Monday, August 2, 2010

Two Guys Named Joe

John Canemaker has become one of our leading animation historians for several reasons. As an artist and animator himself, he has an advantage over non-artists such as Bob Thomas or Charles Solomon in understanding the process. As someone immersed in animation history, he is familiar with the field in a way that dabblers like Stefan Kanfer or Neal Gabler never can be. As someone who has personal relationships with many of the people he writes about, he has insights that are not available to authors like Donald Crafton, who write about the remote past.

However, all these qualities are trumped by Canemaker's honesty and, perhaps, his courage. Older books on animation tended to be scrubbed clean of studio politics and personal foibles. They were usually content to present chronologies of events and talk of technical and artistic innovations. Canemaker understands that artists are human and so are not wholly admirable and that studios are often battlegrounds where various aesthetics, ambitions, and alliances clash.

When I read Before the Animation Begins, Canemaker's book on the Disney inspirational sketch artists, I was surprised to be reading about recognizable human behavior in a book published by Disney. I'm sure the studio would have been very happy with something along the lines of what Christopher Finch gave them in The Art of Walt Disney, lots of pretty pictures, a cursory history and humorous anecdotes. Instead, Canemaker portrayed the artists sometimes being frustrated, angry and victimized, with many of them happy to leave the studio when a better opportunity came along. I don't know how much Canemaker had to argue for his approach or if the company had matured enough to accept it, but whatever the case, the book raised the standard for animation history.

Canemaker's subsequent books have taken the same approach and Two Guys Named Joe is no exception. It is a dual biography of story artists Joe Ranft and Joe Grant, each of whom was a major influence. Ranft's biggest contribution was at Pixar, though he also worked on films by Henry Selick and Jerry Rees. Joe Grant had two distinct periods at Disney, the early features and the Eisner era.

Ranft had an uncomfortable childhood as he didn't fit in. He was too large, too active and too mean. Spitting at nuns is hardly standard behavior for a future Disney story artist. At some point, though, Ranft decided to remake himself, joining a self-help organization called Lifespring, where he met his wife Su. The marriage proved to be a stabilizing influence on Ranft, who continued his evolution by working with community outreach programs.

Even so, his time at Disney on projects like The Great Mouse Detective and The Rescuers Down Under was not satisfying and he left Disney voluntarily. From there, he worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, and James and the Giant Peach before moving into Pixar full-time. At Pixar, besides being a primary contributor to the features, his need to help others led him to create story classes where employees had the opportunity to sharpen their skills. Ranft became a resource that many people at Pixar called on.

Joe Grant was not the humanitarian that Joe Ranft was. If anything, Grant was somewhat arrogant, unafraid to alienate people at the studio in order to push his own agenda. The model department, which he headed, was a studio within a studio and Grant protected the artists and the working conditions within it, leading to envy and anger on the part of those on the outside. Even Grant's own collaborators, like Dick Huemer who co-authored Dumbo with him, fell out with Grant and the two never reconciled.

Unlike many Disney artists, Grant had a successful career before joining the studio. Other artists lived in fear of falling out of Walt Disney's favor, but Grant was willing to take chances knowing that he could survive on the outside. He was good at stimulating Walt Disney with various artistic possibilities, but wasn't afraid to disagree with him. That eventually led to Grant leaving the studio in the late '40s and embarking on a career in ceramics and greeting cards.

It was only chance that brought Grant back to Disney. A Disney executive went to interview Jack Kinney about the story process during Walt Disney's lifetime. Kinney was in poor health, so his wife asked Joe Grant to attend as an extra source of information. The Disney exec was so impressed with Grant that he told the studio about him and Tom Schumacher brought Grant in to view work in progress on The Rescuers Down Under. That led to consulting and in 1991 to full time employment. Grant was 83 at the time. Schumacher found Grant, "hard to integrate into the studio process," acknowledging that Grant's personality had not changed over the years.

This book is illustrated with wonderful artwork. Ranft's story sketches are crystal clear, both compositionally and emotionally. There is no visual confusion about what's happening or what a character is thinking or feeling at that moment in time. If Joe Ranft was influenced by Bill Peet, concerned about revealing character through action, Grant seemed influenced by Albert Hurter. Grant's strength, like Hurter's, was the single drawing that suggested character and business possibilities. Don Hahn said, "I don't think he cared about plot all that much."

John Canemaker has contributed yet another essential volume for everyone interested in the animation medium. Both Ranft and Grant are fascinating personalities with strong artistic points of view. Canemaker interviews many other artists about them and the projects they worked on. Two Guys Named Joe is a satisfying read for anyone interested in the creation of Disney and Pixar films.

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