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Move Over, Old Men

Disney's fabled favorite artists weren't alone in the male-ruled animation world. Now women are in key jobs, and they aim to stay.

March 19, 2000|MICHAEL MALLORY | 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."

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