April 16, 2019

Shattering the Glass Frame; Breaking the Ice

Women animators call for change, and a regular forum

By Kate Adam

            Six months ago at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, hundreds of attendees showed up for an event that had the potential to be a new battleground against systematic gender inequalities that seem ever-present in the entertainment industry. This fight was particular to the field of Animation and the event was titled Breaking the Glass Frame: Women and Animation Past, Present, Future (BTGF).

Professors Sheila Sofian (left) and Lisa Mann

The animated feature films that dominate our culture usually have heroic storylines. However, due to its literal behind-the-scenes nature, many people don’t realize there are severe disparities within in the industry. While nearly 60% of animation students are women, only 20% of creative jobs in the industry are actually occupied by women. With the help of colleagues from CalArts, UCLA and Women in Animation (WIA), School of Cinematic Arts professors Lisa Mann and Sheila Sofian of the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, created BTGF to spread awareness of these disparities and the negative effects they have on women as well as the industry at large. Thus it came to be that for one empowering weekend in October 2018 there was a concerted effort to remember the history of women in animation, acknowledge the current state of the industry, and make plans for an equitable and inclusionary future.

Six months later the question that remains is: “What’s next?”

In order to ensure the march of progress continues, it is important that the conversation is not allowed to simply fade into the background, says Professor Mann. “[We] are not going to let up. We can all be better. Women and men need to support each other and everyone needs to understand that the world’s a better place when women have a voice.” It’s both about the art form and the business, says Mann. “Animation is better when women have input in it. This is part of our culture, so it is really important that we make these changes. Breaking through the glass frame means equal pay, equal representation, and respect.”

BTGF showcased the breadth of the Animation industry. The event kicked off with keynote speaker Brenda Chapman, who as the first woman creator/director of a Pixar feature, Brave, was famously replaced by a male colleague over “creative differences,” although most of her ideas still made it into the film. Chapman, who had previously worked on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King as well as wrote and directed The Prince of Egypt at DreamWorks Animation, talked about her own experiences within the industry, including the frustrating struggle to be credited for her work. Mann says Chapman’s keynote set the tone for the weekend. “It was really empowering to hear her talk. Even these successful women experience sexual harassment. It really propped everybody up for the weekend ahead.”

Over the three days, thirty-eight presenters, eight of whom were SCA alumni, touched on every facet of representation in the animation industry. Along with sexual harassment, they talked about diversity and inclusion—including race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, and age—through panels, artwork, and academic papers. BTGF was a groundbreaking event, says Mann, because it allowed students, professors, and industry professionals alike to come together in a community to not only feel safe, included, and heard, but also to discuss real-world strategies to combat potential objectionable situations in the workplace and beyond. “We didn't want to just be complaining about the situation, we wanted to move forward with real ideas like how to go back to work, how to talk to your boss if they are being a certain way, how to move up into a different position, and how to negotiate for yourself,” she says. “These are important things that don't always get talked about.”

Mann is currently trying to revive the event, with the dream of making it a biannual conference beginning in 2020. However, as with every other great idea, the problem boils down to funding. The original professors who organized it are back to their overtasked existences, and they would need to bring on additional helpers. “Events like BTGF involve a tremendous amount of planning, outreach, coordination, promotion, and financial support,” says Professor Mann. “They also take about a year to produce. If this became a biannual event, it would require all of these human and monetary resources, as well as several partners willing to share in the organization and expense.” Still Mann is continuing to talk up the idea because the original event was too good to just let it die. The feedback she’s gotten since October proves that the hard work and time needed to put on an event that calls for a more equitable and accepting animation industry future is more than worth it. “I have no doubt that there is plenty of interest in another Breaking the Glass Frame,” declares Professor Mann.

            Along with strategies to maneuver through questionable and tough situations, the event also highlighted the importance of collaboration and community, not only as a mechanism of comfort, but as an agent of change. “Empowering other women does not disempower yourself,” a line spoken by second-day panelist Sidney Clifton, was adopted as an unofficial slogan of the weekend. It’s a slogan everyone in attendance would like to hear again at another BTGF.