Beginning a three-part series, Joe Strike spoke with famed animation historian and filmmaker John Canemaker about his early career and how he got into animation.
When it came time to visit John Canemaker, I decided to bring my copy of his excellent Winsor McCay biography for him to autograph which I cleverly managed to leave on the bus on my way to his west side Manhattan apartment.
Fortunately, the book found its way to the bus depot where I was able to retrieve it later in the day. The mishap failed to put a damper on a fascinating interview with perhaps the hardest-working man in animation an independent animator with a unique, personal vision; one of the best known and most respected chroniclers of the medium; and the driving force behind the animation program at New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts. Several times during the interview, John talked about tackling an overwhelming challenge by telling himself things will work out a philosophy that might seem simplistic were it not coupled with an unforgiving work ethic.
I first met John in the early 1980s when I was working on the educational childrens series The Great Space Coaster and arranged for The Wizards Son, his tale of a magical generation gap to run as part of the show. Fathers, sons and their problematic relationships occur and reoccur in Johns work. With , an intimate portrait of his volatile father (and at 28 minutes, his longest work to date) recently completed, a man who has conducted no small number of interviews found himself on the other end of the microphone
The Early Days
Joe Strike: Where did you go to school? Did you have an art background?
John Canemaker: No, we were not an art family, we were rather poor. I actually took watercolor classes when I was in high school in Elmira [a small town in upstate New York].
JS: So you always had an artistic streak.
JC: Yeah, I always drew. I was always trotted out to the relatives, Oh, draw Aunt so and so. I was also into animation. I was in my pre-teens, maybe 12, when I started a film about Horace Horsefly. He was a round character, easy to draw. I had no idea how to get cels, so my mother and father who both worked at a hospital brought home old x-rays for me to use. Wed wash off the images and I would ink and paint on them. There was a certain blue tint left over from the x-rays that you can kind of see in the little piece of the film thats in The Moon and the Son.
JS: Your dad built you an animation stand for the film.
JC: He also made an animation table for me to animate it on. It was based on plans that were in the Preston Blair book.
The Horace Horsefly thing never got completed it got bogged down in production. I did finish something called Animation, Its History and Usage.
JS: It sounds very serious.
JC: It was. It was long for its time, it had a lot of live action. I had been fascinated by a history of animation I saw on the Disneyland TV show; they showed Felix the Cat and went way back to the beginning. I kind of took from that and made my own version. I think I ended up with about a 10-minute film.
JS: Did you incorporate footage from these cartoons?
JC: No, I was sort of recreating them or drawing things of my own cavemen did this, and the Egyptians did this.
But when it came time for college I felt that I didnt have the smarts and I knew I didnt have the money. That was a totally closed avenue for me. I didnt know how to get in. Nobody in my family ever went to college. Meanwhile, people are getting acceptances right and left, and I never even applied. So what was there? Nothing.
I remember being turned down for a job on a TV station in Syracuse and weeping in the back seat while my folks drove me back to Elmira, thinking I had no future. I didnt know what I was going to do, so I thought I would just escape from Elmira, come to New York and be an actor.
I arrived with 60 bucks in my pocket. My parents dropped me off at the YMCA. I was a doorman at Radio City Music Hall, and a singing waiter in Greenwich Village. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for one year. I did four off-Broadway shows in 1964 and then started to do TV commercials and then got drafted. I was at Fort Dix for two years, working in Special Services. I helped put on shows for the servicemen. I also booked big bands like Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.
I came back and saved some money and decided to pursue TV commercials as a performer. I did about 30 national TV commercials from 1969 through 1971. I did a kids show on CBS called Patchwork Family, in which I drew pictures.
JS: What kind of commercials were you in?
JC: I did one for Foster Grant sunglasses with Cybill Shepherd. I did Armour Hot Dog commercials; I was the Armour Hot Dog Man with Joel Greys voice singing on the soundtrack, running through the park with 60 children behind me with hot dogs. I did a series of 15 musical commercials for the American Dairy Association as one of The Energetics, we all danced.
JS: I would think the acting experience contributed to your skills as an animator. Theres an expression, an animator is an actor with a pencil, but if you know how to emote to begin with youve got a head start.
JC: Around that time I somehow got interested in animation again. Someone said to me Youre making all this money from these commercials I got residuals every time they were shown What are you doing with all your money? You should go to college.
With the GI Bill and my savings, plus getting life experience credit, I went to Marymount College starting in 1971. That opened up a whole world for me. I was 28. I took up communication arts sort of a catch all for whatever I was doing. Id started to write because I had to do papers, and discovered I really liked writing.
Then there was a very dynamic nun named Sister Dymphna. She said, You used to do this animation stuff. Ill give you six credits if you go to the Disney studio and do a paper on their animation. Well of course Id love to do that I learned animation from watching the Disneyland TV shows in the 50s. She found out that the Disney archives had just opened, and contacted them. They said, Fine, if your student wants to come out here, well be happy to have him. I knew enough about Disney already, I knew who the Nine Old Men were, that sort of thing.
JS: You knew the questions to ask.
JC: I went out in July of 1973. I met all the Nine Old Men except John Lounsbery, but I saw him from a distance. They were so great. They took me to Ward Kimballs home, who had recently retired we rode on his big train. I had a great interview with him, which I used 27 years later when I did the book on the Nine Old Men. In fact a lot material in the book came from that trip. It was when I first met Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and we became close friends for the next 30 years.
It was a great trip; then I came back to New York. I remember sitting in my studio apartment with my shirt off, sweating with no air conditioning, writing my 200-page paper on an old typewriter for which I got my six credits.
