Saturday, August 26, 2006

ANIMATION—The Evening Class Interview With John Canemaker

"Noted animator and filmmaker John Canemaker interviewed his elderly father, John Cannizzaro, shortly before his death in 1995 in an attempt to better understand their turbulent relationship, which was plagued by unresolved conflicts and had often erupted in violence. The result of their final encounter, The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation received the 2005 Academy Award® in the category of Short Film (animated) earlier this year."

In the Bay Area to present two programs at the Pacific Film Archives ("Marching To A Different Toon" and "Winsor McCay: His Life and Art"),
John Canemaker agreed to meet me the day before his presentation. We were ushered into the old, quiet, Pacific Film Archive auditorium to have our talk. Since all I have seen of Canemaker's work is his Academy Award-winning short, I wasn't sure if I would be meeting someone bitter and angry. Instead, I found a kind, quiet man who exemplified Joni Mitchell's advice: "Heart and humor and humility will lighten up your heavy load."

Michael Guillén: John, I'm going to follow the lead you suggested to Rhett Wickham when he interviewed you several years back.

John Canemaker: You know Rhett?

MG: I don't know Rhett but I was reading his interview with you and you were joking, "Interview old people. They're like lobsters. Go for the head, that's where all the sweet stuff is?!"

Canemaker: [Laughs.] I can't claim that saying because that was from Janet Flanner. I believe that's her saying.

MG: Well, I really liked it. Not that you're old, but, if it's okay with you, I'm eager to pick your brains about animation because you are the "ambassador of animation"; that's how you've been billed. I know that you teach and I imagine that, as an educator, you must have some introductory working definition of "animation" for those approaching the field. Can you provide one?

Canemaker: That's rather problematic now. I've been saying we need a new definition of animation. The traditional one was drawings or objects that were moved frame by frame. I suppose—with the new technology and all—everything seems to be merging and melding together. However, I think if you wanted to be doctrinaire about it, the ultimate test of what animation might be would be life that is created rather than just photographed. That might cut out a lot of different things. It's amazing that so many so-called "live action" films wouldn't exist without animators—Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, King Kong, Lord of the Rings—aren't all of those allegedly live action? But you couldn't do what they do without digital film and digital animators to bring it to life. I don't have a definitive definition but it would be safe to say animation is movement that is created rather than just photographed.

MG: I tend to think of it as alchemy.

Canemaker: Yes!

MG: It's like you're putting life—well, things have life in and of themselves—but you're putting an animate life into something that you wouldn't think would be moving.

Canemaker: I always think that's the basic magic of animation: to see the naturally inert come to life. Even if it's alive. It just rivets. It shouldn't happen and we are just riveted by it. It's a form of magic, as you say, as alchemy.

MG: I recently saw Jan Ŝvankmajer's new film Lunacy, have you seen it?

Canemaker: Not yet, no.

MG: There's a scene where a shirt basically betrays the young protagonist. It gets up off the floor and opens the door to some people that he doesn't want in the room. I was so amazed watching that.

Canemaker: [Chuckles.] I love that.

MG: I haven't had a chance to see your complete body of work though I'm really looking forward to that tomorrow—

Canemaker: You won't see all of it tomorrow.

MG: —But a few more pieces than what I've seen. Can you say if there's a personal stamp to your work or an identifiable signature so that tomorrow—when I'm sitting there in your audience—will we be able to detect a continuity throughout your films?

Canemaker: My graphic signature is there throughout. Most of my films are rather like collage in a way. The style within it is identifiable as my own but it jumps around in technique or approach. Oftentimes when I start a film, or most times, I love the beginning part, the conceptual part, so I just let whatever happens happen in terms of grabbing, say, watercolors and trying something there for that particular part of the film. It's a very intuitive process. Or I might do gouache or I might say, photographs might work here, sort of just letting it flow at the beginning. I end up liking the concept stuff so much that I put it into the film. So you see in Bottom's Dream one scene will become another, one scene will be different from the other in terms of the graphic approach but I still think there's in totality something about me in that.

