What Vancouver’s Female Animators Think About the Diversity of Their Industry

On the heels of The Hollywood Reporter's white-dudes-only panel on diversity in animation, we asked seven women working in our own local animation industry how they think Vancouver measures up.

January 11, 2017

By Stacey McLachlan

When The Hollywood Reporter dropped an article about diversity in animation a few weeks back, they made one major error: failing to consider that all of the people on their panel of experts were caucasian men. The fallout for mansplaining was swift. As Cartoon Brew reported, “The Internet Is Disgusted By This Roundtable with Feature Animation Directors.

So we decided to balance out the one-sided reporting with a round-table discussion of our own—one that actually listens to what women have to say. Though the original article is Hollywood-centric, Vancouver is actually a huge heavyweight in the animation field: we have over 60 studios specializing in VFX or animation, the largest (and fastest-growing) cluster of domestic and foreign-owned studios in the world. We invited seven women with a variety of experiences and seniority to share their own experiences of gender and diversity in animation in a candid discussion at the VanMag offices. Here’s what THR missed out on:


The Panel

Kylie Ellis is a producer, formerly VP of Mainframe, the television division of Rainmaker Entertainment. She is currently producing a project for Spin Master and Skybound with the animation production being done at Atomic Cartoons.

Tara Kemes is VP of Culture and Talent at Rainmaker Studios, a division of Wow Unlimited Media Inc.

Jennifer Mawby runs a micro-agency, Social Motion Media, which creates branded stop-motion videos for social media digital marketing campaigns.

Molly Mason-Boule is VP of Content for EA Worldwide, and has worked for Dreamworks, ReelFX and advertising agencies in the past. She is also a board member of Women in Animation.

Robin Smith (name changed for privacy) is a storyboard artist currently working in a a Vancouver based studio.

Alicia Vega (name changed for privacy) graduated from Emily Carr and works as a compositor for 2D animations.

Amanda Wong is a background painter for My Little Pony: The Movie; previously she has worked on various TV series and also as a game artist for Big Fish Games.


The Discussion

VanMag: Why are groups like Women in Animation and Drawn Together necessary in the industry today?

Ellis: There’s a need to help support women in the industry—there’s definitely a gap. The whole point in starting Drawn Together was to ask, how can we support women within our industry? How can we help to promote women to key creative roles? How do we help women find their voice within storytelling, within supervisor director roles, in storyboard, in direction, in production? How do we support that?

Kemes: I think it’s interesting we’re having groups of women now when this industry has been here 25 to 30 years. There have been powerful women working in the industry for years.

“I think women are finding their place at the table very much so, especially in the last few years.”

Mason-Boule: And there have been powerful, powerhouse women working in animation for years and years and years. Women in Animation is there to act as an accelerator for women to grow and really reach their full potential in their careers as creatives and/or up-and-coming executives in all forms of animated entertainment.

Kemes: From the beginning, we saw women entering the field in production and organizational roles, where they came in and had to get all this crazy creativity organized and that was the first entry point. There weren’t schools, there was no structure, you made your way in.

Mason-Boule: There’s work to do for sure, or these organizations wouldn’t exist, but I think we’re in a renaissance period. It feels like there’s a lot of energy for women coming together in creative roles and executive roles. I think women are finding their place at the table very much so, especially in the last few years: there are female directors and producers, and in games there are more female game designers joining the teams.

Kemes: It’s a wave. In the entertainment industry…

Ellis: And in other industries.

Mason-Boule: It feels like the energy is growing. It’s fantastic.

VanMag: How diverse is the workplace here in Vancouver in terms of gender?

Amanda: The trend in the past few years of animation education is that they tend to skew female. The gender breakdown at Calarts’ animation in 2015 was 71 percent women. I think there were also a couple of years in Capilano’s program where there was like four guys out of a class of 25.

Kemes: I think that’s more about foundation and traditional art. I teach as well, and yes, there are more women, especially in character art and 2D art, but CG still skews male in the education programs.

