Pop Geeks’ Flashback Interview: John Canemaker
We all love animation here, but I don’t think any of us, writer or reader, love animation as much as my next interview subject. John Canemaker is both an animator and an animation historian. As an author and documentary filmmaker, he’s written extensively about animation powerhouses like Disney and Warner Brothers. As an animator, his work has been seen on shows like Sesame Street and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, as well as at film festivals the world over. He’s even won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, an honor accorded him for his short The Moon And The Son: An Imagined Conversation. Here’s a highlight reel of Mr. Canemaker’s work over the years from his YouTube channel:
Now that you’ve watched that, get ready to meet the man who created those wonderful animations and so many more. It’s time to Flashback again.
Say hello to John Canemaker!
John: Hi. It’s John.
Johnny: Hello, Mr. Canemaker. It’s Johnny Caps of Pop Geeks. How are you today?
John: Good. How are you, Johnny?
Johnny: I’m doing good. Let me get my questions. Before anything, I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this.
John: It’s my pleasure.
Johnny: I always start off my interviews with these two questions. The first is: What were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
John: My favorite movies, when I was growing up in Elmira, New York, included a theatrical reissue of The Wizard Of Oz. I remember I was also scared to death of Vincent Price in The House Of Wax, the original 3-D version of that from 1953. I loved 1956’s Forbidden Planet with Joshua Meador’s hand-drawn effects animation of the monster. My mother took me to Cukor’s A Star Is Born in 1954, and later to Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, which gave me an appreciation of music and mayhem. There were also the Disney animated features, of course. Alice In Wonderland I remember from 1951, and Peter Pan in 1953. The one that made the most impression on me was the reissue of Disney’s Fantasia in 1956. That film really stayed with me over a period of many years, and it’s really my favorite of the Disney features. I think also television was a big influence at that time. It was new, and it kind of changed our viewing habits in America, and particularly in our household. We used to have an early dinner watching the Mickey Mouse Club. Of course the Disneyland TV show was terrific, with Walt Disney personally showing how to make animated cartoons. That made a big impression on me. He also did a section on the history of animation at one point that, I think, also influenced me. So much that I’ve done since I was a kid resonates from that early period of movies and television that I saw.
Johnny: Alright. The second question that I always ask is: What were your high school days like?
John: Well, they were interesting in terms of my trying to find a niche for myself. I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school, except when I drew my cartoons. I was the one they would come to to make posters for the plays and for the dances and stuff like that, so there was a measure of popularity connected with it. I also performed in high school. I did plays and I also directed some shows. I was finding a creative outlet for my different talents, which I’m really grateful for.
Johnny: Alright. You spent time in the Army. Did your entertainment skills help you during your service?
John: Yeah. They saved my life, as a matter of fact (Laughing). I was an actor before I was drafted into the Army in 1965. I was drafted, and that was during the beginning of the big call-up for the Vietnam War. I had been an actor. I came to New York when I was 18 in 1961, proceeded to study acting at the American Academy Of Dramatic Art and the HB Studio (Liza Minelli was a classmate), and eventually started getting work off-Broadway, summer and winter stock, and mostly in TV commercials. I eventually did about 35 national TV commercials when I was an actor for about 10 years. But in the middle of that, I was drafted into the Army. They recognized my professional experience as a performer in film and in the theater, and there happened to be an opening at Fort Dix, where I did my basic training, for someone who could work in the Special Services sector, organizing and producing shows for the soldiers, booking big bands like Duke Ellington, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and other performers. It generally kept me from going overseas, so I can say that my background in theater and such did help me in the Army, and my drawing skills as well. I designed sets and costumes for the plays that were put on, also for Special Services.
Johnny: Okay. What made you decide on animation for your film-making as opposed to live-action?