MG: That variety—as in The Moon and the Son—the variety of graphic images is compelling.

Canemaker: Yes, that's it. That's probably the ultimate, yeah.

MG: It expresses the breadth of your imagination.

Canemaker: It keeps you on your toes.

MG: Yes, exactly.

Canemaker: I like the look of process in animation, I must say. I love pencil tests. I love the Hubleys'
Moon Bird where you see not only the surround of the black oil paint that they did around the characters but also within the characters you see the pencil lines of the animator's nervousness, the creative process happening within the character itself. That's something that's totally unique to the form of animation and I love to see that. I love George Dunning's work. Do you know The Tempest?

MG: No, I don't.

Canemaker: He [attempted] to do The Tempest just before he died. He directed The Yellow Submarine. But he did these short films, one of them called Damon the Mower, and it's flip books. You see these drawings just coming to life, the mower mows things down and then things grow and reproduce and then the mower comes in and does it again. It's all in these little cards. You're seeing the process of animation and yet you're drawn into it.

Not to get too far afield but tomorrow you're going to see
Winsor McCay's work. He—like Disney—believed that you had to pull the wool over your eyes to convince you of the reality of what you are seeing. However, I tend to—I mean I love what they do, Disney, Winsor McCay, I'm a great admirer—but I believe that Émile Cohl and Tex Avery and George Dunning draw you in just as well with things that say, "I am a cartoon. Believe in me."

MG: What that's reminding me of is claymation. One of the things I love about the original King Kong or some of Ray Harryhausen's work are the fingerprints on these models that create a fluctuating texture to the pelt that is absent from a lot of CGI.

Canemaker: The human touch. Did you know that in the new Dreamworks film
Flushed Away—it looks like a Nick Park film and it is made by his company—but it's all CGI and they put thumbprints in CGI on the characters?

MG: Interesting! To try to get that old effect back?

Canemaker: Yes. I said, "Why go to all that trouble? Why not just do it in 3D?" The answer from someone who knew was that, yes, it would actually be cheaper to do it in the old way by hand but they would not be able to get the effects that they want with water and these incredible camera angles and things that you can do, really, only in CGI. That was the compromise.

MG: There's this false dichotomy that's been set up between hand-drawn animation and CGI animation, at least that's the way I perceive it. It seems like that's the way it's being presented to the public, that they're oppository somehow, whereas I tend to see them more as on a continuum or a spectrum, with all sorts of possibilities of blending between the two.

Canemaker: I agree with you. I think and would hope that the future—and the present—would take advantage of the wonderful smorgasboard of possibilities that are there in terms of technique. Why not mix, for example, Nick Park's characters and add your CGI effects to it? If you need to pull back from the characters, they can become CGI for that moment and you can obviously convince people that those CGI characters are made of clay if you need to. I think it's not taking advantage of all the possibilities of mixing and merging the techniques which I hope will be done more in the future.

MG: I think that creates a specific kind of magic. In your NPR interview you were bemoaning the loss of the abstract quality of hand-drawn animation that gets lost with CGI when it strives to become too real.

Canemaker: I think it's almost futile to try to be real with it. You should go with the qualities that it's strongest with, expressionistic qualities, its impressionistic qualities. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal which got a lot of attention [chuckles] about Disney getting rid of its last hand-drawn studios. This was before the takeover by John Lassiter of the animation area.

MG: Was this the studio in Florida?

Canemaker: They closed the one in Florida but then they also closed the last one in Australia. They were doing beautiful work but they decided to close them down. So I wrote this piece and I said it was like throwing the baby out with the bath water. How could this studio which had perfected the art of hand-drawn animation in its own way not find a way? Where was the imagination in terms of how can we use this with CGI or continue with it in a new and different way? Well, now with John joining the studio, they are bringing it back. They are going to do, as you may know, another 2-D feature. They're starting to work on one.

