Monday, September 30, 2013

10 Notable Female Animators

Outside of acting, relatively few women get recognized for their efforts in the film industry. This is particularly noticeable in the animation field. While things have certainly improved since the earlier half of the 20th century (where a women had little hope of doing anything but inking, painting, or in-betweening), it is still far more common for female animators and directors to work independently, rather than within the studio system. Female comic book artists are also more common, perhaps for the same reason. Many of them (such as Kaja Foglio [Girl Genius], Kate Beaton [Hark! A Vagrant], and Tracy J. Butler [Lackadaisy]) have met great success 'publishing' on the internet. While women still aren't nearly as common as male cartoonists, they have began to appear in larger numbers in recent years. Below is a list of the ten notable female animators that helped pave way for other artists in the field.

1. Lotte Reiniger

Reiniger's complex stop-motion technique is based on Chinese shadow puppets.

Lotte Reiniger is commonly acknowledged not only as the first significant female animator, but also as a pioneering stop-motion animator. Lotte grew up in Berlin and first became fascinated with film after seeing the works of Georges Melies. In 1918, she was assigned her first major job, animating the wooden rats created for the intertitles for Paul Wegener's The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Shortly after, Reiniger began directing her own short films in her trademark silhouette cutout fashion. She directed seven shorts between 1919 and 1922, which were produced and photographed by her husband, Carl Koch.

After three years of hard work, her feature length film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) was finally released, beating out Snow White by over a decade. The film was loosely based on One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and met enough success to allow Lotte to direct a second feature, Doctor Dolittle and his Animals, in 1928. Unfortunately, Lotte and her family were forced to flee Germany after the Nazi regime took control. She lived out the rest of her years in Paris and in London, were she continued to make short fairytale films for advertising companies, BBC, and Telecasting America.

Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated film.

2. Lillian Friedman Astor

Friedman was one the first women to work at a major animation studio.

When Lillian Friedman Astor was rejected by Disney, she was not deterred. Instead, she applied to rival studio Fleisher Brothers in 1930 at the age of 19. Within three years, she was 'secretly' promoted from the lowly rank of inker to head animator by Shamus Culhane. She was responsible for animating many key scenes in the popular Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, as well as several Comicolor titles. Her work includes: "Can You Take It?" (1934), "Betty Boop's Prize Show" (1934), "Be Human" (1936), "Hawaiian Birds" (1936), "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor" (1936) and "Pudgy and the Lost Kitten" (1938).

Although she didn't always receive screen credit and was paid considerably less than her male counterparts, Friedman was apparently very pleased to have a job at Fleisher. So much so in fact, she was rumored to have named her dog Popeye! In 1939, Freedman retired from animating in order to raise her family. Despite her short career, she inspired several others to follow her footsteps and not to be afraid to showcase their talents in a traditionally male run profession.

The classic cartoon "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor".

3. Mary Blair

While technically not an animator, Mary Blair hugely influenced the look of many classic Disney films. 

Perhaps no other women at Disney was as well recognized as Mary Blair. She first began working at Disney in 1940 alongside her husband Lee Blair, after previously working at Ub Iwerks Studio and Harman-Ising Studios. Unlike other female employees at Disney at the time (such as Retta Scott and Retta Davidson), Mary Blair was a concept artist and a scenery designer. Blair's art is characterized by her bold use of colors, angular forms, patterns, and simplified shapes. Her style was heavily influenced by her 1941 trip to various South American countries with other Disney artists, as part of Roosevelt's 'Good Neighbor Policy.'

Her designs and storyboards were crucial in the process of creating several animated features including: The Three Caballeros (1944), Song of the South (1946), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). After briefly resigning from Disney after Peter Pan and working as a childern's book illustrator, Mary Blair helped create the It's a Small World attraction for Disneyland in 1964. Additionally, she created several murals for the theme park up until 1971. For those interested, much of Blair's artwork can be viewed here.

A sampling of Blair's unique concept art.

4. Faith Hubley

Faith and her husband, John, reviving an oscar in 1966. 

