Eli Noyes, Animator Who Turned Clay and Sand Into Art, Dies at 81

Eli Noyes, a filmmaker whose use of clay and sand in stop-motion animation garnered an Oscar nomination and shaped the aesthetic of Nickelodeon and MTV during the early days of cable television, died on March 23 at his home in San Francisco. He was 81.

His wife, the artist Augusta Talbot, said the cause was prostate cancer.

Mr. Noyes made his first film, “Clay or the Origin of Species,” in 1965 as an undergraduate student at Harvard. To the accompaniment of a jazz quartet, clay model animals whimsically portray evolution in the movie, which lasts just under nine minutes.

Though stop-motion filmmaking had existed for decades and clay was used in the 1950s to create animated characters like Gumby, directors and cinephiles credited Mr. Noyes’s rookie effort with reviving interest in the technique at a time when hand-drawn characters were more popular.

“Clay or the Origin of the Species” (1965), Mr. Noyes’s first film, was nominated for an Academy Award.Credit…via Noyes family

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated short subject.

“This recognition served as a tremendous boost to the credibility of clay as an animation medium, bulldozing a path for even greater works,” Rick Cooper, a former production manager for Will Vinton Productions, a Claymation film company, wrote in the journal Design for Arts in Education.

Peter Lord, a founder of Aardman Animations, the English studio that used clay in the production of the “Wallace and Gromit” films, “Chicken Run” and other popular animated features, recalled seeing “Clay or the Origin of Species” on British television when he was getting started as a filmmaker.

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