MG: Another thing I was wondering about this false dichotomy was whether there wasn't some kind of corporate decisive mentality behind it?

Canemaker: It's a business decision.

MG: Not a creative one?

Canemaker: No, no. It's marketing and business and, gosh, CGI is really popular and we've got to get on the bandwagon and, gosh, are we going to support two different kinds of techniques, they're both expensive, this one seems to be the future, let's go with it. And then of course they push it for all it's worth. It's interesting. As costs come down—and they are—for software and hardware, you're going to see more independents, independent artists and filmmakers coming up with films that may not be for a mass market and don't have to be because they don't have the financial obligations to stockholders or to make a certain profit, 20% more each year, something like that. You're going to see much more variety in animation fare than has been offered in the past.

MG: Moon and Son is case in point, really. Who was your audience when you were thinking of that?

Canemaker: [Laughs.] Me!!

MG: Yeah. So you didn't assume that it was going to achieve the popularity that it achieved?

Canemaker: Absolutely not. People say how long did it take to make that film and I say 63 years. [Laughs.] But actually I apparently was thinking of it for a long time because friends have told me, "You were talking about that 10 years ago or 20 years ago you said you wanted to do something on your father." It's probably true. It's been of course in the back of my head all these years. I guess I got to a point where I'd done 30 years of films about other people and you'll see some of them tomorrow. This friend of mine was an actress and I did a film called Confessions Of A Star Dreamer and she just rambled on. It was like a Hubley real person soundtrack and then I took that and bounced around and commented on it with my animation.

A friend of mine was a stand-up comic. We're not showing that one tomorrow but he, again, talked about why he wanted to make people laugh. He would tell me and so I would animate to that. I've done films about children with cancer. I've done public service spots for AIDS. I've done films on child abuse. I'm going to show some of that tomorrow. That's the challenge. How do you find a way to do that in animation that is different from live action so that you're not emulating that technique. And you find ways to do it.

MG: Moon and Son prepared me in the way that it handled these difficult subjects regarding psychological trauma, psychological phobia. There's a film that's come out of Australia, Sarah Watts' Look Both Ways, have you seen it?

Canemaker: Animation?

MG: It's live action but her fears of disaster are rendered in animation and they're brutal.

Canemaker: Ooooooh, I'd love to see that.

MG: Which brings me to the point that in the United States, especially, we think of animation as Saturday cartoons for children, but, that's not really the international understanding of animation.

Canemaker: No, no. If you go to any of the international festivals,
Ottowa for example is a great one, and I've just come back from Brazil, I was in Croatia for the Zagreb Animation Festival and you see amazingly adult themes for these films, most of them short films. However, the point was that soon individuals or small studios will be able to create their own visions, their own nightmares and put them up on the screen, their own adult themes, and it will not be cost-prohibitive. It's already happening. Waking Life was done by a small studio in Austin, Texas.

MG: Do you consider rotoscoping animation or it is it just processed live action?

Canemaker: By that definition that I attempted to give, it probably isn't, it's rotoscoping, which is taking something; however, I think if you stretch the definition a little bit and allowed for the rendering of it, there is a drawn rendering, and some of the scenes did go more into an animation thing. What I felt Waking Life needed was an animation director rather than a live action director because there were moments when a face became a cloud. I thought, "Oh, that's great. That's nice. Metamorphasis and all that sort of thing." But most of it stayed very closely to the live action twitches and movements and all that sort of thing.

MG: What I like about rotoscoping or where I feel it goes into animation is it has a kind of alterity to it, an altered consciousness to it, which is what I feel should be one of the aims of animation, that it take you out of the world you know into an altered perception.

Canemaker: Yes. You can have the author's signature on it even though it is rotoscope. For example,
Robert Breer's animations. Or, again, George Dunning in Yellow SubmarineLucy in the Sky With Diamonds was all rotoscoped from old Fred Astaire movies.

MG: That was rotoscope?!