John: I was fascinated by animation from a very early age. The Disneyland TV show, in which Walt Disney showed us how to create animation, was a big influence, and also Walter Lantz, who had a show called The Woody Woodpecker Show. He was our second “Uncle Walt”, who showed us how to make animated cartoons come alive with flip books. Eventually, there was an animation kit that was sold at Disneyland, and I sent away for it. I think it was six or seven dollars, but you got a small animation board with registration pegs and a piece of glass in it. You could put a light underneath this, and draw on two-holed punched paper, which they also supplied. You could start to make your very own cartoons, and eventually I did. When I was in high school, I made an animated film, had it shot on 16mm film, and it lasted about ten minutes, and ironically it was about the history of animation, which (laughing) I totally stole from the Disneyland TV show, which had presented its own version of the history of animation. So I was really only interested in animation, rather than live-action, and still continue to be. There was also a profusely illustrated animation history book published in 1958 written by Bob Thomas, titled Walt Disney – The Art of Animation, which I loved. It greatly influenced me when I began writing my own history books, twelve so far, two decades later, starting with The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy in 1977.
Johnny: Okay. You animated several pieces for Sesame Street, most memorably The Angry Goat. Were you involved with making the music of that short, like several other filmmakers were for Sesame Street, or was it just the animation part of it you were involved in?
John: That’s correct, Johnny. It was just the animation part. The music, design and the direction were by Derek Lamb, a wonderful animator and director. He gave me one of my first professional jobs in animation, and one of them was The Angry Goat. As I say, when I was an actor for 10 years, I ignored animation when I came to New York, but then, after the Army and through the G.I Bill, and also with money I made through appearing in TV commercials, I put myself through college at the age of 28. A teacher at Marymount Manhattan College, where I got my B.A, said, “You used to do this animation. Why don’t you do it anymore? I’ll give you six credits if you go out to the Disney studio, where they just opened an archive”…This was 1973. The Archive opened in 1971, I think. The teacher said, “If you write a paper about Disney animation, I’ll give you six credits”. In the Summer of 1973, I went to Burbank and the new Disney Archives, and I got a tour of the Disney studio. I saw and flipped the original drawings. I met and interviewed eight of the Nine Old Men, those great Disney animators I had seen on the Disneyland TV show when I was younger. College changed my life, and I’ve never looked back (laughing). I got my MFA degree in film from NYU in 1976. Years later, in 2007, Marymount Manhattan also conferred on me an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.
Johnny: Cool. Another animation you did for Sesame Street was called Scary Thing, also called I Am Scary. That was an interesting piece with almost 3-D-like animation. How did you create that 3-D look?
John: I, again, was not the creator of that. I was the animator on it. Animator Bruce Cayard, a wonderful designer, produced the animation I drew for him on a real set. I did the drawings, he found a way to cut them out, and then placed them on the tiny 3-dimensional set. It was 3-D without after-effects. Of course, there was no digital technology at the time. That’s the story of Scary Thing, and there was another, Jungle Room as well that we did. I did a series of short films for Sesame Street through Bruce Cayard, who was the director, producer and designer of the films, including The Mighty M, Sneeze, Hummingbird, and some Captain Kangaroo spots as well. I learned animation in the 1970s on the job, basically.
Johnny: Alright. You did several films in a loose series called Confessions, titles like Confessions Of A Stardreamer and Confessions Of A Stand-Up. As you’re a writer as well as an animator, did you interview the talents whose words provided the basis for these animations?
John: Well, both of them were friends of mine. After I graduated from Marymount, the same teacher who sent me out to Disney said, “What are you going to do now?”. I said, “Well, I think I’ll go back to acting”. She said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school? Go to NYU”, and so, through her encouragement, I went to NYU. It was at that time that I really decided to devote myself to animation. I also went to the School Of Visual Arts for evening courses while I was going full-time to NYU. At SVA, I took a course in animation, and I started to use friends’ voices for the characters. One of them was an actress friend of mine, and she seemed very interesting in terms of her struggles as an actress, and so I asked her if I could ask her questions and tape-record them. With that, I made the nine-minute Confessions Of A Stardreamer in 1978. It was the same thing with the comic I interviewed for …Stand-Up. He was a person who played in Las Vegas, and I knew him because he did voice-over for one of the animated films that I did, and so I used his story as a basis. Out of an hour’s worth of interviews that I did with these couple of people, I culled about nine minutes each, and then commented on what they said in my animation.
