EVERY TIME a California Raisin blinks an eye, there's a human being with a hunk of clay and a dental tool -- or maybe the top of a pen -- to make him move. At least a dozen times in one second of a finished commercial, that human being will readjust that clay raisin.
It may be just an eyebrow, finger, thumb and lip.
It may be a whole new facial expression.
The human beings who do this are called clay animators. One of them is Michael McKinney of Portland, Ore.
"It takes a strange combination of patience and obsession," says McKinney. "You are working in a time warp. Hours are passing by and you're doing fractions of a second."
A day's work may produce three seconds -- or less -- of finished film. A 30-second commercial takes from eight to 15 weeks to complete, with from three to 20 animators working on a single commercial, he says.
Now a free-lance animator and teacher, McKinney went to work in 1987 for Will Vinton Productions of Portland, creators of The Raisins and the word "Claymation," its trademark. McKinney first worked on "A Claymation Christmas Special," which began as a project for apprentice animators and ended up as a half-hour CBS-TV special.
McKinney will share his "behind-the-scenes" knowledge of clay animation and some of the Vinton productions during workshops this weekend at the Cloisters Children's Museum. McKinney is traveling with an exhibit of Raisin favorites -- including The Robot from the newest commercial and Raisin Ray Charles -- on its way to a permanent home at The Smithsonian Institution.
Baltimore is one of only six cities where The Raisins are stopping on their way to Washington.
In his workshops, McKinney will show how clay animation happens. He will let children make their own clay characters and present "a little pageant," he says.
"It doesn't break the magic" to know how it's done, McKinney says. And there is, in fact, a trace of wonder in his voice as he talks about clay animation, which he's played with most of his life.
"I was always surrounded by clay," says McKinney, 37. "I used to make my own clay animals and army men. The ones I bought weren't flexible enough." In college and after, he experimented, usually in a garage somewhere, with clay animation. "I used to teach [elementary school] by day and animate by night."
Even today, "clay is my favorite shared medium," he says. "It's such an immediate form of sculpture.
"You get to watch them [the characters] emerge in the clay," he says. Actually, in clay animation, they emerge three times.
First, in the design, through sketches and clay, until a master character is developed. Often this "reference character" will have as many as eight different faces to show the range of its expressions. McKinney has designed characters and he has also worked with others' designs. Either way, "it really is magic," he says.
Then, the characters emerge on the set, as the action proceeds, hair-split second by hair-split second. This is where an animator "breathes life into" the clay figure, taking it from a mannequin to a character.
The character -- sometimes there are multiples of the same character with animators working on them in tandem -- takes on the characteristics of its animator. "You can't keep yourself out of your character; all animation is autobiographical," McKinney says.
At last, the characters emerge on film -- not videotape -- when animators look at their day's work, all three seconds of it. "You see it come alive in front of your peers. That's a scary moment," he says.
A production usually begins with a script. While the characters, sound and sets are being developed, storyboards showing every scene are drawn. Animators also use "reference footage," that is, a film made of live actors and dancers playing the roles of the clay characters.
Once the master character has been sculpted, animators form the characters they will use on skeletons or in molds. They use a wax and oil-based modeling clay, called plasticene, that has been stored for two years to let the oils blend, he explains. To get a variety of colors, animators melt and mix basic colors in a double boiler, following formulas they have developed.
The finished characters are about 8 inches tall, with a surface that stays flexible.
Although McKinney considers clay animation an art form that is here to stay, "it is still a strong commercial medium," he says. "Commercials have underwritten the art form."
Clay animation is expensive. Each second costs about $6,000 to produce, McKinney says; the tab for a 30-second commercial averages $200,000, though it can go as high as $1 million.
Clay-animated commercials, especially The Raisins, have also created a demand for more -- and more sophisticated -- productions. For instance, the "Michael Raisin" commercial, featuring Michael Jackson, used some of the same special effects as full-feature films and took 75 people, including Jackson himself, to produce, says McKinney.