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Part 3: Animation

A case study that deep dives into the representation of women in Australian animation.

Interviewees:

Jen Dickinson – 2D Animation Supervisor, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Flying Bark Productions

Amber Naismith – Animation Producer, The LEGO Batman Movie, The LEGO Movie - Animal Logic

Sharon Taylor – Chief Operating Officer – Animal Logic, Executive Chair of Vancouver Chapter of Women in Animation

Jacquie Trowell – Co-director, 100% Wolf TV – Flying Bark Productions

Heidy Villafane – Director of Photography and Layout Supervisor, 100% Wolf (movie) – Flying Bark Productions

Animation degrees have near equal gender representation – or sometimes more female graduates – why? And does this have flow-on effects to the industry? Representatives from two of Australia’s leading animation houses – Animal Logic and Flying Bark – discuss.

DATA AT A GLANCE

VCA: Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation)

Male Female Other % of women
2015 4 7 0 64%
2016 4 4 0 50%
2017 1 5 0 83%
2018 2 3 0 60%

GRIFFITH FILM SCHOOL: Bachelor of Animation

Male Female Other % of women
2016 21 29 0 58%
2017 25 21 0 46%
2018 12 24 0 67%

UTS ANIMAL LOGIC ACADEMY: Masters of Animation and Visualisation

Male Female Other % of women
2017 11 8 0 42%
2018 13 14 0 52%

AFTRS: Diploma in Visual Effects Fundamentals

Male Female Other % of women
2016 0 5 0 100%

AFTRS: Advanced Diploma in Visual Effects/3D Animation and Visual Effects

Male Female Other % of women
2017 4 1 0 20%
2018 6 2 0 25%

ANIMATING A PATH FROM STUDY TO WORK

Sharon Taylor is the Chief Operating Officer of Animal Logic – an Australian animation company pushing for gender balance Sharon Taylor is the Chief Operating Officer of Animal Logic – an Australian animation company pushing for gender balance

Whilst the amount of women studying at film school can vary widely by course (see Part 1), animation is a notable exception.

At VCA, the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) course consistently records more female than male graduates. Since 2015, one year had parity, whilst the others recorded between 60-83% female graduates.

The numbers at Griffith Film School (GFS) are similar – 2017 was the only year were there were slightly more male graduates (54%) in the Bachelor of Animation. Every other year between 2015 and 2018 had women representing between 54% and 73% of graduates.

At AFTRS, the Advanced Diploma in Visual Effects (which was slightly changed and renamed Advanced Diploma in 3D Animation and Visual Effects) had women making up 20% and 25% of graduates, but the Diploma in Visual Effects Fundamentals had 100% female graduates.

The new UTS Animal Logic Academy, which runs an intensive year-long Masters course to better equip graduates for entry into the industry, had female graduates making up 42% and 51% of graduates in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

This positive trend of representation in female graduates is not unique to Australia. As reported by the LA Times, the private university Disney co-founded called CalArts had 71% female animation students in 2015. At other schools at the time the statistics were similar: the University of Southern California’s John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts has 65% women, UCLA's masters in animation had around 68% women, and the Ringling College of Art and Design’s computer animation program in Florida had close to 70% women.

However, these figures are not reflected in the workforce. The most recent data from the Animation Guild, which tracks the employment and gender diversity at animation studios in and around Los Angeles, shows slightly more than 25% of the artists, writers and technicians are women (up 4% since 2015).

Animation Producer Amber Naismith (The LEGO Movie) says you can’t underestimate the importance of ‘see it, be it’ Animation Producer Amber Naismith (The LEGO Movie) says you can’t underestimate the importance of ‘see it, be it’

Although there is no Australian equivalent data set, Animal Logic Chief Operating Officer Sharon Taylor says gaining employment and finding a foothold in the industry can be a major challenge.

“It’s clear from the figures that there’s no issue in attracting female students to VFX and animation courses. What we do find is that once they graduate, there's a drop off in numbers within the industry,” she says.

“Particularly here in Australia where we don't have the scale of industry [that exists overseas]. So the limited roles we do have are filled by returning crew and it’s difficult for recent graduates to be considered for these roles.”

Animal Logic animation producer Amber Naismith (The LEGO Batman Movie) says it also matters what roles graduates are employed in. And wonders if the drop-off could also be attributed to the lack of women in senior creative roles.