Faith Hubley began working in the film industry at only 15, when she left home to work in a theater. She made her way to Hollywood three years later. Her first job was as a messenger for Columbia Pictures. Later, Faith worked at Republic Pictures, where she became a music editor and scripts clerk. In 1955, she married animator John Hubley, who had previously worked for Disney and UPA. Soon after, they founded their own independent company, Storyboard Studios. The goal of the studio was to produce one film per year. Both Faith and John made a total of 20 shorts together, between 1957 to 1977.

These films met much acclaim due to their free-form visuals and use of dialogue from actual childern (usually their own), as opposed to using adult actors. Indeed, much of the dialogue in their shorts is nonlinear in nature, and often focuses on relishing things in life that some might consider mundane. The best known shorts the two made are arguably "Moonbird" (1959), "The Hole" (1962), "A Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature" (1966), and "Windy Day", all of which won or received Oscar nominations. When John died in 1977, Faith continued to make films on her own up until her own death in 2001. (It should also be noted that Tissa David [who was the second female animator to direct a feature film, and animated the female lead in Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure] frequently worked with the Hubleys.)

A still from "Windy Day" (1967) demonstrating the Hubleys' minimalist style. 

5. Sally Cruikshank

Quite possibly the most abstract animator on this list, Cruikshank's films are like no other.

Sally Cruikshank's work is undeniably weird, but extremely creative and mesmerizing. She was drawn to animation at a young age, citing the surreal 1930s shorts of the Fleisher Brothers, Bob Clampett, and Carl Barks's comics as influences. After completing her education at Smith College and thoroughly studying an animation book by Preston Blair, Cruikshank released her first piece in 1971, the three minute "Ducky". Encouraged by feedback from her peers, Cruikshank enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduating, she produced her most well known short, "Quasi at the Quackadero" (1975), which features two of Cruikshank's reoccurring characters, the infantile Quasi and the temperamental Anita. In 2009, "Quasi" was added to the National Film Registry, and it was voted #46 in the 1994 book, The Fifty Greatest Cartoons.

Cruikshank produced several other surreal short films during the 1970s and 1980s, including "Make Me Psychic" (1978) and "Face Like A Frog" (1988). In 1980, she proposed an animated feature about her duck-like character entitled Quasi's Cabaret, but the project was ultimately abandoned due to funding issues. However, Cruikshank is fondly remembered by many Gen X'ers for an entirely different reason: she animated several segments for the program Sesame Street.

Cruikshank explains her animation process.

6. Ellen Woodbury

Woodbury working at Disney Studios.

Ellen Woodbury made history in 1994, when she became the first woman animator at Disney to supervise a major character. When Woodbury first entered the field of animation, things looked pretty grim. In the early 1980s, very few studios produced films or television series beyond simplistic children's entertainment. Thus, Woodbury was stuck at the uninspiring Filmation. In 1985, her talent was noticed, and Woodbury moved to Disney. She started as a cleanup artist on The Great Mouse Detective, and eventually was promoted to animator on Oliver and Company and The Little Mermaid. Soon after, she animated several iconic Disney characters including Abu (Aladdin, 1992), Zazu (The Lion King, 1994), and Pegasus (Hercules, 1998). In 2005, Woodbury left Disney and became a full time sculptor. She currently teaches character animation at the Art Institute of Colorado. (Anyone who would like to read more about Woodbury can visit the blog, The 50 Most Influential Disney animators, here.)

A model sheet of Abu for Aladdin. 

7. Suzie Templeton

Never heard of her? She's one of the most talented stop-motion artists around.

Perhaps no other career is as time consuming as being a stop-motion animator. Up until a few years ago (thanks to the invention of 3D printers), the average stop-motion film took around five years to make. For this very reason, the technique is less commonly used than other forms of animation. Yet a handful of artists have perfected the craft. One of them is Suzie Templeton.

Interestingly enough, Templeton was not originally inserted in becoming an animator. Although she helped her brothers make several homemade movies during her childhood, Templeton graduated in sciences and held odd jobs in different countries for several years. Dissatisfied, she went back to school and switched to humanities. It was only after seeing Wallace and Gromit, that Templeton entered the realm of animation.

