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ClayFighter Behind the Scenes Interview with Ken Pontac

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Ken Pontac getting punched by Taffy!

During the early 1990's, video games were becoming a major outlet for the entertainment.​ Nintento, SEGA, arcades across the country and the emergence of personal computers created a new industry. Around 1992, the creators of the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat used digitized photos of actors (called sprites) for all their game animations. This way of integrating real world physical stuff into games sparked new ideas on how to get puppets in games too!

Many people might have heard that Danger Productions worked with Interplay to create much of the first (and later) characters, but there are a lot of gaps in understanding how it all came together. For example, did you know that little known John Lemmon Films was also involved? Or that there were many characters that never made it into the games?


Below is my interview with two creators of the famous game, Ken Pontac and John Lemmon. You will also find some never before seen exclusive images from Ken's ClayFighter and Harley's Humongous Adventure scrapbooks!

ClayFighter (SNES) Full Playthrough by NintendoComplete

Q: Thank you Ken Pontac for taking our interview about your work on the ClayFighter (SNES) and Clayfighter 63 1/3 (N64) games. Back in the very early 1990's, stop motion in film was already a well established, but it was brand new in video games. Before we get into the games, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your studio Danger Productions at the time?


A: Yikes. I could write a book. Danger was formed after David Bleiman Ichioka and I left Gumby (actually, were FIRED from Gumby, but that’s a whole ‘nother book) and sold a stop-motion/live action pilot called The Danger Team to ABC. We started on Clayfighter after the pilot flopped, and during that period sold Bump in the Night to ABC. The studio grew from a handful of people in an office to a hundred artists and animators in a giant warehouse. It was an exciting time for a couple of relative youngsters!

Q: How did you initially get involved with Interplay and Visual Concepts for the ClayFighter game series?


A: Owen Klatte and Angie Glocka had both worked with me on Gumby when I was the art director for that series (and they would subsequently work with me on future projects). They’d done the animation for Claymates, and when another project called Harley’s Humongous Adventures came along they handed the animation over to us. VC wanted Harley’s bosses to be digitized clay sprites, and we were told to make the designs as over the top as possible. Challenge accepted! I’ve included some of the designs from my old journals and the only notes we got from VC was MAKE THEM WACKIER. Nobody’s ever seen these images in print, so you are SCOOPING THE WORLD if you publish them.


Anyway, VC and Interplay were so happy with the way the big clay sprites came out they commissioned us to come up with the Clayfighter characters and animation. The Harley characters were basically proof-of-concept.

Harley's Humongous Adventure game was the proof of concept before ClayFighter

Q: When it came to the over-all story behind the characters your studio created, did you have a lot of input and creative freedom? Or were most of the ideas already set in stone by Visual or Interplay?


A: The smart move with Danger Productions was (and will always be) to give us a general direction and let us run with it. They handed us a copy of Streetfighter that we weren’t supposed to show anybody because of some kind of international double secret probation law or something. I think Greg Thomas had to smuggle the cartridge out in his butt on a plane back from Japan. If memory serves his butt was already stuffed with baby snow monkeys targeted for an exotic animal collector in Florida, so he had to crap standing up for a week afterward.


I don’t remember anything about anything being set in stone except for some technical specifications that are above my pay grade. I don’t understand how these newfangled thinking machines work. I blame our schools.

Q: When you agreed to work on the project, did you face any technical challenges in meeting the needs of the gaming companies since your studio was primarily a stop motion studio?


A: See above for my general ignorance about our Machine Overlords (blessed be their circuits, please don’t terminate me). I know we had some ridiculous pixel limitations, but with the right lighting we were able to achieve a look that was unique for its time.

Q: Were there any key artists at your studio who created the look and feel of both the characters and sets?


A: David and I designed all the characters for the original game, as well as many for the subsequent games. Josephine Tze-Huan Huang was instrumental in the sculpting of the various Blob incarnations, as well as other characters. Ralph W. Miller III and Doug Post were also on board as sculptors. Ken Willard handled most of the animation.

Q: Which character in the first game was the most challenging to create?


A: Everything in stop-motion is challenging! It’s one of the dumbest ways to make a movie there is. Ickybod Crane went through multiple incarnations before we nailed him down. Taffyman was a pain in the monkey-smuggling butt to fabricate because the material we used to make him wasn’t designed for the contortions we put it through.

Q: The different puppets movements and actions all reflect their unique personalities. How was animation done and was working out the game mechanics a straight forward process?

