ANNECY—According to a survey of several L.A.-based animation schools 60% of animation students are women. But only 20% of all animation creative’s are women.
The telling data, from Women in Animation (WIA) board member surveys and statistics gathered in 2015 by the Animation Guild, formed some of the key talking points at a panel discussion entitled Women In Animation that took place Wednesday June 17 at Annecy’s MIFA market.
In other data, in 2006, men made up 84% of the animation workforce, whereas roles filled by women totalled 16%. In 2015, men make up 80% and roles filled by women still only total 20%.
Also according to the Animation Guild findings, 10% of all producers/directors are women. 17% of all writers are women, 21% of art/designers are women and 23% of animators are women.
These are all average numbers, mainly focused on Los Angeles-based studios. According to WIA, the numbers are similar in Canada, with 16 -18% of the creative roles currently occupied by women.
The survey revealed that in the last five years, only three animated features in the U.S. and two in France have had a woman director, and those were only as part of male/female directing teams.
In the past 15 years, there have only been two solo woman directors of U.S. produced animated features – Jennifer Yuh Nelson for “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011) and Jun Falkenstein for “The Tigger Movie” (2000).
“The numbers are out of proportion because there has been very little work done to intentionally change the status quo. Most hiring in entertainment is risk averse where people hire who they know. It’s easier but what that leads to is the hiring of the same people and up until recently primarily men,” said Marge Dean , WIA co-president and production director at Mattel’s newly formed Playground Productions, told Variety.
“Additionally, women have been trained to be artists in animation schools but not to be leaders. They need to be encouraged to be brave enough to step up to the plate,” she added.
“As Lisa Henson said in her keynote address last night, ‘Women love to help make things happen and nurture projects … but my experience is that young women are not brave enough to say I want the film to be my film and I want to be the director.’”
“So, our work is twofold: Get the industry to make the extra effort to find the new untapped talent available and then get the women to have the courage to see themselves as creative leads and pursue that goal,” Dean added.
Panelists included WIA Advisory Board Members Bonnie Arnold, Margie Cohn, Lenora Hume and Adina Pitt as well as WIA Co-President Kristy Scanlan and WIA Chairpersons Jinko Gotoh and Tracy Campbell, Panel was moderated by Dean. WIA has chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Dublin, Paris and New Delhi. New ones will soon be opened in Vancouver, Montreal, Seattle, London, Tokyo and Seoul.
The animation lobby had 120 members in 2013, now 1,020.
Some of its activities include educational programs, a shorts production program and measuring stats to check the progress of its mission.
“Animation is a small niche in the greater world of entertainment and creating content. Therefore, it is a more manageable battlefield. When we are successful in having real impact in changing the animation industry, it will be a great example of what is possible on a larger scale,” Dean said.
She added: “Further, because animation is primarily kid’s and family content, we will be able to show a different representation of female characters in both quantity and quality to a younger and more impressionable audience; leading to a very different view of women and their role in the world.”
WIA’s aim is for 50/50 employment in 2025.
John Hopewell contributed to this article
Thinkers at CalArts aren’t stopping at numerical equity, though; they’re calling out the industry’s worst offenses at the school’s annual symposium on gender bias in animation, “The Animated Woman.” Originated by Erica Larsen-Dockray, a professor in the experimental animation program, the conference grew out of her class of the same name, where students discuss everything from the narrow range of female cartoon characters to unrealistic body types. It’s not surprising that many topics tend to revolve around Disney, given the studio’s prominence. Ask grads about their favorite animated features growing up, and you’ll hear titles like Robin Hood, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast.
While they may be fans, the animators also hope to improve on the past. “In a lot of these standard textbooks, women are hardly ever portrayed with jobs,” Larsen-Dockray tells me one afternoon. “They’re usually either old women or sexy women, and they’re nude a lot of the time.” We’re in her office, where she’s leafing through The Animator’s Survival Kit. At 342 pages, the tome by Oscar-winning animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is one of the school’s canonical texts. If you want to illustrate a guy walking, running, leaping, staggering drunkenly, picking up a heavy stone, or poking his finger into a balloon, the book will show you how. But it’s remarkably limited when it comes to women. “Check this out,” she says, flipping to page 157, where the author lays out four options for how women walk: “normally,” “fashion models,” “strippers,” and “ballerinas.”
One solution that Larsen-Dockray is advocating may sound familiar: Build a more diverse workplace. CalArts is uniquely positioned to help do just that. TV and film execs regularly attend student screenings and “portfolio days” at the school; connections also come through faculty members, several of whom are in the business. Chapman, who appeared in that Vanity Fair photo, became the first woman to win a Best Animated Feature Oscar for her work on Pixar’s Brave. Josie Trinidad, class of 2002, is head of story at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Niki Yang has worked as a storyboard artist on everything from Family Guy to Adventure Time, as well as voiced popular characters on Gravity Falls and We Bare Bears. Emily Dean was story artist on The Lego Batman Movie, while Daron Nefcy runs the Disney show Star vs. the Forces of Evil.