“Most of the powerful creative positions and senior leadership has traditionally been held by men. I've never worked under a female director before for instance. It is a common observation in our industry that women are more present in production roles and not directorial roles or technical roles,” she says.

“So in a typical animation studio, men are the creative leads and women are the producers, so women are always there to facilitate and enable the creative vision of men. I think that restrictive pattern can hold up that status quo…

“There's that saying, ‘see it, be it’ and I think that's really important because for me, when I was starting out there weren’t a huge amount of women in the industry and certainly not in my workplace, but there was in production and that's the area that I naturally went into, whereas originally I probably had more desire to work in a directing role.”

2D Animation Supervisor Jen Dickinson says animation house Flying Bark leads by example, and employs women in senior management and creative teams 2D Animation Supervisor Jen Dickinson says animation house Flying Bark leads by example, and employs women in senior management and creative teams

Jen Dickinson is one of four 2D animation supervisors on Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – a hand-drawn 2D animated series with Flying Bark Productions.

“Basically we get an episode each and oversee that episode from character layout through to animation, clean-up effects, backgrounds, compositing, along with the leads of those various teams as well. Also all four of us run our own animation teams and help train and teach new animators and artists,” she says.

Dickinson started out freelancing before working on the ABC3 series Prisoner Zero for Planet 55 Studios. She then moved to Flying Bark to work as a character designer and animator on Oh Yuck!, and as an animator on Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before stepping into the supervisor role.

“To be honest I’ve been really lucky in that the two studios where I’ve worked, there’s always been this very strong and balanced representation of talent,” she says, which has been surprising to some of her colleagues who have worked in VFX.

She says two of the four 2D animation supervisors on Turtles are women, and that’s just one example of diversity in those senior management and creative teams.

Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

30 YEARS OF PROGRESS

Another woman in a leadership position at Flying Bark is Jacquie Trowell, the co-director of 100% Wolf at Flying Bark Productions, a 26 x 22 minute 3D series. As the co-director she is creatively responsible for everything from story through to final product.

Trowell started her career in Cape Town in the art department of live action projects before discovering animation and specialising in Claymation and stop motion animation. In those days of the 1990s and 2000s, she says she was the only woman in South Africa animating stop motion or directing animation.

“And the bias was clear – I would often be met with the assumption that I was the producer in meetings (a role then dominated by women) and not the director. And this was from as many women as men,” she says.

100% Wolf TV co-director Jacquie Trowell says she didn’t see women in 3D modelling or VFX until she returned to Australia 100% Wolf TV co-director Jacquie Trowell says she didn’t see women in 3D modelling or VFX until she returned to Australia

When she moved back to Australia in 2010, she found that because the animation industry is a bit bigger, it’s easier to see more women, “carving a creative niche, taking roles as talented animators and now heading creative departments.”

“I had never seen women in 3D modelling and VFX in South Africa, but I see them at Flying Bark,” she says. “More and more women are directing internationally but feature film is still dominated by male directors. I guess it’s a matter of time, and certainly a willingness on the part of production companies (and investors).”

Flying Bark and Animal Logic are two examples of Australian production companies pushing to redress the gender balance.

Taylor says at Animal Logic there’s always been great representation of women in areas like human resources and finance.

“The biggest challenge for us is in upper management and in those creative and technical roles,” she says, adding that this increased focus has led to some positive shifts.

“Our upper management right now is sitting around 40% women and in the creative and technical roles I think we can get anywhere up to 20% depending on how busy we are. That's much better than when I first started at Animal Logic 14 years ago when there was probably 50 women in the company altogether.” Today Animal Logic have almost 300 staff in their Sydney Studio, but this number can jump to over 500 in peak production periods.

Naismith has also noted a change in the animation industry.

“So when I started at Animal Logic, there would've really been a handful of women working as computer animators. I'm talking one or two out of 50. But over the last five to 10 years, I can say there's been a sharp increase in that ratio particularly in areas like design, animation, lighting and compositing,” she says.

“And looking at the top roles, we're certainly seeing a lot more women being hired and that's been a conscious effort on our behalf as a company, as well as seeing more women in the industry generally.”

Naismith points out that although animation degrees are generalised, there are different areas that are seen as ‘male’ and ‘female’ within animation.

