"My Oscar Experience": An Interview with John Canemaker

John Canemaker is perhaps one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. A tall, genteel man with salt and pepper hair, John speaks as if he's carefully thought about what he's going to say, with nary a word in the wrong place. There's a certain soft-spoken approach to his delivery that when he's speaking you are pulled into what he's saying almost immediately. You hang onto every word.

And on March 5, 2006, 38.8 million people hung on to every word that John said as he gave his acceptance speech for winning the Oscar for animated short film, for his brilliant and moving THE MOON AND THE SON: AN IMAGINED CONVERSATION. It was a bizarre moment if you think about it -- a first-time Oscar nominee who's been animating for over 30 years wins with his very low-fi hand-drawn and painted film in a catagory that seems to be in the midst of a hostle CG takeover.

It's interesting to note that this could be the very last animated short film Oscar winner that was shot on an Oxberry animation stand. With real film. Old school, yes, but a technique that brings out the heart and soul to a film without all the cold and calculated ones and zeros that high-tech computer programs seem to project. There's an added warmth to animated images when shooting with film. For John's piece, this kind of warmth perfectly magnified the extremely personal story he brought to the screen. And when the camera pulls back to reveal the animation stand from which each and every painted drawing was being placed upon in one of MOON AND THE SON's scenes, it was only fitting. At that point, the viewer is given full view of what John lives and breathes: the art of animation.

I'm sure that to many in the audience and at home on Oscar night, the name "John Canemaker" didn't ring a bell. But to those of us in the animation community his name rings many bells. He's written countless books, many of them found on must-have lists for animation, most notably Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational SketchArtists, Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, and one of my favorites: Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation (for more John Canemaker on Amazon.com, click here). A world-reknowned author and historian, he's also written for the NY Times (and other periodicals) and is a full professor and the director of animation studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Now John can add "Oscar winner" to his already impressive resumé.

Several months ago, I was reading an interesting article about John and his film THE MOON AND THE SON in a Korean animation magazine called Animatoon. It focused on what he had to do to get the film done, as well as his whole Oscar appearance, which I found extremely engaging. The article mentioned that John, along with the other Oscar-nominated animation filmmakers, got to go to San Francisco and spend a night at Skywalker Ranch, visit LucasArts and Pixar, as well as attend numerous screenings and events that lead up to The Big Night. As I was reading this, I thought about how great it would be to hear more. So I called Mr. Canemaker to see if he'd be willing to be interviewed about this entire experience. I'm not going to lie here -- I interviewed John for selfish reasons. I was so curious about what goes on behind the scenes for Oscar nominees. During the course of the interview though, I realized just how fascinating and inspirational this could be for others in the animation industry, if not for anyone who's ever chased a dream and had it come true.

And now, without further ado, my interview with John Canemaker:


Ward: First of all, John, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Ever since I read that Animatoon article, I was so fascinated by all the events that were briefly mentioned leading up to the Oscars and I just had to know more about it!

John: Was that the one written by Karl Cohen?

Ward: Yes, I believe it was. Care to go into excruciating detail about your Oscar experience?

John: Sure. Starting on February 26 [2006] Ron Diamond [co-founder of Acme Filmworks and the publisher of AWN] organized a wonderful tour of several studios in San Francisco and Los Angeles for all the Oscar nominees in the Animation category.

Ward: So you flew from NYC to San Francisco first?

John: Actually, my trip to Oscar-land began almost two weeks before the award ceremony. On February 22, after teaching a full day at N.Y.U., my partner Joe Kennedy and I flew to Arizona, where I participated in the Sedona Film Festival’s animation workshop. That’s where I met Andrew Jimenez, the co-director [with Mark Andrews] of Pixar’s Oscar-nominated ONE MAN BAND. He was part of the festival conference/workshop. I had seen him and his film at Annecy in June 2005, but this was the first time we spoke. He’s a great guy and very gifted. We’ve become friends and he has since visited my classes at NYU, where he demonstrated his mastery of AfterEffects in THE INCREDIBLES story reel and the fabulous “wall of art” he created for Pixar’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art last year.

Ward: Yes, I remember watching him talk about the “100 Mile Dash” sequence as part of the multitude of extras included for THE INCREDIBLES DVD. It’s amazing what he can do with that program.

Andy Jimenez as featured in the extras of THE INCREDIBLES DVD.

John. Yeah. Andy makes story sketches come to life and can literally move you into the drawings so you feel the texture of the pencil lines on the sketches and concept art. Marvelous!

Ward: So, what was the Sedona Festival like?

John in Sedona
On the road to the Oscars: John Canemaker at the Sedona (Arizona) Film Festival, February 23 - 26, 2006. (Be sure to click on all the photos to view larger.)

