Move Over, Old Men

Michael Mallory is an L.A.-based writer who specializes in animation

In 1937, a Colorado-based artist named Jessie Lamberson, one among dozens of aspiring animators from across the country seeking a job with the Walt Disney studio, received the following response to a job application that had been requested by the studio:

“Upon closer inspection of your application, we note that you list your occupation as ‘housekeeper.’ We assume, therefore, that you are a woman. If this is the case it will be impossible for us to further consider your application inasmuch as we employ only men in our animation department.”

In fairness to Disney, this policy was not endemic to Uncle Walt. Save for so few exceptions that they could have been counted on Captain Hook’s fingers, this was simply state of the animation business throughout its Golden Age.

Now jump-cut to the present day: Disney and Pixar’s computer-animated feature “Toy Story 2,” which was produced by two women, Helene Plotkin and Karen Robert Jackson, basks in the kind of critical raves that normally set the stage for Oscar recognition and becomes the second-highest-grossing animated film in history with $241 million (and still counting). Many critics single out for praise the cowgirl character “Jessie,” whose show-stopping, emotional centerpiece scene was the work of a female animator, Tasha Wedeen.

Within the 60 years that separate Jessie Lamberson from Jessie the Cowgirl lies the long, hard struggle that has been undertaken by women in the animation industry, from the era of nearly total exclusion--except for the tedious job of inking and painting drawings onto cels--to the present, when female artists have started to take on such key creative positions as supervising animator, head of story, production designer and director.


“I can’t name a category that we don’t have women doing jobs in,” says Pam Coats, vice president of Creative Production and Feature Animation for the Walt Disney Co. In fact, Disney’s current animated offering, “The Tigger Movie,” written and directed by Jun Falkenstein, represents the first auteur stance from a woman in feature animation.

“It was a chance to show what I could do,” says Falkenstein, a former story artist who was already familiar with the Pooh franchise, having directed the 1998 TV special “A Winnie the Pooh Thanksgiving.” Initially, another writer had been assigned to the film (which was produced through Disney’s TV animation division), whose departure during pre-production allowed Falkenstein to take over, which she says “turned out to be in the best interests of everyone because it streamlined the story process considerably.”

But if the good news is that more and more women are, through talent and tenacity, rising to the top in the animation field, the disheartening news is that it didn’t begin until the 1990s. “I find it almost a little embarrassing because it’s taken so long for that to happen to this industry,” says Brenda Chapman, who as co-director of DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” became the first female director of a major-studio animated film (“major studio” being the operative term--1985’s “The Care Bears Movie,” made by Canadian animation company Nelvana Communications, was directed by a woman, Arna Selznick). Chapman was also the industry’s first female head of story, for the Disney blockbuster “The Lion King.”

As Lorna Cook, co-director of DreamWorks’ “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (now in production), points out, “This is no overnight success. I got into this business and 25 years later I’m directing a film.” That sentiment is echoed by Becky Bristow, creative producer and director for “The Cramp Twins,” a series produced for the Cartoon Network’s U.K. service by Glendale-based Sunbow Entertainment, and former head of CalArts’ experimental animation program, who says she was “pushing from 1974 to ’90 to be a director.”

What has been responsible for this decade-long revolution, and why has it happened so quietly, without the benefit of the kind of public protests that normally accompany movements toward equality?

“I think it is because more and more women were coming into animation to a point where they just could not be ignored,” says Linda Miller, a former Disney and Don Bluth animator and story artist who is directing Film Roman’s “The Oblongs,” which is scheduled to air on the WB Network. Miller, for one, is of the belief that the rise of women in television animation might actually have a civilizing effect over Saturday morning’s traditionally boy-oriented, comic book-related content because “the audience has to be conceived as something other than bloodthirsty male preteens.”

There’s no question that the so-called toon boom of the past seven years has opened doors for many women (and men as well) by creating a huge demand for talent, which in turn has prompted many more young women to view animation as a viable career, starting at the university level. Major studios like DreamWorks, where Jeffrey Katzenberg is seen as a vital supporter of female artists, have taken the lead in promoting women to top positions.

“When we first started DreamWorks [Animation], there were seven women executives sitting around a table with Jeffrey at the end, and I looked around and said, ‘That’s cool,’ ” notes Kathy Altieri, production designer for “Spirit.”

And on the organizational front is a quiet powerhouse called Women in Animation, a nonprofit support and advocacy organization founded in 1994 by Animation magazine then-publisher Rita Street, which has worked to prepare women to compete in the marketplace.

“Women have always been frightened of competition, especially in the corporate arena,” says WIA President Jan Nagel, who is director of business development and marketing for Virtual Magic Animation, a digital ink-and-paint and compositing shop. “We’re trying to empower women by giving them education and by allowing them to network and meet people within the industry.” (Earlier movements initiated on behalf of women in the industry such as LIPS, or Ladies in Production Services, organized in the late 1970s by Bristow, and its organizational offspring WANDA, or Women Animation Network Directory Alliance, which was spearheaded by the animator Ruth Kissane, ultimately petered out.)