Vega: I graduated from Emily Carr a few years back. A large percentage were female, I barely had male classmates. But I heard very different experiences from people who went to VanArts or VFS where it’s more CG. Emily Carr is more experimental, more academic, more fine-art oriented, so it attracts more women.

Smith: The last two shows I worked on, the boards teams were primarily women. I’ve never seen that before. The energy was…you could tell that production and the directors were excited too, because you can see the change happening. Storyboards are not normally woman-dominated, but this time it was like, “YEAH!”

“I was surrounded by dudes all the time. We used to have our Friday meetings at the No. 5 Orange!”

Kemes: At Rainmaker there were a few years when senior leadership was eight women out of 12 people. Not necessarily because of an intentional swing from males or females, but just because of who was right for the job.

Ellis: It was fantastic [working at Rainmaker at that time]. It was great to sit in a room and have it be mostly women. When I first started in the industry, I was surrounded by dudes all the time. We used to have our Friday meetings at the No. 5 Orange! That wouldn’t even be acceptable to consider today, but that’s the way it was.

Kemes: That wasn’t uncommon, if you could survive an interview at The Cecil, you were hired.

Mason-Boule: I have to say EA doesn’t do that. [Laughs.]

Mawby: In my worlds, studios are smaller, and most of our community are outside of Vancouver. The agencies we’re modelling ourselves after are owned and run by women. A lot of times, it’s couples. It’s interesting when you start to bring in life and lifestyle to the setting up of an animation studio, there does seem to be equal representation and a lot of life partnerships.

Mason-Boule: My senior management team is more than 60 percent women. And that wasn’t out of an, “I’m going to go and hire women specifically” mission, it was about who wound up being best for the job. Even in our studio in China, we have female art directors who are super-duper talented and very capable leaders. Women are getting more of an opportunity to lead or be in creative roles. Having said that, there is room for improvement.

Mawby: Is it geographic though, is that just a Hollywood thing?

Vega: I started working right out of school and since then I’ve never seen a disparity in percentage for hiring or people working or the roles. I’ve had a share of female supervisors, and I’ve worked under female directors. I came to the industry late enough that I didn’t see those problems or it hasn’t happened in my experience. My current team is three women out of nine which my supervisor says is really good for compositing. The whole department is maybe seven out of 20.

Mawby: What’s happening in the C-suite though, for those of you with bigger companies?

Mason-Boule: EA Sports used to be run by women. The head of the studio was a woman, her COO partner was a woman, I was on the leadership team with several other female leaders. They left the company five years ago now. But it changed as a natural course of the business changing, it didn’t change on a gender basis in any way. I’ve been lucky at EA to work with a number of talented women over the years. I wouldn’t say that it’s in a place where there’s no work to do: I think there’s always room for championing women. I saw more of the imbalance when I worked in advertising, but that was quite some time ago. Certainly women were in producer roles but not in art directing and copyright roles. In games it is not as severe—we are working on the balance.

Wong: I have seen it in gaming…sorry. [Laughs.] I really enjoyed my time at the small game studio I once worked at, but I did work for a year and a half as the only woman in the room. Everyone was very kind and progressive but it was still difficult for me. And I know anecdotally that for many other local gaming studios they’re heavily skewed towards men, since software and engineering are more heavily male-dominated than television and feature film.

If we take out the production and support roles, it’s not that high: it would be closer to 18 percent on pure artists.

Mason-Boule: That’s why there’s a huge push for STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education, and Girls Who Code, and the Grace Hopper conference, and ways in which companies and universities are getting women interested in writing code and joining software. Because in the engineering job family, there’s certainly a skew.

Kemes: Part of it is content. I do believe that depending on content that a particular studio is creating, you’re going to attract different kinds of talent. If we could have more women’s voices telling more female narrative, you might see more women working on those projects. Not just because “girls like to do girl things,” but you like to do things you relate to, and for some artists that’s important. I think it’s great we are seeing a positive progression, but we’re only sitting at around 22 percent female right now. If we take out the production and support roles, it’s not that high: it would be closer to 18 percent on pure artists.