Canemaker: Some of it was, yeah. When he's dancing, it's Cyd Charisse. If you look at it closely. And then the paint smears and it's a drawing. There is a creative aspect or can be. Of course even Snow White, she was rotoscoped from Marge Champion's movements, but they had to alter her. She had to have a larger head. [Chuckles.] I don't know if you know this story [laughs], but, they put a football helmet on little Marge Champion for a few shots and it was terrible. So then they had to actually draw her differently; they had to elongate the bodice and enlarge the head. So they used the basis of the movement and they found out that the proper way to use rotoscoping is to use it creatively and to exaggerate it.

MG: That's so interesting! I remember when I first saw Waking Life, I thought about Snow White and the early Disney vehicles where the characters' movements were lifelike; but, I never made the connection that it literally was rotoscoping. Certainly as a child when I first saw Snow White I didn't know anything about rotoscoping and I just assumed everything had been painstakingly drawn by hand.

Canemaker: It just doesn't look good if it's strictly tracing over the live action. If you take a look at the other Lord of the Rings, it was heavily rotoscoped, and you could see the difference if you compare that to what was done in Snow White. There is that extra something.

MG: What I'm hearing, then, is that you do agree that rotoscoping is at least an animating tool.

Canemaker: Oh absolutely and more if it's in the hands of an artist like Robert Breer or someone like that.

MG: Was The Moon and the Son your first Oscar win? I read a mention somewhere that you had won another but I couldn't determine when or for what.

Canemaker: I did animation in a television special called
You Don't Have To Die, which was about a child's battle with cancer. The child—Jason Gaes—had written a book. We used the book as a basis. I redesigned the characters and everything but he would be there in live action talking about his treatment. It was for a film made for children. HBO produced it; they got the Oscar. It was mostly a documentary or … what do you call it when you restage something that happened that was real?

MG: A dramatization.

Canemaker: That's right, yeah. Parts of his book would open, that would be the animation, and then we'd go into it. But, again, it was a wonderful challenge for me. I had to show what chemotherapy felt like rather than what it looked like and animation can do that. You can personify emotions. You can become thought. I think I'm showing it tomorrow, but, it's child-like drawings, there's a vile, green liquid, it goes through a tube down into this cartoon child's arm and he's narrating it with his child voice from live action, we've cut to the animation and he says, "They put this liquid in your arm and it may hurt a little bit like a pin prick." Then you see the liquid go down and I fill him up like he's an empty milk bottle and the green liquid goes up and up and up and when it gets to the top of his head and then he says, "It made my hair fall out" [Canemaker makes a popping noise], the hair pops and floats down. Then I have him try to put it back on his head and he becomes upset and then he runs off in the distance. That was about 20 seconds. It got a reaction. It's a way that you wouldn't do in live action.

MG: That phrase you use about personifying emotion is a sterling point that definitely comes across in The Moon and the Son. There were emotions shown there that were, first of all, difficult to experience but, secondly, impressively articulated. I'm thinking particularly of the scene where your mother is defending you and your brother against your father's anger. Through these simple shapes and movements, so much was emotionally rendered there that I was really quite amazed.

Canemaker: Thank you. I'm rather pleased about that particular sequence.

MG: At the press Q&A after the Oscars—

Canemaker: [Laughs.] Two questions. [Laughs.] They didn't know what the hell to ask us, we're cartoonists!

MG: Sarah Baisley of Animation World Network focused on the fact that you had created something of a genre mash-up and wondered if, along with the former year's win—Ryan, another documentary-animation blend—if a trend was developing. I know that "mash-up" is a popular term these days….

Canemaker: Is it?

MG: Yeah, and I think of The Moon and the Son as something of a genre mash-up. You're blending the short documentary format with animation. I suspect audiences have become more cognizant of genre forms and are now genuinely interested in how film makers either pay homage to those forms, or break those forms, or how they combine those forms, and how these short documentary-animation combinations are being used to tackle difficult themes.