Although she originally planned to work for commercial studios like Aardman, Templeton found the studio model incompatible with her style. So she decided to work independently on more personal projects, than to appeal to the masses. (Perhaps this is because her films tend to deal with dense subjects, such as unhappy marriage, loneliness, and death.) Templeton completed two short films at her university, the Royal College of Art, "Stanley" (1999) and "Dog" (2001), which met much acclaim. In 2006, Templeton released her take on "Peter and the Wolf", a half an hour testament of her skill. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Currently, Templeton is working on an undisclosed feature film.

All of Templeton's puppets are extremely detailed.

8. Nina Paley

Independent animator, cartoonist, and free culture activist.

Nina Paley is one of the most active female animators today. She made several short films starting at the age of 13, but did not really begin experimenting with animation until 1998, after she published two moderately successful comic strips, Nina's Adventures and Fluff. Some of her shorts made during this period include: "Pandorama" (1999), the world's first camera-less IMAX film, "Fetch!" (2001), a humorous take on optical illusions, and "The Stork" (2002), a commentary about overpopulation and consumerism.

In 2008, Paley generated much attention for her first feature film, Sita Sings the Blues, which interprets the Indian epic The Ramayana from Sita's perspective and compares it to Paley's own marriage struggles. Due to issues with clearing rights for the film's soundtrack, Paley has often criticized the inefficiency of copyright laws. (Perhaps this best demonstrated by her short, "Copying is Not Theft" [2009]). Currently, Paley writes the comic-strip Mimi and Eunice, and is working on a second film entitled Seder Masochism.

In order to fiancee her projects, Paley works as freelance artist. Notably, she designed the Cruzio Wireless cat logo. Paley is entirely self taught. Although she studied art at the University of Illinois, she never took any formal animation classes. Her work may seem simplistic from a technical standpoint, but her attention to detail and sense of composition makes up for it. Paley boldly tackles many controversial topics that many other animators and directors tend to gloss over or avoid, but she does so without being overly mean spirited and with a good dosage of humor.  

Sita Sings the Blues proves that even Flash animation can be used creatively.

9. Brenda Chapman

Chapman is likely the best known female animator today, thanks to Brave (and the controversy surrounding it).

Brenda Chapman has certainly been in the news a lot lately, but her career in film stretches back to 1989, when she worked as a story trainee on Disney's The Little Mermaid after graduating from CalArts with BFA in character animation. Chapman served as a writer and storyboard artist for many renaissance films, such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). She also worked on several DreamWorks films and co-diercted The Prince of Egypt (1997), making her the first woman to direct an animated feature at a major studio.

In 2003, Brenda moved to Pixar. Five years later, it was announced that she was to direct the company's first fairytale film, The Bear and the Bow, which eventually was renamed Brave. However, Chapman was removed as director due to creative disagreements, and replaced by Mark Andrews. Despite her dissatisfaction with her removal (and move to LucasArts), Brenda was happy with the film's results, and how it remained loyal to the mother-daughter relationship she wanted to portray.

Some impressive concept art for Brave.

10. Lauren MacMullan

Lauren Macmullan (right) with producer Dorothy McKim (left) at the D23 expo. 

Macmullan has directed and storyboarded for several companies over the years. Her speciality seems to be writing for television shows, as she has worked on The Critic, The Simpsons, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, which are some of the most widely acclaimed animated series ever made. Her first venture into film was The Simpsons Movie (2007), where she served as the feature's sequence director.

In 2009, Lauren began creating storyboards for the proposed Pixar film, Newt. Unfortunately, Newt never saw the light of day, due to concerns about its plot being too similar to two other animated films coming out the same year. Lauren Macmullan now seems to be content working at Disney for the time being. She storyboarded Wreck it Ralph (2012), and recently directed a short film starring Mickey Mouse, "Get a Horse!"