Ellis: Which at the end of the day, is a low number.

Kemes: We have people who say, “I like working here because I walk around and I see so many other women.” But that’s still only 20 percent!

Ellis: Imagine if it was 50 percent!

Wong: That’s why I liked transitioning from games to television. Although TV is very contract-based, and I have less stability than when I was a permanent employee in a game studio, I think I’m ultimately happier in television because I’m happier being in an environment where there are other women around.

Kemes: We are very proud that people recognize that. A lot of the women they see are in leadership roles, so that seems encouraging and aspirational and they feel that there’s a path.

Smith: When I was boarding on a boy’s action show a while back, there were three girls on the boards team, part of a very small in-house crew. And I found myself going, “Wow, this is mostly women!” But one of my friends pulled me aside and was like, “Robin, we’re like 20 percent—it’s not actually that many, it just seems like a lot because we’re not used to it.” Apparently this is a thing and I found myself doing it all the time. I love the steps crews are making, with more and more women in animation and games.

VanMag: And what about in terms of content? How are women being represented in productions?

Smith: The one thing I’ve seen is a step back with content. I’ve seen such a resistance to having female leads, at least in Vancouver. I’m a little shocked by that.

Ellis: It partially stems from the broadcasters. When we’re pitching shows, the broadcasters are saying, “This is what’s selling right now.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could shift that so we have more representation of female characters in shows? The audience is there, but until you get the shift in thinking, it will be an uphill battle.

Kemes: It’s toy sales too.

Ellis: The dollars behind anything toy related…

Moule-Boule: It’s a chicken and egg. You’ve got to put it out there.

Ellis: Have you heard of GoldieBlox? I first saw it at Spark Animation Festival last year. It’s so exciting! I got teary just hearing about it because it was so empowering for girls. Back when I was a kid I wanted to play with Lego and Tinkertoys, I always got dolls, there wasn’t anything building related geared towards girls—it wasn’t fair. I’m so excited for girls today.

“Here’s a team of five, there’s one girl, she’s in pink.”

Mason-Boule: There’s work to be done for sure, but I do feel as though this conversation is gaining a lot of momentum and energy. There has to be a tipping point.

Vega: I’ve been in situations at productions where I’m so shocked with the content we’re producing, considering there’s so many women working on it. I’ll be thinking, “How can we be okay with this?”

Wong: Here’s a team of five, there’s one girl, she’s in pink.

Kemes: The token female!

Wong: I worked on DC Super Hero Girls last year and I really liked that project! Warner Bros. decided that there was a wide open market for female superhero merchandise that no one was addressing. When you see superhero toys, they do leave out that one female character. They’ll leave Black Widow out of the Avengers‘ toys, or they’ll leave out Rey or Princess Leia from Star Wars because they want to target little boys. It made me happy that there was a giant corporation that said: “Hey, we could make a lot of money if we made superheroes for little girls and made stories that could appeal to them.”

Ellis: More of that! 

VanMag: How important is mentorship in helping grow the number of women in the animation industry?

Kemes: We talk about education at Drawn Together a lot. Yes, we’re seeing more and more women in the programs—more than 50 percent! And yet the conversion to working as a professional is lost. We’re not even seeing them come in. They do the education and somewhere between finishing and getting into industry, we’re losing them.

Ellis: Where’s that gap?

Mason-Boule: That’s something Women in Animation has focused on, too. What are the connections between the educational institutions and getting those jobs, and critically, how are those entry-level employees and mid-career employees getting real mentorship? How are companies big and small finding senior female talent to look at those performers and growing them through active mentorship? We have a committee as part of Women in Animation around that to make sure we’re getting the top creative talent mentoring those that are coming up. If we don’t make that commitment as leaders ourselves to growing the folks we see with potential, then we’re letting ourselves down in many ways. At EA, we are connecting around the world through our Women’s Ultimate Team group. This is an amazing vehicle to bring women together to champion other women at EA.

