The Animated World of John Canemaker

by Mike Lyons


John CanemakerJohn Canemaker

With all John Canemaker has done in animation, it's difficult to find a title that fits him. He was once called "animation's ambassador at large" and that's probably as close as you'll get to a job description. Canemaker has brought animation's unsung heroes into the limelight, expanded the parameters of the medium and inspires those who are embarking on careers in the industry. He does this all for and with his enthusiasm for animation. "It's one of the great art forms of our time," he says. "It's an art form that incorporates so many other traditional forms to create a new one."

There is, however, much more to John Canemaker's animated world than just history and how-to's. Born in Waverly and raised in Elmira, New York, Canemaker grew up with animation and became so interested that he made his own animated film in high school.

After graduation, his life took a less animated path and he embarked on a career in acting. In 1961, John moved to Manhattan, where he found success in Off-Broadway, summer stock and over 35 national TV commercials. "When I was 28, someone said, 'Well, you've made all this money what are you going to do with it?'," he remembers. "They said, 'You've never been to college, why don't you go?'"

Enrolling at Manhattan's Marymount College at age 28, Canemaker met a professor who changed his life. Sister Dymphna Leonard heard that John had done some animation and offered him course credit if he'd travel to the Disney Studios and Archives to research and write a paper on the subject, which he gladly agreed to do. "I met all the Nine Old Men, who were all alive at that time," notes Canemaker. "They showed me films and I saw Albert Hurter's drawings and I flipped [the animation drawings of] the Mushrooms from Fantasia and I was gone!"

Ollie Johnston, Jeanette Thomas, Frank Thomas, Marie Johnston and John CanemakerLeft to right: Ollie Johnston, Jeanette Thomas, Frank Thomas, Marie Johnston and John Canemaker (on train) December 21, 1983 Flintridge, California
Photo courtesy of John Canemaker

The Felix the Cat Guy and ...
The trip provided John with full credit and something more. "It peaked my interest in animation," he says, "it whetted my appetite for it and I started to seek out the pioneers of animation." Shamus Culhane, J.R. Bray, I. Klein and Winsor McCay's assistant, John Fitzsimmons were among Canemaker's first interviews and during many of these someone else's name kept coming up. "Everyone said, 'You should meet this guy who did Felix the Cat. He lives in New Jersey, his name's Otto Messmer.'"

The meetings between Canemaker and Messmer would change both men's lives. "The first interviews were kind of interesting, because he hadn't been asked the questions I was asking, in a long time," John recalls. "It was as if the cobwebs were being whisked away from his mind. With each interview, he would remember more and get stronger." John reintroduced Otto Messmer to the public as the real genius behind crafting Felix as a personality. (In the 1920s, producer Pat Sullivan's name was the only one that appeared on the Felix shorts, while Messmer worked in quiet, creative anonymity.)

Unearthing all this information about the past initiated a new role for Canemaker, that of animation historian. Creating two documentaries on the subject, Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat and Remembering Winsor McCay, serving as on-air host for television specials and writing over 100 articles on the subject, John found himself whetting the appetites of other animation enthusiasts as well.

Marge Champion & John CanemakerMarge Champion and John Canemaker, 1994 ULAD Tutla exhibit, Katunah Museum
Photo courtesy of John Canemaker

Adding to the unquenchable thirst, Canemaker has authored six books on animation, three of which have been published this fall. The new paperback edition of Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat, (Da Capo Press) delves into life at the Pat Sullivan Studio; Tex Avery: The MGM Years (Turner Publishing) looks at what could almost be called "animation's Pagliacci", a man who brought the world so much laughter and yet led a very tragic life; and Before the Animation Begins: the Art and Lives of Disney's Inspirational Sketch Artists (Hyperion), explores those who set the tone and mood for some of animation's greatest films.

Not satisfied with just creating pretty coffee table books, Canemaker says he strives to uncover the background of the artist in his writing and how their lives impacted on their work. "I'm interested in the humanist aspects, the human story. These people's lives and careers to me are exciting. I've heard some people describe animators as almost being accountants; they sit there with pencils and there doesn't seem to be much going on in their lives, but I think you have to dig a little bit and find out who these people are, particularly the great animators. What makes them great? What elements went into it? Where did they study? Where did they get their ideas from? What was going on in their lives when they created the great works that they did?"