Many of them are bringing female colleagues with them. “I’ve seen Daron Nefcy’s show hire our female alumni, and that’s been great,” says Maija Burnett, director of the CalArts character animation program. “There’s obviously a mix of men and women there, but I think it’s spawned its own great unofficial group of female artists.” Nefcy is only the second woman to create an animated series for Disney. Now in its third season, Star has gained notice for its multicultural cast and historic airing of what’s been called “Disney’s First Gay Kiss” (the scene takes place at a huge boy band concert, so there are actually several). “For the third season, out of 12 storyboard artists, only three were guys,” says Nefcy. “But then, that’s my show, and I’m always looking for people I know and people I’ve heard good things about.”
At Cartoon Network a similar phenomenon is happening with show creator Julia Pott’s series, Summer Camp Island, which premieres next year. “I think she’s made a definite effort to hire a lot of women — as many women as she can — to story positions, and for me, a supervising position,” says Elizabeth Ito, a 2004 CalArts graduate and a storyboard supervisor. To find her office, look for the papier-mâché Uncle Grandpa (from the Cartoon Network series by the same name) and the arcade claw game stocked with bags of Chips Ahoy.
Ito hopes that the growing number of women in story and creative positions will lead to changes in how the industry greenlights and produces films and TV series. “Six years ago I was working on a show pitch about these kids who form a garage band to fight monsters, and the lead character for the longest time was a girl,” she says. “I remember the first thing they said when we went to pitch the show was, ‘Oh, can we change the lead singer to a boy? Because boys aren’t going to watch a show where the lead singer is a girl.’ It seemed like such a stupid change. It didn’t seem like that would matter. Or it shouldn’t matter.”
The shifting tide became most apparent at CalArts in 2012, when the graduating class of 21 experimental animation majors included only one guy. “It was insane,” recalls Kirsten Lepore, an award-winning animator and member of the 2012 class. “There was a lot of estrogen in that room.”
Faculty and students alike noticed the change. “Some of our teachers were saying, ‘We’ve gotta find a way to get more of a gender balance,’ ” recalls Maureen Furniss, director of the experimental animation program. As it turned out, the shift happened organically. The admissions process at CalArts is famously blind: Faculty members look at the applicant’s portfolio, not at the applicant. And as Furniss points out, the notion of “gender” at the school goes beyond a binary male/female thing. “There’s a lot of attention and consideration given to people of varying degrees of gender here,” she says. “Not just female and male but every other combination.”
That complexity has contributed to some of the most thought-provoking — and inclusive — animation in years. Zootopia, Storks, and the Netflix series BoJack Horseman all featured LGBT characters. On Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, the three main heroines appear to be female but are genderless aliens. One of the trio is in fact two beings in a same-sex relationship (it’s complicated; watch the show). The same network’s Adventure Time features female ex-lovers (Marceline and Princess Bubblegum), a genderless robot that looks like a Game Boy but sounds like a Korean girl (named BMO), and gender-swapped versions of the series’ two male leads.
With its pro-LGBT themes and gender-fluid characters, the series is a favorite of Lepore, who directed a special stop-motion episode (“Bad Jubies”) that won an Emmy last year. Lepore’s own stop-motion shorts often feature gender-ambiguous characters: mountain dwellers and narwhals, geometric shapes and adventure-seeking desserts. “I think binaries in animation are boring a lot of the time because that’s what we deal with as real-life humans,” she says. “The point of animation, at least for me, is that you can do anything. So you should explore that and venture into these new, weird, experimental worlds.”
Lepore and her husband, filmmaker Daniel Kwan, live in a Highland Park home filled with props from films. There are smiling pastries and a bass-playing vampiress, candy-colored castles, and the Claymation hero from her latest short, Hi Stranger. In it the nude figure lies on its belly, looking intently at the “stranger” (that would be you) and says things you might hear from the nicest friend in the world on the best day ever: “I just want to sit here and relax with you. You’re wonderful and worthy of being loved.” The character invites you to watch a sunset, then draws your portrait. Hi Stranger has drawn nearly 3 million views since Lepore posted it on YouTube in March, and while some people have called it creepy and made parodies of it, she insists the character is really her. “I want to shower the world with positivity,” she says. “I want to tell everybody they’re beautiful and wonderful! That’s my whole vibe.”
If she’s upbeat, it might be in part because, unlike a lot of her colleagues, she gets to work from home. “I don’t have to be in an office where I’m being paid less and there’s a gender problem,” she laughs. “I’m in my house.” No surprise, she’s also happy about the growing numbers of women working on animated feature films and TV series, but for Lepore, the quality of the work comes first. “My one and only thing,” she says, “is when people are like, ‘Hire more women! Get more women in there!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, get more women in there —if they’re talented.’ It’s much better when there’s a mix.”
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