (1988) which later spawned Hey Arnold!, a cel-animated series for Nickelodeon and generated two more clay-animated short films, The Arnold Waltz (1990) and Arnold Rides a Chair (1991).
The animated series produced for the UPN TV network by the Vinton studio, Gary and Mike was shot using digital video capture system developed for the production by two Vinton engineers Miegel Ginsberg and Gary McRobert.
The mid-1990s also saw Vinton adding computer animation to his output, used most visibly for his M&M's character commercials. A short CGI film, Fluffy, directed by Doug Aberle, was created during this time. Other CGI films — some combined with clay and stop-motion animation — soon followed. Vinton also briefly dabbled in a consumer user form of computer animation software called Playmation, co-developed by animation software writers based at a computer animation company, Hash, Inc., located across the Columbia River in Portland's sister city, Vancouver, Washington. Vinton and associates also dabbled in animation for the internet with a series called Ozzie the Elf.
By the end of the 1990s, the Vinton studio, seeking funds for more feature-length films, had become big enough to bring in outside investors, which included shoe company Nike, Inc. owner Phil Knight and his son, Travis, who had worked at the studio as an animator.
In 2002, Vinton lost control of the studio he founded after Knight became the majority shareholder and Vinton failed to garner funds for further feature production in Los Angeles, eventually being dismissed from the studio. Vinton later sought damages for this and sued for ownership of his name. In 2005, the successor to Will Vinton Studios, Laika, was founded. Premiere stop-motion animator/director Henry Selick joined the studio as supervising director.
Vinton has since founded a new production facility, Will Vinton's Freewill Entertainment, also based in Portland. Vinton is also associated with the Portland branch of The Art Institutes and maintains an office there as an artist in residence. The Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills represents Vinton for production projects. Projects include a graphic novel called Jack Hightower produced in tandem with Dark Horse comics. In 2005 Vinton produced The Morning After, the first short film under the new company. The film combines CGI and live action.
The moving image collection of Will Vinton is housed at the Academy Film Archive. The Academy Film Archive has preserved several of Vinton's films, including Dinosaur, Legacy, and A Christmas Gift.The Wild (2006) – executive producer
Brain Donors (1992) - segment director (Intro)
Moonwalker (1988) – segment director, producer: Speed Demon
Festival of Claymation (1987) – director, producer (compilation of short films)
Shadow Play (1986) – producer (live-action thriller)
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) – director, producer (Comet Quest: UK: video title)
Return to Oz (1985) – claymation director, producer (Academy Award Nominee)
Gone for a Better Deal (1982) – director, producer (live-action documentary)
Gary and Mike, TV Series 23:00 × 13 (executive producer) Prime-time Emmy Award Nominee
The PJs, TV Series 23:00 × 52 (executive producer) Prime-time Emmy Award Winner
The California Raisin Show, TV Series 23:00 × 13 (creative director, executive producer)
Klay's TV, TV Series Pilot (director, executive producer)
Slacker Cats, TV Series Pilot (executive producer)
Boyer Brother, TV Series Pilot (executive producer)
5 Cecille shorts for Sesame Street, 1:30 min. (producer)
Hammer Time short for Sesame Street
Adventures in Wonderland, (Caterpillar's Stories), 4 min. × 30 (executive producer)
A Claymation Christmas Celebration, 24 min. (director, producer) Prime-time Emmy Winner
A Claymation Easter, 24:00 (director) (executive producer, producer) Prime-time Emmy Winner
Claymation Comedy of Horrors, 24:00 (executive producer, producer) Prime-time Emmy Winner
The Raisins: Sold Out! The California Raisins II, 24:00 (director, producer) Prime-time Emmy Nominated
Meet the Raisins!, 24:00 (director, producer, executive producer) Prime-time Emmy Nominated
The Little Prince, 25 min. (director, producer)
Martin the Cobbler, 26 min. (director, producer)
Rip Van Winkle, 26 min. (director, producer) Academy Award Nominee
The Diary of Adam and Eve, 24 min. (director, producer)
Closed Mondays, 9 min. (co-creator) Academy Award Winner
Mr. Resistor, 8 min. (executive producer)
Bride of Resistor, 6 min. (executive producer)
Dinosaurs! - A Fun-Filled Trip Back in Time!, 17 min. (director, producer)
Legacy: A Very Short History of Natural Resources, 7 min. (director, producer)
Marvin the Martian in the Third Dimension, 13 min. (producer)
A Christmas Gift, 7 min. (director, producer)
The Great Cognito, 5 min. (director, producer) Academy Award Nominee
The Creation, 9 min. (director, producer) Academy Award Nominee
The Morning After, 7:30 (director, producer)
Mountain Music, 9 min. (director, producer)
Wobbly Wino, 2 min. (director, producer)
Culture Shock, 17 min. (director, producer)
Go Down Death, 10 min. (director, producer)
Claymation, documentary, 18 min. (director, producer)
Vanz Kant Danz (John Fogerty music video), 6 min. (director, producer)
The Lost ‘M’ Adventure (3-D short film featuring the M&M's characters), 12 min. (executive producer)
Xerox and Mylar, 5 min. (executive producer)
The Stars Came Dreaming, 12 min. (executive producer)
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), 8 min. (executive producer)