Interestingly, women had been rising to levels of power in production, programming and development capacities since the late 1970s, a solid 10 years before the first signs of the creative revolution. The business track that produced such TV animation executives as Hanna-Barbera’s Jayne Barbera, Fox Kids Network’s Margaret Loesch, Warner Bros.’ Jean MacCurdy and Kathleen Helppie and Nickelodeon’s Geraldine Laybourne, Mary Harrington and Linda Simensky, seemed to run separate from the creative track. By the 1980s, women began to break through the scriptwriting barriers for even the most boy-centric action cartoons such as “G.I. Joe,” which featured scripts by Christy Marx.

Directing was the last frontier for women. Although today in television animation female directors are becoming increasingly common, the shift is more prevalent in prime time than in daytime.

Nickelodeon’s “The Wild Thornberrys,” a series produced by the iconoclastic art house Klasky-Csupo (which is co-owned by a woman, Arlene Klasky), set a record by being the first television series to boast an entirely female directing staff. When it comes to creating television series, though, it is largely men who still carry the keys to the washroom.

A rare exception is Sue Rose, a former comic-strip artist with two series on the air: “Disney’s Pepper Ann” for ABC, which she produces with partner Nahnatchka Khan, and “Angela Anaconda” for Fox Family Channel, co-created with Joanna Ferrone. Rose gives a large part of the credit for getting “Pepper Ann” on the air to production executive Laybourne. The programming whiz who built Nickelodeon into a kids powerhouse spent 2 1/2 years in charge of Disney cable programming before leaving the company to form a new cable-TV and Internet venture, Oxygen.

“If it wasn’t for Gerry, I wouldn’t be here now,” Rose says. “She was here at Disney a few years ago when a lot of people said they were looking for girls’ shows, but not a lot of people committed to doing it. Gerry was really the driving force behind this new idea.”

And while animated television commercials still tend to be dominated by men, women are increasingly breaking into the field by way of being independent filmmakers. “It’s one of the areas where women can get to be a director when they come from a filmmaking background,” says Bonita Versh, a commercial director with Klasky-Csupo. “Independent filmmakers have a style that is viable in the commercial venue, whereas in the longer formats like Saturday morning shows, they do not often have that kind of creative freedom.” Similarly, the Internet, where entrepreneurship is only a mouse click away, is also a burgeoning opportunity “not only for women, but for artists of color,” according to Film Roman’s Miller.


To fully appreciate the journey women have traveled in the animation industry, it is necessary to see where the road started.

Except for silent pioneers such as Lotte Reiniger, who did silhouette animation in the 1920s, or the occasional independent animated filmmaker Faith Hubley, female artists simply were not a part of the animation industry for most of its history.

“Disney did not want to put that much time and energy into training women because they didn’t feel they were career people,” says television producer Libby Simon, a board member and chair of the historical committee for Women in Animation.

The only real exceptions to this policy were Mary Blair, an art and color designer whose unique style Walt himself adopted as his company’s standard for films in the 1940s and ‘50s, and Retta Scott, who for reasons that are not currently clear was allowed to animate on 1942’s “Bambi.”

As far as fully credited female animators go, there was only one from 1930 to 1970: LaVerne Harding, who worked for the Walter Lantz studio (although Lillian Friedman had worked without credit at the Max Fleischer Studios). To Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker, Harding was a top animator. To the women in ink and paint, though, she was an inspiration. “She was like a goddess because nobody else even got to be an inbetweener,” says Martha Sigall, who began as an apprentice painter with the Leon Schlesinger Looney Tunes Studio in 1936. (An inbetweener is a lower-level artist who fills in the drawings between key animation poses.)

During World War II, when many male artists were overseas, inkers and painters were sometimes promoted to inbetweening or assistant positions, only to find themselves moved back when the men returned home. Sigall became a camera assistant for a company called Graphic Arts--with special permission from the animation cameraman’s union, which normally forbade female members. “The day the war was over,” Sigall says, “somebody from the cameramen’s union called me and told me that my work permit was canceled. We just accepted it.”


Most accepted it, but not all. Merle Welton, who joined Disney in 1949, was relegated to the ink-and-paint department even though she held a bachelor’s degree in art. After four years of inking, she decided on her own to seek out a job in background layout. “I’d gotten friendly with a lot of animators, who we weren’t supposed to mix with,” says Welton, who now works as an animation final checker, “and they said, ‘Bring your portfolio, we’ll see what we can do.’ ” The result? “I was threatened with being fired for actually having the audacity to better myself!”

Within a few years, opportunities for women had expanded to include inbetweening and assisting animators by making sure that their drawings remained consistent to the character models, but that was all. “When I was working on ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ it never even crossed my mind that one day I would be an animator,” says Jane Baer, president of Baer Animation. “You could only go so far, and that was your goal, to go as far as you could under the glass ceiling.”

Some believe women were given more responsibility, but only insofar as it made the men look good.

“My whole theory is that if women [were] there to support the guys, then they [were] OK,” says Bristow. “Assistant animating was certainly supporting the animators because you made their stuff look good.”


