b. 1957, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Cordell Barker has made a reputation for himself as one of Canada’s top animators with two short films under 10 minutes each. For most of his 25-year career, Barker has worked behind the scenes making commercials; however, his shorts The Cat Came Back and Strange Invaders have earned him two Oscar® nominations and renown for his unique hand-drawn style and darkly comic cautionary tales.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Barker decided to be an animator at an early age. His hometown offered plenty of opportunity for commercial work, and in 1974, in his late teens, he began an animation apprenticeship with Kenn Perkins Animation (where artists such as Brad Caslor and Chris Hinton started out). He worked his way up in the company from an unpaid position to painting cells for Sesame Street and K-Tel ads. After three years, he left in search of work that would allow him to hone his artistic talents.
In Cartoon Capers (1999), a book about animation in Canada, Karen Mazurkewich says, “Winnipeg was not a region noted for its creative commercial campaigns in the early 1970s. Barker found himself on a treadmill, repeatedly cranking out graphic jobs with no character animation.” Around the same time, Paul Driessen's bizarre, wordless film An Old Box (Driessen's style was widely established with his work on the film Yellow Submarine) further inspired Barker to explore his own creativity.
In 1976, the National Film Board opened its Winnipeg Studio, which helped to nurture a group of filmmakers that later became known as the Winnipeg Group. The Group included a number of talented animators (who are now associated with Manitoba Animation) including Richard Condie and Caslor. Barker continued working primarily in commercials and gradually started associating with local artists. In 1982, he approached the NFB with the idea of making a film about an old man and a cat, which led to a short film based on the legendary folk song The Cat Came Back six years later.
This manic story of mayhem and mischief is about a man whose life is destroyed by an unwanted cat. Barker directed, wrote, animated and co-produced (with Condie and Ches Yetman) this seven-and-a-half-minute film. Barker and Condie also teamed up on the soundtrack. The film instantly established Barker as a serious talent — something that ad agencies had recognized long before. Leonard Maltin in Animation Favorites from the National Film Board of Canada (1994) comments, “A long-time festival favorite, this animated musical tale of old Mr. Johnson and the 'cat who wouldn't leave his home' achieves a Warner Brothers quality, as the battle between man and feline escalates. The song is insanely catchy, and the joke is built carefully, exquisitely timed with a knockout punchline.”
After the attention and fame of The Cat Came Back and a trip to Los Angeles for the Academy Award® ceremony, Barker returned to commercial work at the Montreal-based studio of Pascal Blais and other agencies. His clients include Coca Cola, Bell Canada, Nike and other major corporations. Throughout his career, he has balanced commercial work with artistic endeavour, including work as an animator on Caslor’s highly esteemed short for the NFB, Get a Job (1985), and directing, producing and animating for the Board’s O Canada series (1997).
Barker came up with the idea for Strange Invaders (2001), when the first of his three sons was born in the early 1990s. Eleven years later, Barker completed the film — a dark, witty tale of a childless couple whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a strange baby. The eight-and-a-half-minute film, with its sci-fi references, madcap humour and finely crafted hand-drawn animation, received a handful of international awards, including another Oscar nomination and Grand Prize at the Castelli International Animation Film Festival in Rome. Barker directed, wrote, produced, animated and narrated the film, which he dryly refers to as semi-autobiographical.