Johnny: Okay. You did animation sequences for The World According To Garp. Even though they were during the segments of Garp as a child, did you have any interaction with Robin Williams, who was a tremendous animation fan?
John: No, I didn’t. I did see Robin when I was on set once or twice. The producer asked me to come on set to watch the filming of the particular sequences containing my animation when Garp was a very young child. I do recall seeing Robin Williams at the Astoria Studios one day, just sort of off in the distance sitting there, I guess going over his lines or whatever. I did watch very closely, right next to the camera, as Glenn Close was doing some of her first scenes in the film. Also, all the drawings surrounding the kid on the floor are mine. They were all designs that I drew. By the time the Garp film came around, I’d had a lot of experience doing Sesame Street and The Electric Company and stuff like that for other producers and directors. I formed my own production company, John Canemaker Productions Inc. in 1981, when I got The World According To Garp, and from that time on, I produced my own films for CBS, PBS, HBO and other companies, basically dealing with serious subject matter, such as child abuse, cancer, teen suicide, and kid’s awareness of nuclear war, which were topics unusual for animation, and were often part of documentary films.
Johnny: Okay. While I’d heard your name for years, my first exposure to your animation work came when I saw the short Bottom’s Dream on Classic Arts Showcase one evening. It was a very interesting short that, even though it was based around classic literature and classical music, had almost a psychedelic feel to it. What was your favorite part of working on that short?
John: Well, I loved the music. The Scherzo by Mendelssohn was the thing that inspired the film. I enjoyed every part of it. I enjoyed the eclectic quality. My style is to sort of go with the concept art. Instead of being finished art, for the most part, I liked the feeling and emotion one can get into the conceptual artwork. That film was full of different scenes that changed constantly. I became friends with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the great Disney animators, and they would comment on the films when I sent them. I would finish them and send them out to California, and they’d screen them and critique them in a tough-love way. Frank Thomas liked Bottom’s Dream very much, but he said “Some of the scenes were so interesting to look at, I wish they’d been on the screen longer than one scene”. (Laughing) I enjoyed doing the whole thing.
Johnny: Okay. You did some work for HBO in the 80s, ranging from concert specials for Pat Benatar and the Catch A Rising Star performance venue to episodes of Braingames and the documentary You Don’t Have To Die. If they were to ask you to do some animation for a current HBO program, like Game Of Thrones or Veep, would you accept the offer?
John: Well, I would consider it, certainly. I mean, I’d have to know what they wanted, and what the job would be, and what the conditions would be. I’d be open to it, but I couldn’t say that I would readily accept it.
Johnny: Okay. You did some animation for Season 1 of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. How did you get involved with that show?
John: Well, again, it was a job that many animators were vying for in New York at that time. I was one of several. As you know, the series had a great, eclectic quality to the different types of animation that they used in the show. There was stop-motion and traditional animation, as well as experimental approaches. I focused on the “Magic Screen” animation. That was basically mine, and I only worked on the first year of the series, because it moved out to California.
Johnny: Okay. The IMDB says you did the opening animation for the 1987 Madonna movie Who’s That Girl?, but you were uncredited. Was there a reason why you went uncredited for that film?
John: Probably because I didn’t do much in the film. I was, again, part of a group of animators, and I only did, I think, two scenes…Very basic, simple scenes, not anything with the main character. I think I was duly credited correctly (laughing). I didn’t have much to do with the film.
Johnny: Alright. In the 90s, you animated several PSAs for The Gay Men’s Health Crisis. This is but one example of how oftentimes your animation has been socially conscious. When tackling serious themes via animation, what do you do to keep things light?
John: Do you mean light in the product itself or light for me making it?
Johnny: Light for you making it.
