When John Canemaker accepted the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2006, his speech was short but sweet. But he made sure to thank the Academy for their faith in hand-drawn animation, which he said "still can pack an emotional wallop."
Now, Canemaker, 79, is giving the Academy the original records from his nearly 50 years in the world of animation, to be preserved and shared with the film community and public. Though negatives of his films have already been stored at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, his work will now be available in the Academy Film Archive as well as the Margaret Herrick Library.
As for that emotional wallop, it is something Canemaker knows well: His Oscar-winning short film, The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation, was inspired by his relationship with his father. A writer, director and animation historian, Canemaker has also written more than 100 articles on animation history and eight books, including 2001's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation. And after 44 years of teaching, he recently retired from New York University, where some of his work is archived.
"We are super excited about his artworks as they are gorgeous, but there is also his research and documentation of animation history which is invaluable," Anne Coco, associate director of the Herrick Library's graphic arts collections, says. "His gift allows us to not only preserve the artworks that he animated, but in placing his career papers at the library, we are also carrying forward his work as a historian."
Below, Canemaker tells A.frame what to expect from the collection, as well as revealing the first animated film he ever saw and how he still connects with Disney's Nine Old Men.
A.frame: You have had such a long and varied career in animation. What was the first animated film you ever saw?
Canemaker: Gosh. It might have been Woody Woodpecker. But what really influenced me in terms of getting into animation was watching Walt Disney's Disneyland television show in 1954, 'cause Uncle Walt would show us how animation was done. I started to learn about who the animators were because of that program, like the famous Disney Nine Old Men. I wrote a book about them, but it all began back in Elmira, [New York], when I was looking at them on television, explaining how animation was made. Something like that changes your life.
You went to college after being a working actor. Why did you make that career shift?
It was like dominoes falling. I was an actor for 10 years, had done mostly TV commercials. Someone said, "Well, you've never been to college. Why don't you think about going to college?" So, I selected Marymount Manhattan, which was a college that would accept credit for being a professional performer. I had a teacher there — she was a nun — and she said, "You used to do this animation stuff as a kid, didn't you? Disney Studios has created an archive. Why don't you go out there and study Disney animation, and if you do, write a paper and I'll give you six credits." I said, "OK." For the summer of '73, I went out and they showed me around. That's where I personally met Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and the other Nine Old Men. I saw them working on their films. They just treated me so nicely.
How did those Nine Old Men support you as mentors?
Frank and Ollie were the guys who I really became close to. They came to me when they saw one of my films in Los Angeles — it was playing with something called the Tournée of Animation, which was a touring show that went all over the world — and they were stunned. They said they knew me as a writer. They said, "We didn't know you animated. When you finish your stuff, send it to us." So, for a number of years, they would do that.
I have a pack of letters that they would write to me, and they would say, "We don't wanna come down hard on you, but you really didn't do your homework on this one, and I didn't like the voice that you had and the character here." They were teachers. They inspired me when I became a teacher. I just retired from NYU after 44 years teaching, but every time I would get up to do a class, I would think, "What would Frank and Ollie say about this piece of work that the student's showing me?"
What would you say is the best advice you've been able to give your students about animation?
To not get discouraged, but to go further with it. To really research before you sit down to animate. If you have a character to do, you need to know who that character is. The Disney characters — Bambi and Captain Hook and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio — they really would delve into what made those characters tick. They knew them inside out, psychologically as well as physically.
What makes animation a unique medium? What do you feel it can convey that other kinds of filmmaking can't?
Animation is a wonderful art form that combines so many other art forms — dance, writing, music, performance, pantomime, acting — and I love all of it. I'm a Gemini! It can do anything. It can visualize thoughts. It can personify emotions. It’s a medium that really has no limits to it. The surface has just been scratched in terms of the subject matter that can be taken on by animation. In particular, American feature animation films are still primarily geared toward a child audience, but there's so much more. Animation is not a genre. Animation is a technique, and it's capable of doing any kind of genre. It could do horror, it could do noir, it could do romance. It can go further than it has gone in the past.
In your acceptance speech for your Oscar for The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation, you said you were grateful that the Academy had faith in hand-drawn animation to pack an "emotional wallop." Are you still a big believer in that style?
Yeah, I love hand-drawn. I think it's so direct. It's from my brain to my heart to my hand. It's a form of magic, which is an overused word, but it is a kind of magic where the inert comes alive.
You recently deposited your films and paper records with the Academy for use in the Film Archive and the Herrick Library. What stands out in this collection?
There's a lot of material. With The Moon and the Son, my Oscar film, the preliminary storyboards are in there, with a whole section on a diary that was written during the making of the storyboards in Bellagio, Italy. There's material on the Tribeca Film presentation of my work, called "The Animated World of John Canemaker," that was given in 2007. I did some films for the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) when they had the AIDS Dance-A-Thon benefit. There's material on Fantasia. There's a lot of eclectic stuff.
What is your ultimate hope for the materials?
My hope is that it will be useful for future scholars, teachers, and students to use. Since it is so eclectic, there may be a subject that they might find something they're looking for for their projects. The John Canemaker Collection at NYU's Bobst Library is something that's been used — numerous books from all over the world have come to the library, and you'll see a number of them have credited the library for helping with their research. I hope the same will happen with the Herrick Library, one of the great libraries of the world. I'm sure it will.
By Charlotte Walsh