JS: Did you get it published? Two-hundred pages sounds pretty substantial.
JC: It wasnt that good it was one of my first efforts. The interviews were okay, that was interesting. But it did spark my interest in mainstream animation. I thought Ive got to find out more about this. I started to contact some of the old animators in the New York area, like Shamus Culhane. He told me John Bray is still alive. Hes 94 why dont you go and interview him? Hes in a nursing home in Bridgeport. I did an interview with him, then I found out about Otto Messmer, who created Felix the Cat. That led to my interviewing him and doing a documentary about him, and eventually the book.
The film came around in a funny way. I was coming back from a film conference in a car with a few other people. Someone said, Im inspired, I want to do a film about such and such, and I said, I want to do a film about the creator of Felix the Cat. He asked, Why dont you? I said, Well, I dont have a cameraman, and he answered, Im a cameraman. I said, I have to have a sound person. I do sound someone else in the car said. It was sort of like Mickey and Judy putting together a show.
Anyway, I started to write about animation and send off articles from the Disney paper that I did. I learned to write much better than I had before through working with great editors over time. And I loved to do research for the books.
Ive been lucky in that I did find the right kind of people, interesting people to interview. One thing led to another. I also had a dual track there of making animated films as well as writing about them. It kind of happened around the same time, part of the same reawakening of my childhood interest in animation.
While I was going full time to Marymount during the day, doing the TV show on the weekend along with the occasional commercial, I decided to go to night school at School of Visual Arts. I took an animation course there and completed a little film called Greed. It was about a snail who wanted to be something else and metamorphoses into different things; I think he eventually became a bird and was eaten by a cat. It was a little one-minute thing, but it actually led to jobs. I became a journeyman animator here in New York and worked on a lot of Sesame Street pieces and other work.
I got the animation bug. I had to make personal films as well. There were a bunch of other young independent animators around New York who got to know each other. We started to meet in our living rooms and show our work. George Griffin, Kathy Rose, a whole bunch of folks. We were all crazy about animation. We were competitive; we admired each others work. It was a lively, vital time.
At the same time I kept doing personal films, Confessions of a Stardreamer [an actresss giddy yet often poignant, self-revealing monologue], stuff like that. I started entering my films in festivals and winning some stuff. I began actively soliciting animation work from other people, and I was still doing the history thing. There were times when I thought, Oh my God, what am I doing here? Should I really be spending my energy on this history stuff which takes a lot of time to find people, interview them and then find a publication? I finally said, Its happening, Ill just go with it and be thankful that there is all of this activity.
When I graduated from Marymount, which was in 1974, Dymphna said, Why dont you go to graduate school? Ill write a letter to NYU for you you should go to graduate school and continue to make these books. She was incredible. I got into the graduate film program at NYU and went there for two years.
JS: Did you study animation?
No, I studied film, film production. There wasnt and there still is not a department of animation at NYU, there is a program within the film and television department. For my thesis I decided to do a documentary about Winsor McCay. I interviewed McCays assistant John Fitzsimmons, who provided the history.
JS: You actually track down these folks it must be a bit of detective work.
JC: A lot of it is luck or just asking. So many of them were around and available at that time.
JS: If you travel in a circle of animators, theres always somebody who knows somebody.
JC: Things happen serendipitously. There was an early animation festival here that made me the artistic director. With only a year or two of experience I got to meet Chuck Jones. Frank Thomas came to be one of the judges. It was like falling into things, you have to be accepting and ready for them.
In the meantime, Dymphna told me about a position open at Regis High [a Jesuit-run school in New York City] for a film teacher. I went to the head of the school and said, Im an animator, I can teach about animation. I started teaching at other places too, on the history of animation, and also on production.
Then I graduated from NYU and became the animation editor of Millimeter magazine. All of this was going on when Camera III [a CBS-TV Sunday morning arts and culture showcase] came to me because I was doing Patchwork Family and asked me to host a show they were doing on Warner Bros. animation. They put it on one of the Looney Tunes DVD collections. Jesus Christ, its scary to look at that show now I had hair out to here and I was wearing a flower power shirt.
All of this was going on, and then I got a book contract from writing an animation column in Millimeter. Id written a piece on Dick Williams Raggedy Ann and Andy. I proposed a book about the film because there were so many interesting animators working on it veterans like Art Babbitt, Tissa David, Emery Hawkins, plus all these up and comers, Eric Goldberg, Tissa David; Mike Sporn was the head of the in-between department. A lot of people got their starts on it.
JS: Thats the only animated feature Ive seen where the animators got star billing right after the movies title.
JC: This was the first book Ive ever written. Im scared to death and about to sign the contract. How do you do a book? I read something recently thats sort of my basic philosophy even though you dont know how its going to occur, if you have an overall feeling that everythings going to work out, even if you dont know the details, it usually does. Opportunities come up; you dont want to turn them down. The book on the Nine Old Men came in there somewhere, and God, I didnt want to turn that down.
JS: How do you select a book topic?
JC: Sometimes the subjects are brought to me. The Nine Old Men was brought to me, I was asked to do books on Tex Avery and . I proposed the Raggedy Ann book, the Treasures of Disney Animation Art book, Winsor McCay, the inspiration sketchbook called Before the Animation Begins and Paper Dreams, which was about storyboards. I wanted to do those books. But youre offered another project and you just cant say no to stuff.
If you go back to my first visit to Disney and you spend a whole day with Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, and get them to talk about things theyve never talked about God, what an opportunity.
Check back next month for Part 2 of AWNs interview with John Canemaker in which he discusses his career as a teacher, his experience on The World According to Garp and the influence of Walt Disney.
Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.