Training the Next Generation of Women by Ellen Wolff
How many of today’s animation and vfx schools are preparing women students for top positions in today’s competitive film and TV industry. by Ellen Wolff
The buzz about animation’s girl power has been especially strong this season, fueled by writer/director Jennifer Lee’s Disney hit Frozen. Not to take anything away from the legacy of Disney’s Nine Old Men, but a generation of women is writing some new chapters. Brenda Chapman rightfully picked up an Oscar for her leadership on Pixar’s Brave, while Jennifer Yuh has been at the helm for two installments of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise. One of this year’s most acclaimed animated shorts, the innovative 3-D Get a Horse!, is also both directed and produced by women—Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim respectively.
That trend is occurring in television too, notes Brooke Keesling, who manages animation talent development at Cartoon Network. “We have Rebecca Sugar, who directs the network’s Steven Universe.” she notes. “At Cartoon Network there is no shortage of women.”
Keesling is uniquely positioned to see talented young women come into their own. Because in addition to her day job recruiting for the Cartoon Network, Keesling teaches a Film Production Workshop at CalArts. “I basically mentor students through the making of their films,” she explains. She knows what that takes, since Keesling earned her MFA at CalArts, and her film Boobie Girl won the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards in 2001.
CalArts has a long tradition of producing award-winning animators who make their marks as pros, and since the number of its female students has exceeded males in recent years, we’re seeing more women get their professional shots. Nicole Mitchell, Student Oscar Gold Medalist in 2008, earned an Annie nomination for her work on Disney’s Winnie the Pooh, while 2002 Silver Medalist Jen Sachs is now directing an animated documentary called The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard.
In recent years, Ringling College of Art and
“Young women don’t think they can’t succeed, because they were never told they couldn’t. You don’t have to tell little girls
that they can do anything. They already know that!”
— Brooke Keesling, Cartoon Network’s Manager of Animation Talent Development,
Design has also seen several female grads launch promising careers. After winning the 2011 Animation Gold Medal, Jenna Bors became an animator on commercials and on Sony’s Arthur Christmas, while 2007 Bronze Medalist Bevin Carnes worked on Green Lantern and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. In 2011, Stevie Lewis earned a Bronze Medal and became a visual development artist at PDI/ DreamWorks. And this past year, Lindsey St. Pierre, Ashley Graham and Kate Reynolds shared the Gold Medal for Dia de los Muertos, which they helped finance by mounting a savvy Kickstarter campaign.
“They were so focused and dedicated that sometimes I forgot how young they were,” says Ringling teacher Heather Thomson about her student medalists.
Thomson, who’s a ’96 Ringling alumna and has taught there for 13 years, says, “We have a lot of female students, and I think the number is increasing.” Perhaps as a result, the message young women are hearing today is different. “They’re not being told that they need to be twice as good to be considered ‘ good.’ They come with expectations of success.”
New Paths to Success
Young women animators are taking advantage of the growth of adult-themed animation to gain footholds in the industry. Careen Ingle, who
graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, has created animation for Conan, while her fellow alumna Laura Yilmaz recently worked on shorts for Comedy Central’s new series TripTank. And Yilmaz’s personal film, Places Other People Have Lived, is a festival standout.
The explosion of animation on the web has also created opportunities for female artists with distinctive voices. Animation producer Carolyn Bates from the Shut Up! Cartoons series recalls seeing the animation of Emily Brundige when Brundige was still at CalArts. Bates recalls, “When were looking for someone for a ‘tween’ girls project, I remembered Emily.” The resulting web series, Pubertina, features animation, voices and even music by Brundige.
“Emily Brundige was my student,” says Maureen Selwood, a veteran teacher in CalArts’ Experimental Animation program. “She was in a class that had 19 women and one man. Emily was very passionate about storytelling, and once she began to realize her potential as a writer, she knew who she wanted to be in a very public forum. For a lot of young people, the web is where they have to begin.”
And the web has also become a platform for introducing female animators from an ever-growing range of countries and cultures. As examples, Selwood points to Momo Wang from China, Asavari Kumar from India and Sara Gunnarsdóttir from Iceland. “A lot of extraordinary talent is coming from Asia,” says Selwood, who regularly curates shows around the world. “I teach a class that has a woman from Lebanon and one from Palestine. I’m seeing women who are not used to feeling empowered, because of the countries they come from. But more women are feeling that they have permission to break through in a man’s world—and not just in animation and the arts.”
“In one class I teach, one of the first assignments is to create an artist statement,” Selwood adds. “I was surprised at how personal and open they were. Ten years ago you would never have seen that kind of openness in sharing per- sonal stories. We talked about whether it was wise to reveal so much, and the women in the class were ferocious in saying, ‘Absolutely!’”
Hear Them Roar
Deeply personal films are especially evident
“I feel like there are two different paths: there is the Hollywood industry, which has not been very hospitable to women, and the world
of independent animation, which has been very nurturing.”
— Agnieszka Woznicka, Rhode Island School of Design
among animators with an independent bent, observes Agnieszka Woznicka, who teaches in the Film/ Animation/Video program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). “I feel like there are two different paths: there is the Hollywood industry, which has not been very hospitable to women, and the world of independent animation, which has been very nurturing.”
Woznicka’s particular expertise is in stopmotion, and she has seen several of her students embrace that form of animation and build a career doing it. By way of example, she cites Hayley Morris, whose poignant RISD film Undone used stop-motion animation to explore her grandfather’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Morris has since become a successful independent animator in N.Y.C., and a film festival favorite.
“A number of our graduates move to New York and do a lot of freelance work and music videos,” says Woznicka. “They’re still working with their classmates, and really helping each other. I find that encouraging to see.”
CalArts’ Keesling agrees. “I always tell my students; ‘Look around you. These are the people you’ll be with for years to come. So play nice and help each other out. This is your core network that will help you get jobs out in the world.’”
How strong—and how soon—a network of young female animators builds its industry clout is an open question. Maureen Selwood expects, “It may take another three or four years to really see the growth of women who are keen to become directors.”
It’s likely that the rise of social media, and sites like Kickstarter, Vimeo and Tumblr may help accelerate the pace. Even the TED Talks site has
shone a spotlight on artists like Miwa Matreyek, who combines animation and live performance to extraordinary effect.
“Young women don’t think they can’t succeed, because they were never told they couldn’t,” says Keesling. Paraphrasing comedian Sarah Silverman (who notably delivered writer Jennifer Lee’s lines in Wreck-It Ralph) Keesling asserts: “You don’t have to tell little girls that they can do anything. They already know that!” Ellen Wolff is an award-winning journalist who covers animation, visual effects and education.