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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

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."

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