“Technical roles, more on the box technical roles like compositing, visual effects and 3D generalists have been predominately male dominated, whereas the more production roles have traditionally been female dominated,” she says.

And because you only start to specialise when you begin working, Naismith wonders if these stereotypes are discouraging graduates from pursuing certain areas.

“There's also a need to review current industry practices,” she says.

“It's not specific to the animation industry but looking at things like blind-biased tests in interviews… [And] that more mentoring schemes are being created upon graduation…

“If women see other women working successfully in the industry it might encourage some follow-on work. I just think we need to make a more concerted effort to hire more women even though they may not have the practical experience.”

Heidy Villafane is both the Director of Photography and Layout Supervisor on the 100% Wolf movie, and is trying to pay it forward for the next generation Heidy Villafane is both the Director of Photography and Layout Supervisor on the 100% Wolf movie, and is trying to pay it forward for the next generation

It’s something Heidy Villafane has already been putting into practice.

As both Director of Photography and Layout Supervisor on Flying Bark’s feature film 100% Wolf, Villafane’s job is to take the project from storyboards into 3D space.

“So we put all the characters, the props, the sets [into 3D space, and] we do some temporary lighting,” she says. “But number one is getting the cameras correct and cinematically looking good for photography animation.”

100% Wolf marks a first for Villafane. In her department, which is called ‘layout’, Villafane has usually been the only woman on the team apart from the production co-ordinator (a role she says is often female).

“Creatively it's always either been me or one other female if I'm lucky. But on this production, including myself, we were 50/50. There was four of us girls and four of the boys in layout,” she says.

But that’s no accident. As a supervisor, Villafane had a say in the make-up of her team. It was still merit based – “I need people that can do the work,” she adds – but she was conscious of giving some female applicants a chance.

One of them was still relatively new to the industry with dreams of becoming an animator – a difficult area to break into.

“She wants to be an animator and we weren't having a lot of luck finding a layout artist for our film. But I could tell she could animate cameras and cinematically her work looked great.”

So Villafane gave her the advice she wished someone had told her 17 years ago.

“I said if you want to get into animation you might just have to stick it out, but working at Flying Bark's a good idea because… you can always side step into animation, but you just need your foot in the door.

Also she says many animators are also skilled layout artists so they can stay employed year-round.

“On animation you'll only be working on maybe 60% of the project. Whereas in layout you work from the very beginning to the very end. So if you want to keep your options open, employment-wise, it's good to dabble in both.

“So I was just trying to open her eyes to not limiting her options in the future. Anyway she got in here and she is amazing. And she is actually going to continue on to the next project [at Flying Bark]…

“I'm just glad, because I really wish I had someone who had spoken to me back in the day, and given me some of this advice.”

And while Villafane might not have had those women in leadership role models, she’s now one of several women holding them.

“I mean I've never worked under a female supervisor, but I'm a supervisor now, so it is improving,” she says.

100% Wolf100% Wolf

FACTORS BEYOND GENDER

For Dickinson, breaking into the industry as an animator is always going to be difficult, regardless of gender.

“That's definitely a universal hurdle but I also feel like maybe in animation, especially 2D animation, it's going to be more pronounced because of how small the industry is,” she says.

“[On Turtles], we try to encourage people to go from entry level to higher positions and we really like training people up, especially fresh talent… because the more people who get trained up, the bigger the industry is going to get. But again it's a little bit self-limiting because of the size of the industry.”

Many animators leave Australia for jobs and opportunities in larger industries overseas – what’s been called ‘the brain drain’. In Taylor’s mind, the issue of the brain drain is very much tied to those challenges around first jobs and even balancing family commitments.

“If we had enough work in Australia to keep people in long term employment without the need to move overseas, I think it would solve a lot of issues for our industry as a whole, including the drop-off of women,” she says.

And she says it’s not just a matter of needing more competitive rebates (the PDV Offset for Post, Digital and Visual Effects is currently 30% of qualifying expenditure, but is exclusive from other offsets).

“It is the whole package for a lot of films,” she says.

“I spent three years in Vancouver and the fact that productions can go there and shoot their live action sequences and complete post production in the same area is a big advantage. Crew is always in steady supply, projects are not competing for timing of availability of space and they have the proximity to Hollywood – it becomes this all-encompassing solution for the studios.

