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Claymation, wthout the clay

Inside the dark, mazelike expanse of Will Vinton Studios, dancing raisins, talking M&Ms and joyriding action figures are just part of the landscape.

On a dozen miniature sound stages, clay actors are posed and preened for each incremental shot. Tiny sets quickly change from Australian outback to junglelike inner city, and familiar faces are everywhere, including the oversized clay smiles of the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

It was here that the California Raisins came to life in the 1980s, launching stop-action Claymation as an advertising force that has led to hundreds of commercials.

But above the studios is a cavernous room, just as dark, filled with computer workstations where Vinton animators have begun working in an entirely different medium that has given rise to digital M&Ms without a trace of clay.

It is digital versus tangible, silicon versus clay, with the artist as diplomat arranging an alliance that has benefited both.

"No matter what tool you're using, you're doing creative work," said Gayle Ayers, one of the Vinton computer wizards who helped bring the M&Ms to life. "People want to see good animation, and they want to see good special effects, and whatever it takes to get them to that level will succeed."

Vinton has been spending most of the past year merging computers with Claymation to build the only studio of its kind outside Hollywood, with the aim of bolstering its core advertising business with more entertainment.

The latest project teams Vinton with Eddie Murphy and Fox Broadcasting to do the first "stop-motion" comedy for prime-time television, called The PJs, set in a housing project that is an island in a sea of urban misery.

Though Murphy will be there in voice only, it is his first TV series since NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Vinton, the grandson of a former governor of Oregon, saw his California Raisins spawn more than 200 products and make it into the Smithsonian Institution after starring in seven ads, including one with a "raisinized" Michael Jackson.

But Vinton said the raisins also pigeonholed his studio, and he began to feel like "a one-trick pony." About five years ago, he said he turned the studio into a business, instead of just a creative laboratory, to grow beyond his roots as an animator.

Saddled by management decisions that increasingly usurped his time as the studio grew on its success, Vinton created a board of directors that appointed a chief executive to run the daily business affairs.

Enter Tom Turpin, a former multimedia division chief for the Virgin Group, who has helped Vinton Studios nearly double in size in the past year while moving from clay stop-motion into computer animation.

"The challenge is to channel it and to focus it without undermining it," Turpin said of the barely controlled chaos that surrounds his tidy office.

With a Harvard MBA and a full head of hair that contrasts with the bald expanse of the pony-tailed Vinton, the pair are intent on just one thing: expanding the studio from production work to feature work.

"We have to exercise our creative muscles now," Turpin said. "We don't want people to think of us as just a production studio any more."

The PJs is the main venture into feature work, but the studio also is working on Klay TV for Fox, a set of comedy vignettes that includes the Jagger and Richards caricatures that animators joke have fewer wrinkles than the real items.

Even the advertising work has taken on an edge, such as a 1996 spot for Nissan with a G.I. Joe look-alike who takes a Barbie-like figure for a spin in a toy Nissan 300ZX.

"We're definitely going to be pushing the edge," said Mark Gustafson, an animator turned producer who directed the Nissan spot and is now part of The PJs team.

"This place has a chance to be really unique."

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