Canemaker: I never thought of that. We had a feeling that we were treading onto documentary ground but, again, I cite my heroes,
the Hubleys, as breaking through in that way as well.

MG: You make me want to go back and take another look at the Hubley animations. I saw them mainly in my late 20s-early 30s. I opened the first video store in the San Joaquin valley and stocked it full of animation, primarily because I wanted to see animation, and a lot had come out on video of the Hubleys—The Cosmic Eye and all these different ones—and I remember watching them and being very challenged because they were dealing with social issues, racism….

Canemaker: Overpopulation, pollution….

MG: …all these issues, and then also animating well-known art. I admired their incorporation of artwork from other ethnic cultures. Even when I was doing my collegiate training in Mayan iconography and epigraphy I was aware of the potential of this art style being animated. Patricia Amlin, I know, endeavored just that. She did a version of the Mayan epic The Popol Vuh by animating the line drawings of Classic codex-style Maya ceramics. And I've long considered the anthropomorphized depiction of animals in Maya art to be comparable to those in Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons.

Canemaker: How marvelous. I was once asked to explore
the Bayeux tapestries in animation and that would have been terrific.

MG: In terms of projects, you won your Oscar and you expressed your hopes that it would open doors for people to be more independently expressive in animation. Has winning the Oscar opened any new doors for you? You have an accomplished career already. Has winning the Oscar done anything new for you?

Canemaker: It's happened so recently—it was just March that it happened—and it's been like a juggernaut in terms of just keeping up with appearing places and doing interviews like this. It's going to slow down. I'll be on sabbatical next Fall for one year. There are projects that I hope—because of this—will attract money easier. There are things in the wind but it's mostly things that were self-generating. My producing partner Peggy Stern has a film on dyslexia that she wants very much to do with animation and so that may be our next large project. There's also a film we may be doing in the Spring on young scientists. So there are interesting things that are out there but I also have a couple of personal things I want to do. This was my third visit to Rio recently, and I just love it so much, I thought why don't I do a freeform thing like Bottom's Dream or Bridgehampton—which you'll see tomorrow—on Rio? And then there's a short story or two that I'm interested in, darker themes.

MG: I had a strong, personal reaction to The Moon and the Son. I had my own issues with the absence of my father, who left us when I was 3, so that my adulthood and my creativity has been recompense for that absence. Your film made me realize I was lucky, in a way, because I didn't have to deal with such a direct assault on my psyche. But either way—direct or indirect—what I've been noticing and observing in what I've been reading about your films and educational endeavors is a spirit of mentorship that has developed in your own creativity. It's given me pause to consider where the concept of mentorship comes from. In Homer's Odyssey, Mentor is the older man who counsels Telemechus over the years his father Odysseus is absent from home. In a situation where the father is absent a spirit of mentorship moves in.

Canemaker: What a wonderful observation. Thank you. That's very moving to me. Very touching. I never really thought of that. I have wondered why I'm so drawn to teaching, why I'm so drawn to research, writing about the past and trying to bring knowledge and history to people. That's a very good point. The thing too is that I absented myself really. I would say I was with my father maybe 11 years total. He was away for a year or so in the Army after I was born and then he went to jail for five years and I left home when I was 18.

MG: I know that for myself what I sought in looking for my father was something similar to your own track in the sense that—what I really took note of when I researched you—was your respect for your elders, for all the people that have mentored you, and who you have sought mentorship from: this is the creative recompense and an appropriate response to a father's absence.

Canemaker: I've always loved older people even when I was a kid. I used to love to hang out with older people rather than kids my own age who made fun of me. I had a difficult time with school when I was younger. That's a very interesting point. Did you find your father?

MG: My father passed away before I was able to find him. Just about the time when I was entering my late teens where I could have had the independence to seek him out, he passed away. His death left me with a strange—I always call it the "white shadow" after Raymond Carver—which is the presence of absence. Father was there in my mind, he was constantly there, even though he was physically gone. As time has gone along, I'm 52 years old now, I've become who I imagined I wanted my father to be. I find these processes interesting.

