An Animated View: Trends, Challenges & Women in Animation

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Editor’s Note: The following piece was contributed by Sarah Cox, executive creative director at Aardman, where they create animated feature films, series, advertising and digital entertainment for audiences around the world.

Significant Trends Affecting Animation Today

I loved the recent Oscar-nominated film Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as Zucchini). The film marks two significant trends. First, in terms of technique, it’s a great example of the return to a more handcrafted approach—in this case, beautifully designed stop-motion directed by Claude Barras. There is a bit of a backlash against realism-driven CGI animation currently. This film, however, shows that character and emotion can be even more potent with simply animated tactile characters and gently paced storytelling.

In terms of content, My Life as Zucchini manages to deal with a range of challengingly sensitive issues for children in a relatable, humorous, emotional way. Barras worked with Celine Sciamma, the French director of Girlhood, to adapt the screenplay from the original novel by Gilles Paris. The collaboration marks a brave step away from preconceptions about what constitutes a successful animated feature for a family audience. Ultimately, it is a film that understands its audience and does not patronize them. I’m hoping this marks a trend toward more diverse and thought-provoking subject matter for children’s content.

Movie still from My Life as a Zucchini. Image via @maviedecourgette

Women in Animation

Women have been involved in animation—particularly in independent animation—right from its inception. Lotte Reiniger and Claire Parker are key examples here. And of course, over time, women working in animation have adapted their practice to and evolved with the changing opportunities and challenges of the medium.

At Aardman, I work with women in all capacities. We have brilliant directors, producers, sound designers, VFX artists, designers, model makers, execs, writers and animators. Looking outside of Aardman and across the industry, I think that women access all areas—but there are also areas that would benefit from more female representation, particularly lead creative roles and in technology. That said, I do feel this is slowly improving.

The Commercial Directing Conundrum

In the U.K., I believe the split between male and female students in animation degree courses is roughly 50/50. However, something is still going wrong in the industry because there are so few female animation directors. I read that in the last decade of major US–released animated features, only one out of 93 was directed solely by a woman (Kung Fu Panda, directed by Jennifer Yuh).

 Movie still from Kung Fu Panda, directed by Jennifer Yuh. Image via Amazon.

Movie still from Kung Fu Panda, directed by Jennifer Yuh. Image via Amazon.

A recent Women in Film and TV study found that from 2015 to 2016, women made up only 26% of creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and directors of photography working on broadcast network, cable and streaming programs. It’s not just animation—film as a whole, and especially comedy, is a male-dominated field. Misguided preconceptions about women not being able to direct comedy or fantasy are still quoted from major studios in the industry. This worrying reluctance to encourage women directing comedy/animation is easily proved wrong by directors such as Joanna Quinn, Rebecca Sugar or Michaela Pavlatova. Personally, I would love to see a major feature directed by Quinn. And I have to wonder, would she have already been given that opportunity if she were a man?

A Love Story, directed by Anushka Kishani Naanayakkara

A Love Story, directed by Anushka Kishani Naanayakkara

If you look at the independent sector via animation festivals, there are comparatively many more women directors represented. Their work is equally featured in international competitions, and it wins just as many awards. For example, Sri Lankan director Anushka Kishani Naanayakkara won the BAFTA Short Animation this year. So, the problem is not that there is less female talent. Sadly, it appears to be that in the commercial sector there is a lack of confidence in that same talent. There are increasingly more female producers and executives, but it’s such a shame that the creative route to the top is comparatively much more difficult. I think the only solution is to challenge such outdated preconceptions at all levels.

Industry Confidence is Crucial

It’s all about confidence. The industry needs to have more commercial confidence in the evident wealth of talented female directors graduating from film schools and screening at festivals. More women need to cross over from the independent sector into the industry. The lack of confidence in this talent breeds a lack of confidence in potential directors themselves if they can’t see a route through or have enough role models. If there are more women directors in animation, then I think that will encourage and increase the representation of women at all levels.

Even so, I think everyone has to work hard in this industry, and I’m not sure whether women have to work harder than any other minority or individual from a less-advantaged background. Assumptions need to be challenged from a broader perspective, not just from a women’s point of view. We need to look at building an industry that truly reflects our audience and society in all its diversity. What women can do today, on International Women’s Day and every day, is support the talent and inspire confidence in all underrepresented groups in the animation industry.


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