John: Well, you actually have so much to do in any production that, once you put all the emotion and feeling into the concepts and into the storyboard, then it’s a question of really just turning it out on a deadline. There is a compartmentalization, I would say, to working on serious subject matter, and as you say, I have done a number of them. I’ve done You Don’t Have To Die, a docu-drama with animated sequences, which is about children with cancer and, by the way, won an Academy Award for the producers at HBO. I also did Break The Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse, which was a CBS special documentary that won a Peabody Award for the producer, and I did a film with Elizabeth Swados and Mary Silverman for PBS called What Do Children Think Of When They Think Of The Bomb?. All three of those, by the way, are now on YouTube, so if anybody looks up my work on YouTube, they can see those films and others. They were all serious subject matter, and I really enjoy doing those kinds of films, because they stretch the boundaries of animation and what’s possible in the medium. I guess I’m more attracted to serious subjects if I can see that animation can really work in the film. There has to be a good reason to put animation in a documentary. It should be used where live-action can’t or, in some cases, shouldn’t go. In Break the Silence, for example, the film’s producers did not want to show the various types of child abuse, but they wanted the audience to understand how each felt to the victims, psychologically. In animation, you can actually personify thoughts and emotions using characters, symbols, and/or abstract animation, and get underneath a subject in a very interesting way that you can’t with live-action.
Johnny: Very interesting. In 2004, you created the short The Moon And The Son: An Imagined Conversation. Did you feel nervous about taking elements of your personal life and putting them before the camera?
John: Yes, I did. There were some times as I was planning the film that I thought, “Is this too much? Have I said too much here, or have I not said enough?”. Usually wanting to go all the way with it won out. it was a cathartic film for me in a way. I mean, it was very personal, but again I think it was also a culmination of the type of serious subject films I’d been doing throughout my career. I feel good that it was received so well, and that it, of course, won the Academy Award.
Johnny: Speaking of that, as both an animator and an animation historian, what was it like to join the company of the many animators you’d written and filmed about in your histories of Disney and Warner Brothers who had also won Oscars?
John: Well, I was deeply honored by that and by the association with such great filmmakers. I’m really humbled by the fact that I was placed in their company, or at least in their category. I was thrilled with the whole award.
Johnny: Yeah. I imagine it must have been nerve-wracking being there at what’s now the Dolby Theater on Oscar night.
John: Yes. There’s two-part interview online that I did for Ward Jenkins’ website where I talk about the whole experience leading up to the Oscars and actually being at the Oscars.
Part 1 of the Ward Jenkins interview with John Canemaker about the Oscars.
Part 2 of the Ward Jenkins interview with John Canemaker about the Oscars
Johnny: As you’re an animation historian, I have to ask: In the 90s, Warner Brothers cartoons like Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures often took shots at Disney. This goes back to the Termite Terrace days. Was the rivalry between Disney and Warner Brothers genuine, or was it more of a joking thing?
John: Well, I think the Warner Brothers animators, back in the day, were in awe of what Disney was doing. The budgets, the production values, working on features…In fact, Chuck Jones, who was a friend of mine for 30 years, often talked about how great he thought the Disney films were. If you look at his films, the ones that focus on music, there’s a certain kind of admiration that comes through in his films, and, yes, awe at what was accomplished at the Disney studios, and of course a measure of envy. I don’t think it was a serious rivalry. Warner’s wasn’t interested in doing feature films or that kind of animation. And in fact, Warner Brothers bested Disney in terms of their short films because they’re much funnier and much more popular than the Disney shorts were.
Johnny: Okay. You’ve managed to interview many of the greats of classic film animation. Were there any you were hoping to interview, but were never able to land?
