Happy birthday to John Canemaker who celebrated his 78th trip around the Sun today.
Chances are that if you’re a regular reader of this site, you have at least one of his books about animation history on your shelves. They are classics of the field, from his half-dozen or so essential books on Disney animation ( to authoritative volumes on pre-Disney icons Winsor McCay and Felix the Cat to his book about the making of Richard Williams’ Raggedy Ann and Andy, which is quite possibly the best making-of book ever written about an animated feature.
In the pantheon of animation historians, few can compete with John’s achievements, and when it comes specifically to Disney animation scholarship, he stands as a key figure in developing the field of study for nearly half a century. In my personal opinion, he’s written more incisively about the artists who worked at Disney than any other historian.
As someone who has made a modest effort to follow in his footsteps, all I can say is that John has set a remarkably high bar for animation scholarship. What separates John from the pack is his sensitivity to the human condition. Though he writes eloquently about animation, his research has never been just about studios and films; his work has also been about discovering and uncovering the lives of the people who make the art. He has always understood that an artist’s work and life can’t be compartmentalized, that one informs the other, and his writing casts light on the personal journeys and struggles of the oft-forgotten men and women who create the animation. John’s approach to animation history is as rare as it is unique; few historians are as passionate about the artists as they are the cartoons, and even fewer can draw all the threads together in such compelling fashion.
There’s of course much more to celebrate about John beyond his work as a historian.
As a filmmaker, he tapped into his own complicated personal history to create the powerful film The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation, which won the Oscar in 2006. It joins a catalog of many other independent and commissioned films, including the lyrically expressive Bridgehampton and his most recent effort, Hands (2019), based on a story from Sherwood Anderson’s classic piece of literary Americana, Winesburg, Ohio.
Or we could talk about his role as an educator at New York University, whose undergrad animation program he leads.
And then there’s his incredible collection of research materials housed at NYU’s library that is accessible to all and has been used by countless historians, myself included.
But this post isn’t meant to serve as a resumé of his accomplishments. You can find those on his website. Rather, it’s to take the opportunity to wish John a happy birthday. I’ve been privileged to know him, learn from him, and benefit from his friendship over the years, and I suspect that he has enriched the lives of many others who have encountered him throughout the years. Animation is lucky to have him in our corner.