John Canemaker: Personal Hero

We waited a bit longer at another terminal and were introduced to two artists that I will feature tomorrow. Durwin took off with us in a sinister black van and we climbed out again at the campus hotel, with the instructions to meet up again at Chancellor’s, the hotel restaurant, in an hour. After some rest and a warm bath it was soon time to go downstairs. The restaurant was an elegant establishment with exotic food, something Scott was not quite up to taking on after a long flight, but he managed. Everyone was already seated, and I immediately noticed that the man I was most eager to meet on this trip was sitting quietly at the end. There was plenty of room for two more beside him.

John Canemaker’s name is a familiar one in the animation community. Now the Chair of the Animation Program at NYU, his work has been in feature films and television, he has interviewed everyone from Shamus Culhane to all nine of the Nine Old Men. Two of his most recent books, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair and Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, were treasured acquisitions at our house last year. I told him that Nine Old Men was a Christmas present purchase, and he smiled and said, “Ah, so you were the one.”

Canemaker impressed me as a quiet, reserved gentle spirit. He asked questions more often than he answered them, and he was content to listen as the younger artists got to know each other. He asked a lot of questions about Savannah with keen interest, easily expounded on by so many of us who had attended SCAD. I found him to be a very private individual, so it came as a great surprise later that night when we sat down to screen his newest personal film how very personal it turned out to be. His latest project, a 28-minute animated film called The Moon and the Son, was an emotional ride through his childhood and his tumultuous relationship with his Italian immigrant father. Much like my reaction to last year’s Oscar winner Ryan, I was deeply moved by the way the story laid so much private information in front of the audience. I wouldn’t get the chance to tell him how much it impressed me until the next day.

He only stayed one more day in anticipation of his keynote speech on Friday night. I caught up with him that morning and we told him how much we appreciated the screening. Words spilled out of me explaining why I connected with it so much; I also had a personal short on the back burner about a World War II patriarch with a troubled history. Canemaker floored me by being interested in the story, and the next thing I know I’m pulling out the laptop where I’ve kept all of the bits and pieces related to it. We sift through image after image of my grandfather’s prisoner of war camp in Japan, and as I tell him about it, I begin to realize that what I have is pretty amazing. He gives me ideas of what I could add to it: “You don’t have to settle for a simple narrative… interview your mother, your grandmother. See what they have to say about him.” He was right; a new perspective on the project was forming like a lightbulb turning on over my head.

That night at his keynote address, not nearly enough students were present, but all of the presenters wouldn’t have missed it for even money. He ended it with a true story about a disabled musician whose violin string broke during his concert performance. Rather than interrupt the performance with a slow retreat offstage to replace the string, he went on, changing the music to work around the missing string. When he was finished he said, “Sometimes its the artist’s job to find a way to make music with what we have.” I was touched in a personal way, and it brings tears to my eyes thinking about it now.

Before he could slip away I was determined to get a picture of Mr. Canemaker, perhaps so I could have some kind of record of the day I made up my mind to get started. He graciously smiled for the camera, and he said as he gave us his good-byes, “I hope you get that project done.” What more incentive does a person need than that?

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