Kemes: Women often say, “I need more time, I’m not there yet.” In contrast, it isn’t surprising to hear a less-qualified male say they can tackle directing, they’re up for it, even if they’ve never done it. It’s an entirely different level of confidence.

Mawby: “I’ve got balls, I can do that.”

Kemes: That’s where the gap is. We say, “Wanna direct?” and women go, “I don’t know, I’m not sure, I don’t think I’m there.” But they may have been doing this 12 years! We don’t have enough role-modeling so people can be aspirational. Brenda Chapman [first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio, The Prince of Egypt] was in Vancouver speaking at Spark Animation last autumn, and she messaged that she isn’t doing what she is doing with the intention to be a role model—she just wants to do what she loves. She was the reluctant role model.

Mawby: Feature film is probably the worst for representing women. Animation and series are better.

Mason-Boule: And we do need more female designers in games. I think those voices are true for our customer as well. Not every women wants to sit down and only play shooters!

Kemes: Some women do!

Wong: The majority of casual gamers are actually women. The targeted demographic for Big Fish Games was women 30 to 65 years old! However, this certainly doesn’t reflect in terms of demographic of game designers.

Mason-Boule: I think everyone’s recognizing that mobile games are huge in the female market.

Vega: But in gaming there’s a movement toward stopping female developer: Gamergate. People are sending SWAT teams to game developers houses and terrorizing their children and sending them threats. That would be very off-putting for me, knowing there are people ready to come after me at any moment.

Wong: Even if you don’t have somebody actively harming you, it’s hard to be the first person there. I wish I could’ve been like “Oh, it doesn’t bother me,” but it did bother me that I was the only woman in the room.

Mawby: If you’re the only woman in the room, be the boss.

Wong: I took a workshop with someone from Pixar and he said that at their studio, they would give promising artists the opportunity to direct a short film; and if they can prove that they can handle this responsibility, they may be promoted to direct a full-length feature film. However when I did the research, Pixar has had 18 original short films all directed by men. In the past decade according to Cartoon Brew, 91 out of 92 has had at least one male director. So for that Hollywood Reporter article to imply that anyone of any race or creed or gender or sexuality at all can go into animation because the medium is that flexible…certainly they can, but the truth is that women and minorities will not reach these director positions if they aren’t first given these smaller opportunities such as the short films to build up their career ladder.

Mason-Boule: Not to defend Pixar, but the person who ran Pixar Shorts for a long, long time was a woman.

Mawby: But she was in an organizational role, not creative. The woman was organizing the men.

Mason-Boule: I think the role of an executive producer isn’t just organizing…

Wong: There tends to be better parity for senior producers of major companies like Sony and Warner Bros. than with the creative directors of projects.

“To imply that anyone of any race or creed or gender or sexuality at all can go into animation because the medium is that flexible…certainly they can, but the truth is that women and minorities will not reach these director positions if they aren’t first given these smaller opportunities such as the short films to build up their career ladder.”

Kemes: You need more people in all of those roles. It has to be the best person for the job, I’m happy to agree to that. I think sometimes you have to make that decision between two qualified people, one male and one female, and even if the female has a little less experience, you make that decision. You need more women in those roles to say, “I’m going to take a risk on a woman because that’s important for this role.”

Mason-Boule: I would hate to think that production management is discounted as a booby prize to being a director, because it isn’t: it’s an amazing career, and women have reached high positions as leaders, EPs or VPs of production.

Kemes: I had the same response when we started Drawn Together and everyone was like “We’re not talking about producer roles, we know we have lots of women in producer roles.” We should definitely also be celebrating that.

Mason-Boule: The day I got called producer was a proud day in my career. I remember getting the card and thinking “I’ve done it.” The more women on the business side means more women making decisions, and that’s going to be critical for other women.

Kemes: But again, it’s about taking a risk and going against the grain and picking the person [when hiring] who isn’t the obvious choice because she doesn’t have five director credits, or hasn’t been head of story yet, or hasn’t been supervisor of the lighting department. Somebody has to give her the chance.

