This letter from Walt Disney Studios illustrates the great difficulty women animators have faced in obtaining, maintaining, and furthering their positions in the industry.
A drawing by animator Reiko Okuyama.
I was lucky enough to learn about some amazing women animators as a Classical Animation student at Sheridan College, when their short films were shown and discussed in class. In turn, I introduced my computer animation students at Pratt, School of Visual Arts (SVA), and CU Boulder, to their innovative techniques, unforgettable story lines, and indelible styles.
These pioneer women animators live on the pages of animation history.
Each of these women animators has left a great legacy of animated shorts, animated feature films, and beloved cartoon characters. Each one of these women has influenced numerous animators and artists. Many have taught animation, painting, drawing, and other skills to students and the public. Some have raised families, worked their way up the male-dominated world of film and television studios, and almost all have worn the numerous hats it can take to master such a complex art form as animation. These women are pioneers in the field and in their gender, breaking new ground in the face of sometimes daunting obstacles. Their challenges and struggles are impressive, their courage and creativity dazzling.
Caroline Leaf animating in sand on a light box.
In this list are only ten of the many pioneer women animators who lead the way on how to survive, thrive, and live on the pages of animation history. I have listed them in order of their birth year, when known (else, I approximated).
Lotte Reiniger towers in the history of animation as the first woman animator. Her technique used cut-paper silhouettes, based on a folk art form called scheren-schnitte. Lotte created a system of hinge pins to move character joints. She also invented the idea of working with different sized silhouette “puppets” to create levels of detail for wide shots and close-ups. Her films are notable for the use of atmospheric perspective, which she achieved by using increasingly pale grays to express background depth. Lotte Reiniger directed 42 titles between 1919-1979, including
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926), one of the first animated feature films in cinema history.
A still from Lillian Friedman's animation of Popeye and Olive Oil.
Acknowledged as the first woman animator within the studio system, Lillian Friedman drew into life the characters Popeye and Betty Boop, among others. After working her way up the ranks from Colorist/Inbetweener/Inker and Assistant Animator, Lillian made film history when she was promoted to Head Animator at Fleischer Studios in 1933. She was also the Head of Inbetween Department at Fleischer, and animated 11 titles for the studio between 1933-1939.
A still from Eunice Macaulay's film Special Delivery.
Eunice Macaulay began her animation career when a Christmas card she created for fun landed her a job as a Tracer in Gaumont British Animation in 1948. In her career, she worked on a total of twenty-five short films and received numerous awards, including an Oscar. In the field of animation, she worked as a Director, Producer, Rendering Supervisor, Writer, Background Artist, Coloring Supervisor, Trace and Paint Supervisor, and Animator. Her technique involves drawing and hand-coloring.
Faith Hubley with her husband John (left) with jazz musician Benny Carter.
Faith Hubley grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, and made her way to Hollywood at the age of eighteen. She worked her way up the system as a messenger, sound effects and music editor, script clerk, script supervisor, and film editor. Her techniques involved drawing and painting and resembled European surrealism and impressionism. From 1956-1977, Faith and her husband created one animated film each year, a tradition she continued for twenty-five solo films after his death. In all, Faith won Oscars for two of her films and was nominated for another three, and has been honored at Cannes, London, Venice, and San Francisco film festivals.
After animating at Walt Disney, Elizabeth Case went on to painting and illustration.
One of the first and few women animators/artists in the very early days at Disney, Elizabeth Case Zwicker was hired in 1956 as a fine artist. She animated birds in “Sleeping Beauty” for $32-$35 a week, but didn’t care about the money because she loved animating. She drew and painted most of her life, illustrating children’s books and painting a mural at a public library in New Jersey. In addition to art and animation, Elizabeth taught painting and wrote poetry. She is listed in Who’s Who in American Art.
Reiko Okuyama is considered a pioneer woman animator in the Animé genre. She wrote and acted in plays as a child and began her animation career when she applied for a position she thought was “children’s drawings” for picture books, but turned out to be an Inbetweener job at Toei Doga (Japanese Animated Films). After inbetweening and key clean up for some famous male animators, she was promoted to Second Animator on “Magic Boy” in 1959. Unusually versatile, Reiko worked in two emergent styles of Animé and went on to make history by becoming Japan’s first Animation Director for 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
One of the very earliest women in animation in Japan, Kazuko Nakamura was hired as an Inbetweener in 1956 at Nichido studios. Because of her outstanding skills, Mushi Pro studio “stole” Kazuko away, where she worked on their first production in 1962, and later became an Animation Director for their TV series and Head Animator on the first two adult Animerama features. Kazuko is regarded as a powerhouse animator: hardworking, distinctive in animation style and personality, and renowned for the femininity of her characters, especially the title character in “Cleopatra.” Altogether, Kasuko worked on eighteen anime feature films and TV shows.
Jacquie Lawson working on a Flash animtion at her computer.
Like Eunice Macaulay, Jacquie Lawson got her start in animation with a Christmas card. Trained as an illustrator at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, Jacquie became fascinated with the internet and created her first animation in 2000: a holiday E-card based on her dog, Chudleigh. She became a rapid success and an internet legend with her subscription-based, advertising-free eCard company, Jacquie Lawson E-cards. Her technique involves rotoscoping from live action video, Flash “tween” animation of scanned paintings, and her own digital adaptation of Disney’s multi-plane layers to move through two-dimensional artwork in a manner that feels 3-D. Her unprecedented commercial success puts Jacquie in a category of her own.
Caroline Leaf is among the most significant solo women animators in film history. She invented her own frame-by-frame techniques, including sand animation on a light box, painting on glass directly under the camera, and scratching on 70mm film and reshooting it on 35mm. Many of her short animations were done at the National Film Board of Canada, and she has won a great many awards, including an Oscar nomination. In addition to animation, Caroline worked on a number of live action documentary films. She is currently a tutor at the National Film and Television School in London.
Animator Joanna Quinn acts the part for an animated character.
Joanna Quinn quickly became one of Britain’s noteworthy animators after her first film was shown at her graduation from Middlesex Polytechnic in 1985. She works in a traditional pencil technique. The combination of her expressive drawing style, great sense of humor, and feminist themes has garnered numerous awards in the film world, including an Oscar nomination, as well as commercial spots for television.
I would love to add to this list, and my hope is that the work of these outstanding women artists will inspire all those who engage in any technique within the art form of animation.
Sonya's volunteer work at the Colorado Professional Videographers Association was extremely valuable to the organization. Sonya also did a presentation to the group on storyboarding that got excellent reviews.
Sonya was a completely involved teacher, who cared more about my understanding of ideas and from past animation history and movie makers who tell stories then mere techniques that usually are learned on the job.