A: It was all basic stop-motion animation treated as if each character was a sprite. They typically started from a neutral pose, went into their move, and returned to neutral. The game mechanics were handled by VC, but we worked with their programmer on each frame so we could get the best sequencing. For some reason Interplay didn’t want us to help them sequence the animation assets we sent them for ClayFighter 63 1/3 3 and the animation suffered because of that. Suffered GREATLY. It looked like fucking dogshit. Very disappointing.

An animator animates Boxer, AKA Tiny for the ClayFighter Game

Tiny's iconic punch pose gets photographed by Ken Willard

ClayFighter Theme MP3

Q: Were the sets all digitally drawn later as game assets, or did your studio create any if them three dimensionally?


A: All sets were done out of house. It would have been sweet if Danger made ‘em.

Q: With regards to the box art featuring Bad Mr. Frosty, Taffy and Tiny, John Lemmon Films in Charolotte North Carolina ended up creating the final design. I only know because I worked there right after the game was released and saw the puppets and airbrushed background. Since you had the puppets already at hand, why weren't you a part of that process?


A: Somebody decided we shouldn’t be part of that process, I guess.

Q: According to Wikipedia, Interplay went with another studio to create the second ClayFighter game called "Judgment Clay". The site goes on to say that when Interplay used the sprites from the first Clayfighter in their new engine, Jeremy Airey described Tiny as "best looking character in the game". Why were you not involved with the second game, and was the realization by Jeremy partially why they asked you to work on the later ClayFighter 63 1/3 game in 1998?


A: I can’t speak to Jeremy’s mind, or I’d know why he didn’t want us to help sequence the assets on the third game. Danger was deep in production on Bump in the Night at the time, so we subbed the game out to an old pal from our Hollywood daze (spelling intentional; it was the ‘80s), Terry O’Brien, and his studio. We looked over his shoulder and consulted on some of the characters, but it was his show to run. We were winding down Bump when 33 1/3 needed to be produced, so we took the reins again.

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Ken Willard animates Taffy's leg stretching kick move!

Q: When ClayFighter 63 1/3 was being created, you had mentioned that working on this title was different than working on the first release. Particularly in how the characters were animated. Some people also point out that it was visually a different looking game alltogether from the first game. Can you talk a bit about that and any challenges that were unique to the game?


A: I think any visual differences came from advances in technology in the years between the first and third games. Our animation and sculpting chops had improved over the years, which may have contributed to a different look. That being said, some of the visual differences might be from the badly-sequenced animation. Character-wise, Interplay had more input on the designs in this game, some of which I hated. The Asian stereotype character made me shudder with disgust then and I shudder still. I fought hard against its inclusion, but there he sits like an un-woke turd yammering his cringy gibberish.

Challenge-wise, I honestly can’t remember. If anything, it should have been easier. We had a whole crew of animators and artists fresh off a two-year run on a stop-motion TV show.

Q: Earthworm Jim (also by Interplay) by Doug Tennaple is one of the characters in the third ClayFighter game. Did your studio team up with Doug for CF 63 1/3?

A: Nope. It would have been fun, though. Inspired character. Inspired game.

Behind the Scenes ClayFighter (and 63 1/3) gallery courtesy Ken Pontac

Q: Doug Tennaple also worked on the Dreamworks game Neverhood that came out in 1996. Did you have a connection to that games in any way, and do you think Steven Spielberg was inspired to work on Neverhood after seeing ClayFighter?


A: No connection with Neverhood, except thinking it’s gorgeous. It’s flattering to believe that Spielberg is even aware of Clayfighter. Dude’s got a lot on his plate.

Q: There is a cult-like following of the later version of ClayFighter 63 1/3 called ClayFighter the Sculptor's Cut. It is selling for upwards of 150,000 dollars on ebay! I was kind of shocked, but this has to be one of the most expensive video games you can currently get. Did your studio get the call to create all the funny fatality animations from the Mortal Kombat Series after finishing the main game?


A: Yeah, I wish I had a copy or two of Sculptor’s Cut. Anybody who wants to sell their copy and (hopefully) up the value can contact me through you. I’ll sign the thing with a little drawing of Frosty or some shit, they can sell it, I’ll take 10%, and everybody’ll be happy!


I remember Danger did the little cavemen animations for Primal Rage, but we were doing Clayfighter at the same time and I had no input in the animation.

Q: I know most people will wonder, what ever happened to all those puppets you guys made back then. Do any still exist today?


