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Eli Noyes, Pioneer in Clay and Sand Stop Animation, Dies at 81

Eli Noyes, the Oscar-nominated animator who revolutionized stop-motion filmmaking with his innovative use of clay and sand, has died. He was 81.

Noyes died Saturday of complications from prostate cancer at his home in San Francisco, Toy Story producer Ralph Guggenheim told The Hollywood Reporter. The two formed Alligator Planet in 2003 to create film, print and media works.

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As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Noyes received his Oscar nomination for his 8-minute animated film Clay or the Origin of Species (1965), which established clay stop animation as a genre and would influence the work of Wallace and Gromit creators Peter Lord and David Sproxton.

For two other short films, he employed sand animation for Sandman (1973) and pixelated stop motion for Peanut Butter and Jelly (1976).

Noyes later shaped the look and spirit of children’s programming in the early days of cable TV, especially for Nickelodeon. The rebranded network’s first show, Pinwheel, featured his animated pinwheels made with sand.

In 1983, he and animation producer Kit Laybourne launched Noyes & Laybourne Enterprises, an independent studio located in Soho in New York City. Their company contributed playful network IDs to Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite while creating animation for such shows as Eureeka’s Castle and Gullah Gullah Island.

And for MTV, they produced network graphics and animation for Liquid Television, a showcase series that launched Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head and Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux.

Eliot Fette Noyes Jr. was born on Oct. 18, 1942, in Amherst, Massachusetts. His parents were modernist architect Eliot Noyes (one of the “Harvard Five”) and interior designer Molly Duncan Weed.

After leaving college, he and Claudia Weil co-directed (non-animated) documentaries, including two in 1970: This Is the Home of Mrs. Levant Graham, a cinema verité look at a Black family’s life in a slum apartment in Washington, D.C., and Aspen: 1970, which revolved around a generational clash of architects.

In 1988, Noyes and Laybourne joined Colossal Pictures, known for its special effects and animation techniques. Noyes created Ruff’s Bone, a groundbreaking interactive CD-ROM product for Broderbund Software, at Colossal in 1994.

Noyes and his family had moved to San Francisco in 1991, and he would work on interactive projects at Pixar and with Disney Channel and Imagineers programmers to create Zoog Disney, an afternoon programming block for kids that combined TV and the internet.

He then brought that experience to the so-called “convergence network” Oxygen as creative director in the late 1990s. (Kit Laybourne’s wife, Geraldine Laybourne, co-created Oxygen Media.)

At Alligator Planet, Noyes was animation director on the Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009). And his “Go Green” stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, created in 2011, featured simple actions everyone can take to conserve natural resources and promote the health of the environment.

Survivors include his wife, Augusta; children Isaac and Abigail; and granddaughter Esme. Donations in his memory can be made to International Rivers or the Coalition of Natives and Allies.

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