It was not until the 1970s that the situation began to change, with more women entering the animation training program at Disney. Don Bluth, then head of the training program and now head of Fox Animation Studios, and Eric Larson mentored many of the female artists. (Larson was one of the fabled “Nine Old Men” who were Walt Disney’s personal favorites among all his animators.) But even then, the attitudes of many male veterans were hard to break down. Sue Goldberg, who worked as a designer, painter, cleanup artist and animator before serving as art director for two segments of Disney’s “Fantasia/2000,” remembers taking classes at CalArts during this transitional era. “I would get patted on the head and told, ‘Someday you’ll make a great assistant,’ ” she says, “and I’d say, ‘No, someday I’ll make a great director.’ ”

On the television side, artists such as Xenia DeMattia, Ruth “Kasey” Kissane and Marija Dail were gaining footholds as animators at companies such as Hanna-Barbera, but during the 1970s, Gwen Wetzler was the only female director in TV animation.

Wetzler had been promoted to the director’s chair after working as an animator for Filmation, which was a leading Saturday morning producer at the time (“The Archie Show,” “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “He-Man Master of the Universe”). That was accepted, more or less, though her subsequent promotion to head director at the studio caused a mutiny.

“When they announced that, the other directors were so incensed that they actually left that meeting and went into a private meeting with Lou Scheimer, who owned the company, to protest my promotion,” Wetzler says. Scheimer stood behind the promotion, which resulted in one of her male colleagues quitting. Others refused to work with her.

It is the women who broke down the barriers and fought for acceptance in the 1970s that are regarded by today’s younger generation of artists as their true foremothers. Some from that era recall that it was not only the attitudes of men that had to change.

“Some of my female colleagues didn’t seem to understand that they had to go the extra mile,” says Vicky Jenson, a 20-year veteran of the industry who is co-directing DreamWorks’ “Shrek.”

“A lot of people believe that if they show a certain amount of talent, that’s enough, but it’s not just having talent, it’s also going after something. I had some friends in ink-and-paint who would have a talent show at one of the studios, and they would wait, thinking that if they had their paintings up, somebody would say, ‘Hey, you’re good, let’s put you in background painting.’ But I went and took a test,” she says.

While the future for women in animation has never looked better, the jury strangely remains out as to whether it will ever achieve true gender equality. “I don’t know if the percentage will ever be 50-50, and I’m not sure why,” says Kathy Zielinski, character animation supervisor for DreamWorks’ “The Road to El Dorado.” “There tend to be a lot more men that are able to do animation than women, and it’s not because the opportunity isn’t there. I don’t really know why that is.”


Getting a Line on Animation

Animator: artist who makes the key pose drawings of a characte cene, creating the character’s “acting.”

Assistant animator (sometimes known as cleanup artist): one who takes the animator’s often sketchy drawings and fills in details, such as clothing or fingers, and ensures the drawing is consistent with the character’s approved design. The assistant ultimately neatly traces the animator’s roughs onto a clean sheet of paper, and these are the drawings that are inked onto cels.

Key poses (also called extremes): drawings that reflect the emotional high points of a character’s performance or indicate the course of a its action. For instance, in a series of 24 drawings that make up one second of film, drawings 1, 5, 8, 12, 18 and 22 may define the character’s performance or action--these are the key poses.

Inbetweener: artist who fills in drawings that link one key pose to the next.

Inker: artist who traces the finished animation drawing onto a clear cel using black ink.

Painter: artist who “opaques” the inked cels, or paints the colors in the proper areas.

Digital ink-and-paint: computerized system that takes the finished animation drawings and adds the hard ink lines and the colors inside the computer.

Color key (or color stylist): artist who creates the color scheme for a film or an individual scene, ensuring the colors of the characters neither clash nor blend in with the background colors, and that they “read” properly.

Layout: the design of the backgrounds.

Backgrounds: the “set” of an animated film, against which the characters are photographed. Backgrounds are designed by the layout artist and painted by the background painter.

Camera: Traditionally, an animation cameraman would place the finished cels overtop of the background and photograph them, one frame (if animated “on ones”) or two frames (if animated “on twos”) at a time, following instructions relayed by the director on exposure sheets (or “X-sheets”). The advent of digital ink-and-paint, however, has largely made the use of cels and a camera obsolete.

Production designer: person who designs the overall look of the film and who may also supervise the design of things such as animated props.

Art director: artist who develops the artistic style of the film, or a scene within the film.

Head of story: person (usually an artist) who works with a team of storyboard artists and the scriptwriter to create the film’s story. The devising of sight gags and bits of business characters perform in the film in addition to dialogue is under the heading “story.”

Supervising animators (sometimes called character leads): animator in charge of a team of other animators, who all work to create the performance of a particular character in a feature film. (In computer-animated films, supervising animators tend to oversee scenes or sequences instead of individual characters.)

Producer: as with live action, the person who brings all of the various departments, artists and craftsmen together and oversees the production.

Director: In feature films, the director directs the performances of the voice actors, oversees the direction and development of the story, establishes the pacing of a film, oversees the various animation teams and in general works with all department heads to execute a vision for the picture. In TV, the director is more concerned with planning scenes and timing the action.