An Interview with John CaneMaker and a look at Walt Disney's Nine Old Men
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As animation's best friend, Canemaker has managed an astounding feat in Walt Disney's Nine Old Men & the Art of Animation. With great, intelligence and a compellingly crafted approach the book is an enviably near-perfect nine biographies in one.
I ask him how writing this last book, or any of his previous works on Disney animation ("Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists"; Hyperion Press, 1996, and "Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards"; Hyperion Press, 1999) has changed him both personally and professionally. "Its enriched my life! Just to have access to these people, and to resources like the Disney Archives and the Animation Research Library. It has enriched my life a great deal." Canemaker smiles and gives a slight shrug. "I was asked recently, when I was at the Disney Studios following the lecture (note: Canemaker spoke at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art series on Walt's 100th this past winter) how long it took me to write it. I started to say three years, but really, its been thirty years. I first visited the Disney studio in 1973. And as you know, I was very lucky to become good friends with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I have the privilege of knowing them personally and spending a great deal of time with them. Ward Kimball, too, as much as one can get to spend time with Ward. And eventually Marc Davis whom I got to know as well as I could before he died. Ive been fortunate enough to go one on one with these men. What an amazing source they are!" You can hear his sincere enthusiasm in the music of his voice. "I tell them at the studio you should hang on to Joe Grant and just follow him around and tape everything he says! Hes such a wonderful source of information and inspiration," referring to the 94-year-old artist who started at the Disney Studio with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and returned to work there in the 1980s, where he is still putting in full days as a creative director. "Who was it that said Interview old people. Theyre like lobsters. Go for the head, thats where all the sweet stuff is?!" He laughs, aloud for only a second or less, then quickly closes his lips into that grin, shoulders bouncing ever so gently. It is as if he has found the secret to eternal youth; plumb the minds of the oldest children you can find - animators.
"This last book was truly a gift," says Canemaker. "Its all fallen into place in a very logical way - just by chance. The first book was about visual development and then the next about storyboarding and so it made sense that I would write about the actual process of animating!" Although not literally it is clear that he is bouncing, at least from within, thrilled to share his good fortune and not bragging or the least bit boastful of this great privilege. He leans into our conversation mostly with his eyebrows and ever so slightly with his forehead and shoulders. I almost expect (long for) him to say "you gotta meet these guys! Cmon!!" In a fashion, he has generously done just that for everyone with Walt Disneys Nine Old Men & the Art of Animation.
Ordered by the year in which they came to work for Disney, Les Clark, Woolie Reitherman, Eric Larson, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery and Marc Davis are revealed to those of us who know their work as if we're meeting them like the rest of the world - for the very first time. This is a fresh and fascinating examination of more than just each man's career at Disney. Canemaker gives us insights that expand our understanding of not only the artists, but also the medium and the entire Disney zeitgeist.
Each chapter is an individual biography that feeds into one another to make a whole. One after the other, the building of an artistic family that worked in Walt's shadow to define an animated empire opens up for us like a rose, thorns and all. It is sometimes a very thorny story indeed. The author has composed his history of this core group of personality animators by patiently folding in critical ingredients such as shifting dynamics, loyalties secured and betrayed, and career choices made that not only defined the day-to-day tone of going to work at Disney's, but in some ways shaped the very icons of many a childhood. With very little editorial - what there is of it being expertly applied - Canemaker has written objectively about how each man's individual character was brought to bear on the films they created. We come away from the book with a keen understanding of how their success and/or failure in jockeying for Walt's favor was as much a matter individual approaches to dealing with authority as it was individual talent. We see artists and artistic success in a hothouse of creativity shaped by childhood histories, family dynamics and sometimes critical character flaws.