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John Canemaker pays tribute to a guy named Joe

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John Canemaker pays tribute to a guy named Joe

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You’ve probably seen a lot of Joe Ranft-related material popping up around the Web over the past few days. John Musker’s excellent story reel-based tribute to his old pal (who was tragically killed in an automobile accident back on August 16, 2005). No to mention the first installment of Leo Holzer’s two part interview with Joe’s widow, Su (which uses March 13, 2010 – the date that would have been Ranft’s 50th birthday – as an opportunity to reflect on Joe’s life & career).

So why is it – nearly 5 years after the fact – that so many animation veterans seem to still feel this loss so keenly? Continue to mourn this man?

To get an answer to this question, I turned to John Canemaker, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and noted animation teacher & historian. (Take a moment to go check out your Disney history library. If you look at the spines of those books, I’m sure that you’ll see John’s name repeated over & over & over …)

And given that Canemaker was good friends with Ranft for nearly 20 years, it turns out that Joe was the perfect guy to explain why so many people in the animation world still seem to miss Joe.

Joe Ranft at "The Fox and the Hound" wrap party
A very happy Joe Ranft at "The Fox & the Hound" wrap party.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved 

“We actually first met in back in 1988,” Canemaker remembered. “I was putting together a panel for the AFI about storyboarding. And someone suggested that I get Joe – who had just finished working on ‘The Brave Little Toaster’ – to come take part in this panel.”

Well, as it turns out, one of the other people that Canemaker had asked to appear on this storyboarding panel was Disney Legend Bill Peet. Who was one of Ranft’s idols. And given that John had set up the event which allowed Joe to finally spend some time with Bill … Well, Ranft never forgot that and was always grateful to Canemaker for helping him to meet Peet.

And then – from there – we started corresponding. I got a note from him when he’d been made story supervisor on ‘The Rescuers Down Under,’ “ John continued. “I even got letters from him after he and Su had moved to Seattle for a while. After he was burned out from working at Disney and needed to regroup for a little while.”

Joe Ranft works on "The Rescuers Down Under"
Joe hard at work on "The Rescuers Down Under."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And with each of these letters, Ranft would share some treasure with this filmmaker & teacher. Be it a Xerox of a storyboard from “Dumbo” or something else that he’d come across that he thought the animation historian might enjoy.

“Joe was just so generous with his time and talent,” John said. “I remember him once calling me and saying ‘I’m coming into New York to record Paul Newman for ‘Cars.’ And Disney’s given me a pair of tickets to ‘The Lion King‘ ‘ – which had just opened on Broadway at that time – ‘Would you like to go see this show with me?’ And that’s how I got to see the hottest show on Broadway. As Joe Ranft’s guest.”

This sort of behavior was fairly typical of Mr. Ranft. Canemaker recalled how – when he was doing research for “Paper Dreams: The Art And Artists Of Disney Storyboards” – Joe & Su put John up for the night while he was out west.

“I remember one night how Joe and I took turns reading his son, Jordy a bedtime story,” John smiled. “’Count Nightwing,’ I think it was called. First he read a page, then I read a page. It was really quite sweet.”

But it wasn’t just Joe Ranft the person that interested Canemaker. As Ranft’s reputation as a master storyteller – one of the very best in the business, or so they say – grew, John enjoyed charting the course of his friends’ career.

“You have to remember that Joe started his career in animation very young. He was only 19 when Disney hired him. Recruiting him straight out of CalArts after they saw his student film, ‘Good Humor,’ “ Canemaker said. “Joe’s mother was furious with him for leaving college before he got his degree. But Joe insisted that he had to take this job. That being recruited by Disney was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Young Joe Ranft and Tim Burton at Walt Disney Studios
Look at how young Joe Ranft & Tim Burton were
when they first started working at Walt Disney Studios.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And Walt Disney Animation Studios executives must have thought that Ranft was really something special. Given that – rather than have Joe follow the usual path for new hires (i.e. spending two months completing test pieces of animation before then being assigned some studio vet to work with) – he went straight to Story.

“He really did have this amazing gift when it came to Story,” Canemaker continued. “John Lasseter talks about how – in every Pixar film that Joe worked on – there was always some scene that went straight into production just the way that Joe had boarded it. Take the ‘Green Army Men” sequence from ‘Toy Story.’ What you see on screen is exactly what Joe boarded. It was perfect.”

Ranft was infamous – in animation circles, anyway – as being the guy who most wanted in the room pitching your boards to the suits whenever you were introducing them to a new character and/or a brand-new sequence in your film. And that was because Joe would give this full-blown, almost vaudeville-like performance that would then seal the deal. Which is why Ranft’s vocals (which was often used for scratch tracks) often would wind up being used as the final voice for the characters that he pitched for these Pixar directors.

“There’s a story that they tell about ‘A Bug's Life,’“ Canemaker said. “Where John Lasseter’s wife is looking at the animation tests that Pixar had done while they were struggling to find just the right name actor to voice Heimlich. And Nancy says ‘No one’s as good as Joe is.’ Which is how he wound up being the official voice of the caterpillar in that film.”

Given that Ranft really was the gold standard when it came to storyboarding, when Canemaker’s friend passed away, John really wanted to do something that would celebrate & protect Joe’s legacy. Which is why – three or four years ago – when this award-winning author was sitting down with his editor at Disney, Canemaker came up with kind of an unusual idea for a new book.

“This was just after Joe Grant died. Who was this 97-year-old who was also a giant of Story at Disney,” John explained. “And I talked about these two friends of mine. How one had been a young spirit while the other had been this old soul. And I told this editor about how I felt that there was a lot worth sharing about each of their careers as well as their life stories. And my editor immediately agreed to the idea.“

Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant & Joe Ranft
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And this coming August, “Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant & Joe Ranft” will hit store shelves. This book contains full-blown biographies of both men. Not mention Canemaker’s keen insights into what made Ranft & Grant giants of the Story world.

I spoke with a number of people ay Pixar about how Joe was able to do what he did. Which is put you right in the head of the character that he was boarding. So you knew what they were thinking, what they were feeling,” Canemaker said. “I collected all that in a chapter entitled ‘Joe’s Rules.’ Which I’m hoping will help keep his legacy of great storytelling alive.”

Now you have to understand that – over the past five years – I’ve spoken with dozens of artists and animators. Each of which have these sort of stories about Joe Ranft. About this gentle giant of a guy always had the time to help his friends & colleagues. Who was always so generous with his talent and his spirit.

So is it any wonder that people like Canemaker (who still fondly remembers Ranft’s last visit to his apartment in NYC. Which was over the Fourth of July in 2005. Where Joe spent three hours on the floor, methodically going through John’s animation collection) still miss this man so much?

Speaking of John … If you’d like to learn more about one of America’s most respected animation historians and teachers … Well, Print Magazine has just announced a new monthly blog that will be written by Mr. Canemaker. And as for the first edition of this soon-to-be favorite, this Academy Award-winning, Emmy Award-winning, Peabody Award-winning animation filmmaker interviews comic master Jeff Smith. Who then talks about the highly anticipated feature film version of Smith’s epic graphic novel, “Bone.” If you’d like to check out Canemaker’s blog, please click on this link.

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