Mason-Boule: Is she talented, though? That’s what it comes down to.

Ellis: It’s about having the influence and gusto to make that decision. When you’re putting resumes forward, this director or this director, and the list for a female is shorter because the opportunities aren’t there, you’ve got to stand behind them and say “I believe in this person, I’m going to promote this person and get them this role.” And once that falls into place you see, maybe there’s another one, maybe there’s another one.

Kemes: I think it’s really exciting, it creates momentum. With Drawn Together, one of the second workshops we’re doing is on women having challenging conversations. Being able to say, “That’s what I want,” and knowing how to present yourself and saying, “This is why and this is why I’m qualified.” That’s where we see that gap again, with women not necessarily thinking it’s okay to say, “This should be mine.”

Ellis: When a job application comes up and you see the qualifications…a woman tends to look and say, “I have 70 percent of the requirements, I might apply,” whereas men tend to say, “I’m 40 percent qualified…No problem,” and apply and get it. When we have our Drawn Together information sessions, that’s one of the things we touch on because it’s an interesting stat. How does that happen, this difference between women and men? Is it the way we’re raised? Is it innate? How do we shift it? Is it something we teach girls in school? I think schools should start to have classes about how to have those conversations about jobs, about salary.

Mawby: How do you talk about yourself?

Vega: How do you negotiate about salary?

Smith: I always screw that up. Afterwards I’m always like, “Argh, I should’ve asked for more!”

Mason-Boule: That’s why mentorship is big for Women in Animation. We want to get people who are successful engaged in giving back that way, to teach how to navigate the politics successfully. Here’s a question: if you saw someone had raw potential they might not see in themselves, wouldn’t playing a role in accelerating that talent go a long way?

“A woman tends to look and say, ‘I have 70 percent of the requirements, I might apply,’ whereas men tend to say, ‘I’m 40 percent qualified…No problem,’ and apply and get it.”

Smith: I have a recent story…I guess I received passive mentorship? Not in a negative way, though. One of the ladies I work with is a board artist and has been in the business a while, and she pulled me aside after a tough contract and chatted with me through some big issues and raised my confidence. It means a lot coming from another woman—and I didn’t realize that until she had done that. The men I’ve worked with have been great, but hearing it from women is a little different. I don’t know why.

Kemes: And chances are you’re going to remember that and give that to another female down the road.

Mason-Boule: Encouragement matters.

Wong: I really like my art director. She’s always extremely supportive! It still doesn’t make her soft or easy in any way because she’s always like, “Here are all the revisions!” But then she’ll still tell people, “Amanda is an amazing artist.”

Kemes: I have a career guardian angel. The whole reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because of this woman who was the HR manager at the time. I was hired to be production assistant for eight weeks at Mainframe as a summer job, and five weeks in, they said, “We’re hiring an EA for a CEO,” and I said sure, though I had no relative skills. It’s weird I was there in the first place, so I thought I’d just capitalize on it and see where my efforts took me. They shouldn’t have given me the job: I was a terrible executive assistant. But the HR manager said, “Have you thought about HR? You remind me of me when I was younger.” I didn’t even really know what true HR was, but I said I would think about it. Next thing I knew, my desk was moved and I was in HR! That was in 2002. Now I am the head of our culture and talent department, because early on, someone saw something in me and said, “I’m paying attention. Show me what you got.” And I did.

VanMag: Let’s talk about The Hollywood Reporter article: what was your reaction to this story that brought together a group of white men to discuss diversity in animation?

Smith: I get worried that when people pat each other on the back is where the progress stops.

Kemes: Or when they try to do it all in one show. “I know, I know, let’s do Moana. She’ll be a non-white girl, check check check.” Why not make her a lesbian, too, and call it a day? Then you’ve covered all the bases and can go on to make more dude movies.

