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Vinton was born on November 17, 1947, to a car dealer father and a bookkeeper mother in McMinnville, Oregon.
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.
Vinton received his bachelor's degree in architecture from UC Berkeley in 1970.
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 Academy Award 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.