John: Well, only because they didn’t live when I started to do animation. There were a couple of them that were not around in the 1970s when I started interviewing people. That would be Winsor McCay, of course, Tex Avery, Vladimir Tytla…These were great animators that I wish I had met, and Jiri Trinka, the great puppet animator. I never really met Norman McLaren. I would have loved to interview him. I would love to interview him now, knowing what I know about animation and about his history in animation. I think many of the interviews I did were too early for me. Although it was late in the game, and I’m glad I did them, I wish I’d asked better questions, especially of those animation pioneers that I interviewed early in my career as a historian. I would’ve been able to do a better interview with, say, J.R Bray. I interviewed him when he was nearing 100. He was in great shape, and there I was, not really knowing the right questions to ask because I hadn’t done enough research at that point. I’m really grateful for the people I have met. I met Otto Mesmer, who created Felix The Cat. I met Winsor McCay’s assistant, John Fitzsimmons, and numerous Disney animators and designers. The people that I admired from my childhood watching the Disneyland TV show, from watching Fantasia and other films, whom I actually got to meet. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to meet them and to write about them. I wish I’d met Herman Schultheis. My new book is called The Lost Notebook. It’s about the special effects in Fantasia and Pinocchio that were recorded in a scrapbook by Herman Schultheis. I wish I’d known him.
Johnny: Okay. What is your personal favorite era for animation?
John: My favorite era is one that I never experienced, but from my reading and researching and interviewing people, I most admire, because it seems to have been one of the most exciting eras of all, 1937 through 1942 at the Walt Disney Studio. It was really a time of innovation, Golden Era in which five masterpieces of feature animation were created. I would’ve loved to have been a vital part of, perhaps in the Story department, not just a fly on the wall.
Johnny: Alright. What would you say has been the biggest change in the entertainment industry between the 1970s and 2016?
John: That’s easy…Digital, the introduction of digital technology, which has changed everything. It’s improved the way films are made. Technology has broken down the barriers to distribution. It’s introduced a whole new way of making animated films. It hasn’t fully replaced hand-drawn or puppet animation, but it has become the dominant form of animation production, and it’s here to stay.
Johnny: Alright. Do you have any projects on the horizon or are you primarily focused on teaching now?
John: I’m a Gemini. I don’t do just one thing. I just spent a year curating a huge exhibition for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco: Wish Upon a Star: The Art of Pinocchio. Well, I’m now on sabbatical for one year from NYU’s Tisch School Of The Arts, where I am a tenured professor and head of the animation program. So I am working on a short film, and I also have a book idea in mind that I need to get into a proper proposal. I also will still be lecturing. There’s something coming up on September 24th at the Museum Of Modern Art with Richard Williams. My essay on Fantasia appears in the catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Dreamland: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905 – 2016, opening October 28, 2016 through February 5, 2017. I may be involved with the CTN Animation Expo in Los Angeles via the Walt Disney Family Museum in November, and there’s the possibility of lectures in Italy in the Spring. I really feel my life is a very lucky one because it revolves around something I love and have a passion for, which is animation. I teach it…I write about it…I research it…I do it. And that’s the way I want to continue to do it for the rest of my life. To quote Michel de Montaigne: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages”.
Johnny: Finally, I end every interview I do with this question: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
John: Probably not (laughing). I think things have turned out very well for me. I may have had a bit of a rough beginning, but that’s life, and I think Iv’e had a wonderful life. I wouldn’t change it, really, in any way.
Johnny: Alright. Well, like I said, I thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this. It was an honor to interview you. I’m very impressed by your work, both as an animator and an animation historian, and it was an honor to speak to you.
John: Well, thank you, Johnny, and it was a pleasure to speak to you. Wonderful questions. How long have you been doing this?
Johnny: How long have I been doing interviews?
Johnny: Well, I first started in 2006, back when I wrote for a website called RetroJunk. At the time, I was doing my interviews via e-mail. I didn’t start doing phone interviews until Fall of 2012, which was when I was told by singer Samantha Fox’s representative that she only did interviews on the phone. I invested in a recorder and an international calling plan, dialed England and that’s how I started doing phone interviews.
John: Aah. Good to talk to you.
Johnny: Likewise. Have a good day.
John: You, too. Bye bye.
Johnny: Okay, bye.
If you’re interested in learning more about John Canemaker’s work as an animator and an animation historian, visit his official website.
Thanks as always for reading, and keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of the Flashback Interview.