John: Very well-organized, very friendly people enthusiastic about film and animation. Gorgeous scenery, of course, all those red rocks and mesas. I felt like I was in a 3-D Roadrunner/Coyote cartoon. They put us up at the luxurious Amara Resort, which also has a great restaurant. They gave me a Chevy SUV to get around and Joe and I visited Flagstaff and Jerome, a former mining ghost town that is now a tourist Mecca in the mountains. Wandering through an ancient movie theatre that is now a museum/store, in the former projection booth we found an old Movieola with the initials “WDP” on it and the date “1940.” I got a thrill looking at this old Walt Disney Productions editing machine, thinking pencil tests for FANTASIA might have been viewed on it. How it ended up in Jerome, I don’t know. [The theater is the Jerome Liberty Theater.]

Ward: Wow. I bet that was pretty wild to see this relic right in the middle of the desert!

John: Yes, it was. Anyway, for one of the Sedona workshops I gave an Action Analysis class—a frame by-frame breakdown and comparison of animation principles of staging, motion, stretch and squash, anticipation, exaggeration, follow-through, etc. of Mickey Mouse in “Sorcerer” and Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore and Helen Broderick in SWING TIME.
Problem was I had to do it five times that day for five different groups of fifty people, young and old, who signed up for the conference. I was pooped by the end and later, in my hotel room, I accidentally fell into a large standing mirror and cut my head. I also cracked the mirror and wondered if it might be a bad omen. ‘Course, as it turned out, cracking your head on a mirror is good luck, if you want to win an Oscar!

Ward: I’ll make a note of that, next time I’m nominated!

John: Next day, at a brunch with all the festival guests and organizers, my film won an award for “Outstanding Achievement in Animation.” Charles Solomon’s piece on me and my film appeared that morning in the New York Times [26 Feb 06] and it was announced at the brunch. Then Joe and I drove two hours to Phoenix to catch a plane to San Francisco.


Ward: Is that where Ron Diamond picked you up?

John: Yeah. He met us at the airport with a van that evening in the middle of a cold and wet “monsoon.” What a contrast to the dry heat of Sedona! We drove into soggy San Francisco to pick up the others at their hotel, then we all took off for dinner and then Skywalker Ranch.

Ward: Who were the others?

John: Anthony and Julia Lucas, who produced the fascinating THE MYSTERIOUS GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORATIONS OF JASPER MORELLO. We first met at lunch in Annecy last summer, where their film won the Grand Prix.

Ward: I saw JASPER in Ottawa [International Animation Festival] last year [2005] and was immediately blown away by it.

John: Yes, it’s marvelous. There was also Shane Acker, a gifted filmmaker whose film “9” has beautifully subtle animation. The project has been picked up by Tim Burton and is being produced as a feature. And Sharon Colman, who animated the very droll and funny BADGERED. She has the best dirty laugh and most delightful Scottish burr. By the way, Sharon was recently hired by DreamWorks’ story department, which is great for both parties. Andy Jimenez was on his way back from Sedona and we would see him the next day at Pixar.

Ward: I can’t imagine how everyone felt during this whole experience. Did you spend a lot of time with the other filmmakers? Did you and Sharon become “kindred spirits” of sorts because you both had traditional-animated films?

John: Sharon and I email each other quite a lot. She is a darling and has a sharp wit, which I appreciate. Well, all of us nominees spent the better part of a week the end of February and early March going to parties, dining and screening our films in two cities at various studios, and we got to know each other rather well. And we all liked each other very much. I can honestly say we all were fine with whoever was going to win the award. It was such fun just to be part of the whole shebang.


Ward: So tell me about Skywalker Ranch.

John: We checked in late in the pouring rain at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County on Sunday evening, February 26. [For a quick tour of Skywalker Ranch, click here.]

Ward: The Ranch has rooms, like a hotel? That’s really interesting.

John: Yes. The accommodations were very comfy and very film oriented. Each guest room is named after a famous film director, such as the Frank Capra Room, the Fellini Room, the Hitchcock Room, and their décor includes an original poster or artifact of their work. Shane was listed for the Winsor McCay Room, until I begged him to trade rooms with me. I had to stay there. He was kind enough to do so, not wanting to see a grown man cry.

Ward: Of course! What artifact of McCay’s was in that room?

John: Two beautiful original drawings by McCay! A political cartoon of a funeral procession of rats and a late period “Little Nemo” strip with Dr. Pill shooting off his gun willy-nilly—looking and acting like Dick Cheney. I’m pleased to say my 1987 biography of Winsor McCay was in the bookcase.