Canemaker: Yes.

MG: You have done ten books now?

Canemaker: Allegedly, nine, ten. [Laughs wearily.]

MG: You have done so many interviews with other animators, the "greats", over the years so I imagine you have a healthy respect for the interview process. If you were to interview yourself, what is the one thing you would want to know about John Canemaker?

Canemaker: [Long pause.] Why do you do what you do? I try to get at that with the other people I've interviewed. Why are you who you are? When I was a kid I would go to the library in Elmira, New York, and look up newspaper clippings on famous people and their biographies. I was always fascinated at the moment in that biography when they became who they were. How did it happen? It's like alchemy in a way. They struggled, they did this, they did that, and boom, they became that person and then it was gravy from then on, supposedly. [Laughs.]

MG: I like what you say about biographies. To me true biographies are spiritual documents of growth and becoming.

Canemaker: Yes, absolutely. You're a wonderful poet! You really are, you know that? I've never had an interview like this.

MG: Thank you. I'm glad because I was delighted when you agreed to be interviewed. Creativity is so various and I'm being fed by that of late. This last year has been sheer grace where I've been allowed to meet these bright minds and great souls. It fascinates me.

Canemaker: Life is a fascinating process if you let it happen. When I left home at 18, I didn't think I could go to college. No one in my family ever did. There was no encouragement. We had no money. I thought I was too stupid. I came to New York to be an actor and fool the public. I did it for 10 years. I made 30-some t.v. commercials and made a lot of money and did off-Broadway and summer stock and was drafted in the army for two years, came back, did more commercials. At the age of 28 someone said, "You've never been to college." So I put myself through at the age of 28 and that's when everything changed. That's when I could relax a little bit and say, "History. My goodness, that's interesting. And philosophy." I started to write. It was like a dam opening up. Education is a wonderful thing.

MG: You've obviously always had the germ to be an animator but when did it actually happen?

Canemaker: I did it when I was a kid. I did it back in Elmira when I would watch the Disneyland t.v. show and learn how to do it from that, and Walter Lantz and his show, the Woody Woodpecker show, it would show you how to do it. I made flip books and I made a little film about the history of animation, believe it or not. What the hell did I know? But I did it based on the television I'd seen and it was about 10 minutes long, 16mm. I didn't know what to do with my talent. Nobody knew what to do with it. So I didn't go to college and didn't think I had the smarts. I wrote a letter to Disney and they said, "Well, if you're ever out here, if you go to a college or something…." I don't know. It all happened anyway.

MG: The Moon and the Son has engendered critical dissonance. On one hand you achieved an Academy Award—a resounding endorsement for your work—while on the other hand some critics feel it is far too personal and an uncomfortably therapeutic rant poised as animation. Do you feel any need to defend yourself against your detractors?

Canemaker: No. I mean, it's a personal work that, as we said, I didn't think would go any further than where they usually go, which is showing to the Museum of Modern Art, becoming part of their collection. No, I think everyone has a right to their opinion. I really don't think it needs defending. It reflects more on the people who are writing about it or as much about me.

MG: People often ask me, "Are you a film critic?" And I say, "No, no, no, no. I have no interest in criticizing film. I want to celebrate film. I want to celebrate creativity. If I don't like a movie, I probably won't write about it. If I don't like a director, I'm not going to talk to them.

Canemaker: That's what I feel about writing too. I've never written something where I've damned something. I don't know how people can do that. It does something to your own soul, I think. I try to find something—as you say—to celebrate. I've never written about anybody that I've been out to "get" them. I always write about the truth about them, which is so interesting. When I did the book about the nine old men at Disney—I don't know if you've seen it—but these are people that are revered as gods. But I also found the human element in them too and gave them a dimension that, otherwise, would not have been there.

11/30/06 UPDATE: Ward Jenkins has conducted a fantastic two-part interview with Canemaker thoroughly detailing the events leading up to his Oscar win.

Part one.
Part two.