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Panel discusses “Women Breaking the Mold” in the film, animation and game development industries

on March 15, 2017

During the opening of the annual Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival at the Chabot Space and Science Museum on Friday, instead of travels to faraway galaxies projected on the planetarium’s dome, guests saw drawings and video clips made by four women in film and game development industries. That night, they were the stars.

Together, they led a panel “Women Breaking the Mold” about being a woman in their fields. The panel was part of the three-day festival that showed international films for kids and featured animation and media criticism workshops for the young.

Brenda Chapman, Deanna Marsigliese, Cameo Wood and Robin Hunicke, all artists who work in animation, filmmaking and gaming, were the night’s panelists.

Chapman was the first woman director of an animated feature for a major Hollywood studio; she joined Pixar Animation Studios as a senior story artist on Cars. Marsigliese also works at Pixar as a character designer, while teaching animation to college students. Wood has won awards for direction, cinematography and screenwriting, and the collaborative project Atlas Obscura has featured the web series she produced and co-directed. Hunicke co-founded the San Francisco-based game studio Funomena, and some of her output includes The Sims 2, MySims and Boom Blox. All four were wearing black, but chunky rings, gold bangles, dangling earrings, red lipstick, fiery hair, a red belt, ankle boots and stilettos broke the monotony of their dark tops and dresses.

Chapman, creator of the animated Disney-Pixar film Brave, said that after her graduation at the California Institute for the Arts, a company hired her as a story trainee just to fill a quota for women. Later on in her career, she said, she would get the comment “Hey, you’re the only woman in the room,” which she said was indeed the case 90 percent of the time.

Despite women making up 60 percent of animation and art school students, only 20 percent hold creative roles in animation, according to the organization Women in Animation. The group is pushing to make the percentage 50/50 by 2025. Its headquarters is in Los Angeles, and it has offices in San Francisco, London, New York, Paris, Dublin and Pune, India.

In a male-dominated industry, Chapman has carved out a place for herself. Her career at Walt Disney began with Beauty and the Beast. She also co-directed The Prince of Egypt and won the Annie Award, animation’s highest honor, for her work on The Lion King. Later on, when she joined Pixar Animation Studios, she won an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for Brave. She said her relationship with her daughter inspired her to make the story of the Scottish princess Merida.

After doing Brave, Chapman was inspired to pursue stories that exhibit women’s power. “I’m only going to work on stories with strong female protagonist that stands for who I am and what I am and what I believe in,” she said.

Chapman said she began to consciously think as a feminist after a household incident when she was young—as her mother cooked, and she and her father ate, she remembers her father looking around the table for the salt. With no salt in sight, he exclaimed “Two women in the house, and I have to go up and get my own salt!” Chapman remembered the feeling that the statement was ridiculous. “It’s the 20th Century!” she said.

“Sexism is like air pollution—it’s everywhere all around you and you’re constantly breathing it in and you don’t know how damaging it is. So you put measures in place,” said Hunicke. “Put safety in place so that you can track it and catch it and get rid of it.”

Hunicke’s company, Funomena, creates experimental games for console, PC, virtual and augmented reality platforms. Currently, she is also an associate professor in the Arts Division at UC Santa Cruz, serving as director of the Art, Games & Playable Media bachelor’s degree program and teaching in the Digital Art and New Media masters program.

Her dream of making a video game and interest in robots led her to a 12-year career in the game industry. In designing games, she likes to focus on feelings.

During the discussion, Hunicke emphasized the need to let more women and minorities into the arts and game development industry. “Feminism is about actively making measurable, concrete, positive steps done everyday to end oppression,” she said.

Two of the many initiatives she supports are Girls Make Games and Amplifying New Voices. Girls Make Games is a California-based program designed to train girls around 11 to 14 years old in designing and creating games through workshops. According to its website, 47 percent of gamers are women, but in the game industry women make up only 12 percent. Amplifying New Voices is a one-day workshop in San Francisco that supports “new voices that could become role models for under-represented groups of perspectives in the games and virtual reality industries,” according to its website.

When a girl with a quiet voice in front of the theater shared how someone she looks up to shut down her dreams of being an animator and asked the panel for advice on how to pursue her plan, filmmaker Cameo Wood’s eyes filled with tears, as she and her co-panelists encouraged the girl to go for her dream.

Wood recently released her debut short film, Dukha in Summer, shot solo in Mongolia. “I’m 40, and I just made my first movie,” she said to emphasize that it’s never too late to pursue one’s passions.

“We have to stand up” to sexism, Wood said. She told the audience about a time at a male-populated tech conference with thousands of participants when a man came up to her and asked her to get him a cup of coffee. She said no.

During the question and answer session, Wood also encouraged girls to recognize the ability of other women. “We’re all in this together. We’re the only ones who know what our experiences are like,” she said.

On the festival’s opening night, she showed a film clip about a young woman interviewing for her dream job as an animator at the biggest animation company in the world. The film, which explores the subject of artificial intelligence, also focuses on what it means to be a real artist and how important it is to tell stories.

“These are the things that we explore. I’m also really interested in having underrepresented voices in my film,” said Wood. She added that it’s also important for her to feature amazing actresses in her films.

“My biggest mission is to find more opportunities to insert really dynamic female characters [into stories],” agreed Marsigliese, who is known for her work on Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.

She said animation films almost always portray roles such as lawyers or scientists as males. So, while respecting the director’s decision, she tries to push back. “I make sure there’s a female version of that character, and defend it and challenge notions” of traditional male-female roles, she said.

Marsigliese, who’s from Canada, has worked on commercial, television and feature film projects over 15 years. “Often times I’m the only female character designer in the room to speak and they are used to it, and they expect nothing less from me,” Marsigliese said.

Demonstrating how she comments in meetings at Pixar, she threw her head back, stretched out her legs, looked perplexed and let out a loud grunt. When she hears a story pitch or stereotype-driven decisions that frustrate her, she said, “Sometimes I’m like what?”

“Push back as far as you can, take as much as you can,” Marsigliese told the audience. “Get as high as you can so you can control those things and have the power to change it.”

“Draw a lot, read a lot” was the advice of Chapman to the young attendees who want to be in the animation industry. Be surrounded by happy people, she added. Marsigliese and Hunicke also emphasized the benefits of traveling in gathering experiences and information about the world to widen one’s perspectives. While Chapman and Marsigliese developed their skills by constantly drawing, Hunicke said she played video games a lot and Wood said she learned by immersing herself in the tech industry since 1995.

Ian Jones, college student and volunteer for the festival, watched his classmates from Berkeley City College approach the panelists after the discussion, even though it was already around 10 pm and some of the guests have already gone home. Most of them were young women lining up in front of every panelist, asking for tips and advice in making it to the animation or film or game industry. Jones could hear people around commenting on how inspiring the discussion had been.

“I think it’s great for students to have this kind of experience,” said Jones, referring to the festival. He said it’s also great for kids to experience working on a film set and to have a creative outlet to express themselves through film and construction of props. One of the activities children took part in was a stop-motion clay project. “There’s no age too early,” he said, noting that the participants in the festival include first and second graders.

The ninth Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival included more than 40 animated, live action, shorts and feature-length films, and special presentations with an open forum with award winning filmmakers. Founded in 2009, the festival promotes global understanding and cultural exchange through art and cinema.

For this year, some of the animated films shown for all ages include Musical Dragon (Switzerland), Caminandes: Llamigos (Argentina) and Alike (Spain). The festival also showed films from countries such as France, Russia, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Australia, United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Nigeria, Mariana Islands, Ireland, Belgium and Denmark.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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