An Interview with John CaneMaker and a look at Walt Disney's Nine Old Men
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Canemaker says "I was worried that I was going to find that every one of them was basically the same. I was surprised and delighted how different they were. They truly were such individuals, and I was surprised by the sharpness in differences." I ask him if any of them remain a mystery or enigmatic even after all the research. "Les Clarke and John Lounsbery," he says. "But there wasn't the variety of people who were close to them who were still living," he points out. "But I don't know that you can ever really know someone so completely, just as I doubt we'll ever really know Walt." Though he may be correct, he has managed to come as close as any biographer to his subjects. Canemaker's "labor of love" is more than a mere historical review of the reign of the Nine Old Men. This is a very important work for centering our understanding on the current shifting of powers inside the Robert A.M. Stern sorcerer's hat building on Riverside Drive. Everything old is new again, or so it seems. To this subject, the book has one particularly fascinating quote:
"They came from an interesting time," muses Pomeroy about the Nine Old Men in general. "It was like being out in the open savanna with a lion pack. It was survival of the fittest. And because [Walt's] finances would get lean, only the best would be kept on. So these guys had an incredible rivalry."
That said, one cannot help but wonder what it must be like now that the staff is being severely reduced. With hefty contracts and individual animators making Entertainment Weekly's top 100 most powerful people in Hollywood list, "the circle of life" indeed!
While it's undoubtedly accidental, the timing of Canemaker's book can't help but prompt a closer look at how the next generation interpreted the lessons they learned from the masters just as the gravy train pulls out of the station, and their own golden age comes to a close. Walt Disney would have been 100 years old this year, so it seems an important exercise in respecting the value of history to reflect on how the younger men who came to the studio in the mid 1970's came to balance themselves so carefully on the shoulders of giants. I ask Canemaker who he thinks, among the second generation, has had similar impact on personality animation. I have barely finished the sentence when he begins his list. "Glen Keane, Andreas Dejas, Brad Bird, Ruben Aquino, and surely the Goldbergs," referring to Eric and Susan Goldberg who were awarded ASIFA's coveted Annie for outstanding individual achievement in character animation and feature film art direction just shortly before their untimely departure from Disney. The couple is now directing Where the Wild Things Are for Tom Hanks over at Universal. He continues with "Alex Kupershmidt, Mike Giamo, Joe Ranft, Pete Docter and James Baxter." Baxter is a lone survivor of the exodus to still be at DreamWorks, and whose work on the title character in the upcoming Spirit proves that his previously stunted post-Disney maturation has finally been overcome. "And you'd have to include Richard Williams," says Canemaker. "He was someone who put his money where his mouth was and brought people like Milt and Grim Natwick to his studio in London to lecture. He hired Natwick! Talking to Richard Williams is like talking to a true disciple. He understood first hand, and still understands better than anyone what an extraordinary gift these men had." Williams is a frequently quoted source in the book, a fact that underscores Canemaker's wisdom as a historian reaping carefully from respected sources.
While John Canemaker has succeeded admirably in reaching his preface-stated goal to "write a book on animators modeled after Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, the famous sixteenth-century biographical work about the greatest artists of the Italian renaissance," the one weakness of this exceptional work is the lack of quality reproductions among the illustrations. The contrast is often far too dark, and the color matching is not the best quality. This undermines the purpose of many of the illustrations, which is to give the reader a visual reference to passages in the book. As example, in the chapter on Milt Kahl Canemaker praises a scene in "Cinderella" in which the animator solves the problem of static dialogue between the King and the Duke by having the Duke take off his monocle and roll it between his fingers. The frames chosen are not key or pose-to-pose frames, and even if they were, the reproduction is so dark and the color so off that it looks for all the world to be about a scene about playing with a bright blue ball in the middle of the night. Compared to the extraordinary quality of other Hyperion Press offerings, particularly Canemaker's previous books, this appears to have suffered from the budgetary constraint of offshore printing. A book of this stature and importance calls for the highest quality illustrations to underscore the subject and it is this writer's hope that future editions will benefit from a better printing. Canemaker's upcoming book on Mary Blair demands superb color matching that I hope the publisher will recognize, regardless of how it influences the cover price.