Next morning, it was still raining. But we were all up early for a help-yourself breakfast and a tour of the ranch’s main house, which is way up-the-road-a-piece in a pastoral setting of trees, rolling hills and roaming sheep. Chris Wedge had breakfast with us 'cause he was there to mix ICE AGE 2 –THE MELTDOWN. The house itself is lavishly appointed with antiques and artifacts from STAR WARS and other films, and lots of original movie posters. George [Lucas] was not around.

Ward: [laughing] I was just going to ask you if The Man was there!

Signing the Winsor McCay book

February 27. In the Skywalker Ranch library, John Canemaker signs his 1987 biography "Winsor McCay - His Life and Art"

John: We also toured the large research library and the librarian asked me to sign the library’s copy of my “Winsor McCay” biography. And we saw the vast underground start-of-the-art recording and mixing studios. We said hello again to Chris Wedge and director Carlos Saldanha, and watched a little of their mix session for ICE AGE 2. Then Ron drove us over the Richmond Bridge to the East Bay: Emeryville and Pixar. The great thing I learned that day is that even an independent producer can hire the Skywalker facilities. You don’t have to be a big studio to record or mix your film there. If they are interested in your film project, they will work with you to tailor a budget that works for you.

Ward: That's good to know.


At Pixar
In the entrance atrium at Pixar Animation Studios on a rainy Feb. 27: ( l. to r.) Julia Lucas, Anthony Lucas, John Lasseter, Andrew Jimenez, and John Canemaker.

John: It was still pouring rain, but a sunny, beaming John Lasseter wearing his signature Hawaiian shirt greeted us with a bear hug at the entrance to the huge lobby of the studio. And so did three of my former students, now gainfully employed there: Alex Woo, Cortney Armitage, and Austin Lee.

Ward: Ah, that’s great! I bet that that was a satisfying moment for you to see your former students now working at such a powerhouse of animation.

John: It was. I have been teaching for over 30 years and now have former students at Disney Feature Animation, Disney Television, Cartoon Network, Lucasarts, DreamWorks, Electronic Arts, Little Airplane, Curious Pictures and Blue Sky, among other studios. Some have even founded their own studios. I’m proud of all my former and present students. I heard from many of them when I won the Oscar.

Anyway, at Pixar there was a full house for the screening of our films and very good questions after. We had lunch with Pete Docter [director of MONSTER'S INC.] and several others, then got a brief tour of the animation area.

Ward: What was that like?

John: The animators have a free-hand in decorating their offices and several of them are really wild. And what we saw of the works-in-progress was only what Pixar wanted us to see. Which was nothing. There is a high degree of secrecy there and rightly so.

Rain was coming down heavier, but Ron carefully drove us over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco to the Presidio and our screening/Q&A at Lucasfilm/ILM.

John and friend

John Canemaker greets R2-D2 at LucasFilm Studio in the San Francisco Presidio.

Another big crowd there, including members of the San Francisco ASIFA chapter. None of us nominees could stand to watch our own films anymore; so after introductions to the audience, we disappeared, wandered about and returned for questions after. We were given a tour of the animation area, which was as secretive as Pixar’s. At Lucasfilm the computers were turned away from us and we were only allowed to walk so far into the work space. Later, we had dinner across the street from the Lucas studio at Liverpool Lil’s, a fun place with good food, joined by animation directors and effects supervisors for HARRY POTTER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, and other recent films. Ron drove us to the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City and we collapsed in bed.

Ward: I feel like collapsing just listening to your busy day!

John: And that was just the first day! Tuesday morning I was up at 6 a.m. to do a phone interview with my hometown newspaper in Elmira, N.Y. Then Joe and I packed our bags and met Ron and the group for a drive to Electronic Arts in Redwood City. We walked into a dark space with the windows blackened and men carrying machine guns. We thought, Whoa! This is the most extreme security we have yet encountered! But it turned out to be a promotion for a new game called “Black.” Whew! The rest of the studio was quite sunny and we had a full house again in the theatre. While our films were screened, we ducked out and caught a preview of THE GODFATHER video game. After an audience Q&A, we dashed for San Francisco airport.


This is the end of Part 1 to my two-part interview with John Canemaker. Click here for Part 2.


All the photos featured in this interview (and more) can be viewed together in a Flickr photoset: John Canemaker's Oscar Experience.


  1. Really enjoyed the interview and look forward to the second part.

  2. Awesome, Ward! What a scoop!

  3. Glanced at the interview and will come back to finish reading it!

    Nice work Ward!

  4. Wow!!

    Fantastic post, Ward! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this! :D This is history, isn't it :)

  5. A wonderful interview of a wonderful man.

    I particularly like the picture of John with R2-D2. It captures him.

    Bob Bragar

  6. Oh wow! Great interview Ward!
    I knew you were up to something great... but this is beyond anything I ever schemed you were cooking up.