Macmullan is known for her use of dramatic lighting and complex facial expressions, two aspects which can often get overlooked in TV animation. Coincidentally, there are two other recent female animators of note that go by the name of Lauren: Lauren Montgomery (Avatar: The Last AirbenderWonder Woman) and Lauren Faust (The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic).

This Mickey Mouse short will screen alongside Frozen in November.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Busy, Busy, Busy

First off, I would like to apologize for the lack of posts this month. I have had my hands full finishing up a summer internship, visiting family, and getting settled back at college. I might be able to post an article I have been working on over the past few weeks, but I probably won't be back to my regular schedule until mid October. In the meantime, have a great fall season!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hitchcock (Review)

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Company: The Montecito Picture Company, Cold Spring Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year: 2012

Country: USA

Despite the talent involved, this biopic proves to be a mixed bag.

Perhaps no other 20th century filmmaker is as well known as Alferd Hitchcock. Often dubbed 'the master of suspense' Hitchcock is remembered for using twist endings and various macguffins as plot devices. His filmography, spanning from 1925 to 1976, includes Rebecca (1940), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and of course, Psycho (1960). Given how famous Alferd Hitchcock is it is not surprising that he would be chosen as the subject of a biographical movie (Indeed, the same year another film about Hitchcock, The Girl, was released by HBO and BBC.) I am sorry to say, however, that there are far better biopics out there than this one.

Director Sacha Gervasi focuses on the filming of Psycho and its troubled production. While narrowing the scope of a film can be beneficial in some cases. Hitchcock's plot feels a bit over stretched. The film opens with Alferd Hitchcock being congratulated for the success of his North by Northwest. However, Hitchcock is concerned that many of his peers are suggesting that he should retire. Not to be deterred, Hitchcock chooses to adapt something rather unsettling and unorthodox in order to prove them wrong. The book is Psycho, a horror novel based upon the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. The project is an ambitious one, and puts tremendous strain on Hitchcock's already rocky relationship with his wife, Alma Reville. On top of this, Hitchcock must also try to get his controversial film approved by the Motion Picture Production Code, and deal with his own stress related vices (i.e. binge eating, flirting with other women).

Hitchcock the workaholic.

The movie's biggest flaw is that it does not tell us anything that we haven't already heard before. It feels half baked. Hitchcock's intended audience is likely not the casual movie goer, but rather avid film buffs and movie historians. However, Hitchcock spends most of its time explaining minute details, such as the lay out of sets, to fill up spare time. Perhaps, the film would have worked better if it were to encompass more of Alfred Hitchcock's career rather than just the filming of Psycho. Better yet, Hitchcock could have focused more on how the cast's relationships with one another and their obsessive director affected the overall direction of Psycho. Everyone gets some screen time, but a lot of it feels superficial. Certain scenes simply seem to drag on for too long. Other sequences, like Hitchcock's imaginary conversations with Ed Gein, are interesting but are tied into the plot clumsily, disrupting its narrative flow.

Sacha Gervasi took great lengths to recreate Psycho's sets, but didn't spend much time fleshing out all of Hitchcock's characters.

On the plus side, Hitchcock's acting is quite good. Its cast includes Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh (who sadly does not get enough screen time to fully develop her role), and Danny Huston as Whitfield Cook (a writer who tries to persuade Alma Reville to have an extra-material affair). Anthony Hopkin's role as Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren's portrayal of Alma Reville are the best of the lot, which is fortunate since their presence practically holds this film together. The two have many great conversations together, often laden with wit, affectionate banter, and biting irony. Their realistic acting makes Hitchcock's and Mirren's marriage very relatable. Hitchcock and Mirren barely manage to hang onto their marriage, before they realize that they do, in fact, actually need each other.

Anthony Hopkin's and Helen Mirren's performances manage to make this film more enjoyable than it should be.

While not an awful film, Hitchcock is a rather disappointing attempt to explain the history behind one of cinema's most influential movies. The film simply drags on too long. Its focus is not were it should be all of the time, and it lacks insight. The acting is enough to save Hitchcock from being a complete waste of time, but it's not one that I will be pulling off the shelf very often.

Admit it, The Birds reference at the end was kind of clever.

Rating: 3/5