A: I was contacted by a dealer a few years ago and sold every one of my puppets, props, and sets for a very satisfying price. This dude has a collection worth millions, and my guys will be cared for and respected for a long time. If anybody reading this has any props, puppets, sets, etc. that have been in front of the camera they can contact me and I’ll put them in touch with the guy.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts on the game series looking back at it after all this time? Was it an over-all positive experience?


A: Working on ClayFighter was a great experience in the early days of my career. It’s gratifying and humbling that people who weren’t even born when the game came out seem to love it. I was just a few days ago contacted by Lorenzo Volpintesta, who created this amazing film just for the love of it:

 ClayFighter Sculptor's Cut 2024 Tribute by Lorenzo Volpintesta

A few years ago a 30-something year-old ClayFighter fan at a convention told me, “DUDE. My brother and I used to fight over your shit!”


It doesn’t get any better than that.

You can talk to Ken on Facebook by clicking here. He also has a LinkedIn here.

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John Lemmon Films Logo

Interview with John Lemmon

John Lemmon Films Studio House

The humble North Carolina studio where the ClayFighter box art was born.

Below is my interview with John Lemmon. In the mid 90's I was hired to work with John, Mike Rosinski and a small team of artists on a variety of TV commercials. While I worked there, I remembered seeing Bad Mr. Frosty, Tiny and Taffy on a shelf in one of the rooms. Propped up behind them was a flat piece of airbrushed background art. I immediately recognized that it was for the ClayFighter box art. In this interview, John reveals how they got to work on the project.

Q: Hi John, Thanks for taking my questions about the ClayFighter game by Interplay and Visual Concepts. Can you give us a little background about your previous studio and what you achieved there?

A: A short 16mm sci-fi film was our first foray into clay animation. That was started in 1982. We completed the film, called “The StarChasers in the Trontium Tusk“ in 1984. I showed that film to the director of advertising for Food Lion supermarkets, and he hired us to create a clay “Food Lion” character and animate two TV spots. From then until the end of 2018, we created character animation for TV commercials, educational videos and games. For years we specialized in clay animation, and we were always thrilled if we completed 3 seconds of animation in a day. Later we expanded into 2-D animation.

Q: Just before the first ClayFighter games release in 1992, Interplay was working with Danger Productions to create the designs, sets, puppets and animation. How did your studio come to be a part of the ClayFighter game?

A: Our only part in the ClayFighter game was creating the cover art for the game. Interplay contacted us and we had a  short turnaround time to do all the steps involved. Just a few days.

Q: Did your studio ever communicate with Danger Productions and Ken Pontac about the designs for the cover art? Or did they give you creative freedom to come up with a fun idea for the puppets and poses?

A: We didn’t work directly with Danger Productions. Interplay gave us pretty specific direction on what the cover should look like.  I think they gave us screen grabs from the game for us to go by, so those must have originated with Danger.

Q: Who was the designer and air brush artist to create the background scene behind Bad Mr. Frosty, Taffy and Tiny?

A: Interplay gave us specific directions on the background. The artwork was created using airbrush. The artist was Ethan Summers of Charlotte. The backdrop was about 36” x 24”.

ClayFighter Game Box Art

The ClayFighter box art by Mike Rosinski and Ethan Summers.

Q: I believe that the puppets used in the game were primarily made of foam latex at Danger, while the puppets you made were made of clay. Do you think that Interplay wanted you to create the cover art since you were known first and foremost as a clay animation studio?

A: Yes, they wanted a clay look for the cover art, so our focus on clay animation must have appealed to them.

Q: Can you recall the process that was used to make the puppets or what type of clay you used at the time?

A: At that time we used Pongo clay exclusively for all our clay character. It was made in Italy. There was a fairly simple wire armature under the clay. My business partner, Mike Rosinski, created the armature and sculpted the three models.

As soon as the models and background were complete we lit the set and took 2 1/4 photographs -  no digital still cameras back then - and FedExed the photos to Interplay. On our end, this was a very old-school, analog process.

Q: Do you know if the puppets or background still exist somewhere hidden away to this day, and have you thought of preserving them if they did?

A: Everything’s gone. The two clay models hung around our studio for a few years, but their feet were made of, well you know the rest.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts about the time you spent working on the project? Was it a positive experience?

A: It was a fun project, but....


we certainly had no idea at the time that the game would become such a cult classic.

Video Game Magazine cover featuring Bad Mr. Frosty from ClayFighter

Bad Mr. Frosty (Sculpt by Mike Rosinski) was also featured on Video Games Magazine

John Lemmon Films no longer exists, but you can find John's current business website by clicking here. He invented a tool for the iPad called ReadyANIMATOR which assists students in drawn and cut-out animation.

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