“So I don't think that the conversation about the brain drain is just tied to tax credits. It is more complex than just that…

“Our industry is project driven, and it can be hard in Australia to have a long sustainable career because the work can be sporadic and you don't want to be picking up and moving every couple of years, especially if you have a children.”

Dickinson agrees, saying it’s an issue for both men and women in the industry.

“With contract or project work, it can be quite nerve-racking to make decisions. Things like buying a house or starting a family or anything like that,” she says.

“It's much more common I think in our industry to move country to chase work than it is in a lot of others, and I think having that flexibility and being able to adapt to the fact that a contract might not come along for a few months is definitely not going to be for everyone.”

Villafane says animation is a highly stressful area, with long hours.

“I mean I was working six day weeks on and off for three years… so you kind of need that stamina.”

But Taylor says the wider screen industry is starting to look at things like that.

“The industry is changing. Companies are realising, and even the films themselves, that having a work-life balance is important to get the best end result,” she says.

Taylor is also one of the executive chairs of the Vancouver chapter of the non-profit advocacy group Women in Animation. They have a target of 50-50 across the animation industries by 2025, taking a broad approach to animation e.g. including games.

“I do think there needs to be a focus on training and education that highlights what it's like to work in our industry, what good practice is, how to recognise talent, and how to build well rounded teams.”

Technology advances could also be helping create change by making education more accessible.

On the internet, regardless of gender you can up-skill in VFX through online tutorials at places like Andrew Kramer’s Video Co-pilot, or find animation ‘how-to’ videos on YouTube, and communities with similar interests online.

Naismith says this creates exciting alternate pathways for careers.

“What we're seeing is a lot of people who were illustrators dabbling in 2D animation, or photographers are starting to move into stop motion and I think that's opening up animation to a wider group of people,” she says.

“So it's not purely being seen as a technical coding practice now. I think that will encourage more women who may be coming from a more artistic background [rather than] a technical background. Whereas some men who might have started in computer programming have come into animation because of their coding [background].”

BALANCE FOR THE BOTTOM LINE

This push for gender parity is not purely just a numbers game. Naismith says it’s a win-win situation for storytellers and audiences alike.

“I think for us if we can authentically tell any story that comes in the door, whether it's a male or female central character, that's really important,” she says. And you can’t do that if you don’t have a well-rounded team.

“Quite often we have a male director, a male editor, a male animation director and yet we've got a female character that everyone's sort of struggling to develop, so the more women we have in that room the more perspective they can give and the more balanced and better developed characters we'll see.”

Dickinson says a recurring issue within the animation industry is the representation of female characters onscreen. There’s been data from the Geena Davis Institute about the ratio of male to female characters in children’s animation (it’s 6:1), but also articles on archetypes, and the limitations placed on female characters and expressions so that they remain conventionally ‘pretty’.

“You see [those limits] a lot more in film than you do in TV, which is so fast moving and content hungry that you can start breaking out of that,” Dickinson says. And she says again it comes down to more women in senior positions encouraging the creation of content that other women want to see and be inspired to make.

Trowell agrees.

“We need a balance of men and women in any industry,” Trowell says. “They both bring life experience and points of view that, when combined, promise another level of creativity. If an animation team has this depth, it's capable of better storytelling, more varied characterisation and a richer final product.

“And if there are women's names in the credits, we may see more women confidently choosing animation careers.”

REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC

In the Appendix you will find the graduate data from the film schools that has supported this story. At the bottom of the Appendix, you will also find a selection of Screen News stories, podcasts and videos that have profiled female creators from over the past three years.

In August 2019, the final round of Gender Matters KPI data from Screen Australia will be released, showing the impact the targeted funding has had on gender representation in writers, directors and producers. [Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the data.]

A common thread throughout the interviews in this series has been a sense of optimism and determination to realise lasting change. Many of the interviewees noted how simple awareness has already helped more female talent be utilised, and stressed how important it is to keep the conversation going.

To that end, we invite you continue the discussion on Facebook. Do you work in the screen industry? What’s been your experience? Have you noticed more women being employed as Heads of Department or in ‘above the line’ or ‘below the line’ roles? Share your story and career advice in the post below. All genders welcome.

Title image: Animal Logic’s Amber Naismith was animation producer on The LEGO Movie.