Vega: I think it’s really lazy that when a stereotypical straight white male makes a decision that includes someone that doesn’t look or live like him, they get so much praise. But if someone who isn’t a straight white male makes something, they’re held to such high standards and scrutinized: “Why didn’t you include this type of person in your three-character story?”

Ellis: Do you think The Hollywood Reporter [chose all white men] on purpose to prove a point?

Mason-Boule: Like maybe it was tongue-in-cheek?

Wong: Maybe it was someone who wasn’t thoughtful about it; who said “I will pick all of these feature film directors and Seth Rogan because he has a big name.” And unfortunately there was only one woman [to direct a feature animated film] this year—Jennifer Yuh Nelson who did Kung Fu Panda 3. I mean the box office results were only okay but the logic isn’t even consistent, because Mark Osborne [who was on the panel] did Le Petit Prince, and that wasn’t even released in the U.S. So it couldn’t have done well financially. And Sing hadn’t even been released at the time of the round-table. Speaking of which, I did research…

Vega: I love that you did your homework.

Wong: …You need to give women the opportunity. The person who directed Trolls who was in the article, previously he did one of the Shrek movies, and before that, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalo and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. Which I’m sure were fine films, but I’m also sure that you could find a woman of equal merit to appoint to direct.

Ellis: Why not Brenda Chapman?

Wong: Sing was directed by someone who had never done animation at all, who came from a background of music videos.

Smith: In resonating with all the issue, I think Zootopia hit a lot of buttons—the diversity issues they nailed.

Kemes: And Inside Out.

“There are all kinds of ways in which diversity is a topic du jour, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Wong: Byron Howard, who directed Zootopia, said that for that movie he did a lot of research on women in male-dominated roles such as interviewing the first female police officers in the workforce; and he listened to them. I thought there was a lot in the article that was good and helpful. When people said, “I listened, I showed people respect, I reached out to experts in the field,” I thought, “This is all good stuff.” But the context of this article is very unfortunate.

Kemes: What if it had been retitled? What if it was just “A Conversation in Animation” and not about diversity and women?

Mason-Boule: Whatever industry you’re in, I think people are all looking for that more inclusive voice at this time. These things get noted. But it’s a positive change that we’re seeing so much focus on this stuff. When you see articles of all kinds that aren’t displaying diverse points of view, it becomes noticeable now, when it might not have been focused on that in the past. Regardless of if it’s women or any other minority or age…age is an interesting one as well. There are all kinds of ways in which diversity is a topic du jour, and I think that’s a good thing.

Smith: I think the failure of appropriately addressing the issue of diversity is more The Hollywood Reporter’s fault. Seth Rogan does not look comfortable when the table is asked to discuss how they tackled their characters’ cultural and ethnic identities.

Wong: He even said on Twitter, “Wanna see seven white guys talk about diversity?” 

VanMag: What do you think women can be doing to champion themselves and each other in this industry?

Kemes: I watch The Social—this a shameless plug for something I have nothing to do with. [Laughs.] One of the things they talked about the other day was female bragging: when a woman owns her accomplishment, it’s considered bragging, versus just being proud, and considered a negative.

Mawby: We need to watch how we respond to women who are trying to share their accomplishments.

Vega: I think that can be difficult because we are socialized to hate other women.

Mawby: To compete!

Vega: In the media, it’s always fighting. There can’t be two cool princesses, there can only be one prom queen. And career-wise, we’re competing against everybody.

Kemes: The show talked about how women have to brag on behalf of other women, to say, “You should’ve seen what Alicia did! It was so awesome!” and Alicia has to get comfortable going, “Yeah, it is pretty awesome!”

Vega: “Not a big deal, you guys!”

Kemes: Own it and go, “Yeah, I did that. And that’s awesome.” It was just so on point. And I think that is tied totally into Hollywood Reporter thing. I’ve got to put my hand up.

Mason-Boule: We have to both own it, and give each other those “guardian angel” moments.

 

Get involved, female Vancouver animators: Women in Animation and Drawn Together are always accepting new members.

 

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