John Canemaker & Chuck JonesJohn Canemaker and Chuck Jones, December 11, 1991 at New York University.
Photo courtesy of John Canemaker

John Canemaker Productions
Ironically, Canemaker could ask these questions of himself, as he too is quite active in the creative process of animation. While attending graduate school at New York University, his animated film Greed (the story of a snail who tries desperately to be other animals) garnered enough attention that Canemaker soon found his skills sought after by others.

In 1981, he opened his own studio (aptly named John Canemaker Productions) and has since amassed an impressive body of work. His animation has appeared on such television shows as Sesame Street, in such films as The World According to Garp and in numerous commercials. In addition, John adds his skills to today's new technology, as an advisor at R/Greenberg Associates Digital Studios, where he helps root computer animators in the medium's traditions. Canemaker has also made several personal films, including his most recent, Confessions of a Stand-Up, which received an Emmy Award and director's prize from the International Animation Association.

Working in the creative end of the industry has given John a new perspective. "My being an animator has made me sensitive to the problems people face in their art form. It made me 'feel' the art more when I write about it."

It has also allowed him to push the envelope of animation. Some of John's finest work has been used to convey weightier subjects. In You Don't Have to Die, Canemaker's talents were used in this Academy Award winning, live-action documentary about an eight-year-old's struggle with cancer and in the Peabody Award winning CBS TV special, Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse, used animation to depict children's horrific tales of abuse. John states that this is the perfect use of animation, which can get inside "people dreams and fears" better than live-action. "I think it can express them in a way that is more intimate and interesting and perhaps, more insidious, than live-action."

You Don't Have To Die by John Canemaker

As Chair of the Animation Program at New York University, Canemaker conveys these limitless possibilities that animation can provide to his students. "I like the students to see the variety of work and techniques through the years. It gets them thinking," he says. "These are the people who are going to go out and create the medium and this gives them a background to perhaps find a place for their own work." John doesn't just limit his teaching to the classroom, through the years, he has traveled worldwide as guest artist, lecturer and jurist at studios, festivals and universities, sharing his knowledge.

In the past year, he has been everywhere from Brazil to Slovakia and from Disney to DreamWorks. Throughout his journeys, Canemaker is continually amazed by the public's enthusiasm for animation and the industry's current growth. "It really is like a rebirth," he says. "In a way, a generation who grew up with animation, being saturated with it and loving it so much, are now in power positions and I think that has enhanced the interest in animation. The videotape revolution came along and made the history of animation accessible; the proliferation of old cartoons on television has also helped people think of animation constantly. Now the technological revolution, computers, has made it possible to have all forms of animation. It's never going to stop."

Confessions of a Stand-UpConfessions of a Stand-Up by John Canemaker
© John Canemaker Productions, 1993

From that day when Sister Leonard sent John to the Disney Studios through today, it's been quite a ride for John, filled with many unexpected and wonderful twists and turns. What's the whole experience been like? "It just keeps going on. Everyday the phone rings and there's something new that people want me to do," says John. "I'm very happy because I'm utilizing my complete self and I'm doing it all in animation."

The ride, however, isn't quite yet over. In addition to teaching and lecturing, Canemaker is currently working on another personal film, Bridgehampton, and will soon start writing his seventh book, this one centering on Disney's Story Department. Many would call this overwhelming, but it's all part of the job when you're "animation's ambassador at large."

Michael Lyons is a Long Island-based freelance writer who has written numerous articles on film and animation. His work appears in such publiscations as Cinefantastique and Sketches, the official magazine of the Walt Disney Collectors Society.

The World According To Garp
Watercolor illustration for MGM's 1948 greeting card, depicting a caricature of Tex Avery and signed by several of his colleagues, an illustration for Canemaker's Tex Avery, The Great Animation Director from the Golden Age of the Hollywood Cartoon (Turner Publishing).

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