Andi Spark – Pursuing the Animatrix: Musings on Defining a Term to Describe Woman-Centered Animation

Anima: soul or vital force (feminine form) + Matrix: point from where something originates

Factory Girls

I started my professional life in a factory—an animation factory. Despite having completed a bachelor degree in the then brand new field of Media Design, which included video, photography, graphic design and animation, along with extensive studies in art history and media theory, there was no clear educational pathway into the animation field, and I got that job through sheer luck. In fact, I recall a senior lecturer saying to me, “You haven’t got what it takes to be an animator,” so I’ve spent the last thirty years trying to work out how to acquire What It Takes.

My first job was piecework cel-painting with Burbank Films in Sydney. The job criteria were simple: Can you wield a paintbrush and keep within the lines? I soon discovered that the Ink & Paint department was traditionally the only place for females in the animation industry. The now infamous Disney rejection letter from 1938[1]  advises a budding woman applicant:

Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink and filling in the tracings on the reverse side with paint according to directions. (Burg 2007)

Kirsten Thompson expands significantly on women as the “ink and paint machine” at Disney quoting Barbara Baldwin’s interview with Rita Street that they “endur[ed] the lowest pay in the industry, while supervisors like Dot Smith would walk up and down the aisles at Disney urging them to work faster and faster with phrases like “Come on now, quick – like a bunny!” (Thompson 2014, n.p.)

However, by the late 1970s in Australia, women were starting to make headway into the creative departments, with a ratio of about 10:1 males to females across the departments of inbetweening, clean-up, animating, layout, and background design. In fact, by the mid-1980s, a few women had become heads of department or senior leads in each of the large commercial studios in Sydney—the former Hanna-Barbera studios, Burbank Films, Yoram Gross studios (now Flying Bark), and Walt Disney Television Animation studios (which became Disneytoons)—although they were greatly outnumbered in the key creative decision-making sections. Traditional ink and paint techniques disappeared in the 1990s as technology took over, after years of it being sent overseas to ‘skilled/unskilled’ production factories in developing countries, such as the Philippines, Korea, and China. New candidates into the studios could join a training program in the semi-skilled inbetweening and clean-up divisions, which were initiated and primarily run by a few of those senior women. In-house training was a core component of how the industry operated until the mid-1980s, with most people upskilling via an informal apprenticeship system. It was also a sink-or-swim environment. Companies paid by ‘footage’, meaning animators were only paid based on the amount of drawings they completed, calculated as per foot or second of film that appeared in screen time, often requiring multiple characters and therefore multiple drawings for the same amount of footage. There was always a delicate balance between quantity and quality. Attempting to imbue nuances and sensitive characterisation versus paying the bills was a great challenge for employees, not least of all because every commercial production worked to strict deadlines due to broadcast or distribution constraints. The ‘creatives’ department was also completely separate from the production department. It was very difficult in that economic climate for artists, let alone the very few female artists, to contribute significant creativity to the outputs.

Educated Girls

Around this time, tertiary education institutions established or consolidated their offerings in degree programs that focused specifically on animation production qualifications. At first, the gender balance of the students enrolled in these degrees reflected the same skewed ratio as the industry. However, by the early 2000s, nearly every one of these programs offered in Australia had an equal or greater percentage of female students enrolled. This reflected a worldwide trend, although it does not seem to translate into the academy’s values of recognition or success, let alone acknowledgement in industry. In a recent article, Ariana Lange highlights the serious issue of gender disparity in the animation industry. She refers to the Animation Guild in the US, wherein “Women make up only 21% of working guild members in 2015, and out of the 584 members working as storyboarders, only 103 are women” (Lange 2015, n.p.). These statistics are echoed in biannual reports from The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (GDIGM), which has been instrumental in drawing attention to the position of females on and behind the screen, largely focused on live-action television and films, and particularly in an American context. The research, conducted in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg School of Communications, reports and reviews how females are portrayed, in what quantities, and via what medium, as well as surveys the percentage of women in senior positions in the film industry, particularly in above-the-line[2] roles. The reports were first published over ten years ago, with survey data tracking back to the early 1990s. In the most recently published report (2012), out of a total of 1,452 filmmakers with an identified (binary) gender, 20.5% were female and 79.5% were male. Females comprised 7% of directors, 19.7% of writers, and 22.7% of producers across the sample, though Australian percentages are comparatively healthy: 8.3% were directors, 33.3% writers, 29.4% producers, with a ratio of 2.5:1 (male to female) (Smith et al 2014; ScreenAustralia 2015). Moreover, films with a female director or a female writer had significantly more women and girls on screen than did those without.

The ‘Mo Movie Measure’ emerged as a pop culture response to gender disparity on screen. In Alison Bechdel’s comic strip series Dykes to Watch Out For (1983−2008) one of the characters (called Mo) refers to “The Rule” circa 1985, when selecting a movie to watch: It has to have at least two women in it; Who have names; Who talk to each other; About something besides a man (Bechdel 2005). Surprisingly, Cars (2006) makes it onto the now-named ‘Bechdel Test’ list. In 2015, the Bechdel Test Fest celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of this test with a year-long festival of films that pass it.

In her piece, Lange acknowledges a recent LA Times article (Vankin 2015, n.p.) highlighting the healthy statistics of female students enrolled in animation schools as possibly indicating a “harbinger of change.” Writing in 2015, Lange notes that “last fall, 71% of students in the California Institute of the Arts’ [CalArts] famed character animation program were female.” Nevertheless, gender disparity continues to exist in other ways; as Lange continues,

However, that same school year in its Producers Show, which screens the “best” student work, more than two-thirds of the films shown were by male students, in a year when men made up less than one-third of students in the program. Furthermore, women outnumbered men in the program in 2012, 2013, and 2014—and yet in each of those years, men still outnumbered women in the Producers Show. (2015, n.p.)

Women still remain marginalised for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with perceptions of ‘femininity’. Marge Dean is the co-president of Women in Animation, a mainly US-based advocacy group with chapters worldwide and a strong web presence. She laments that female students “come out of art schools and aren’t hired for the creative jobs. They end up being PAs [production assistants] or on the production management track, the housekeepers and the organizers as opposed to the creators” (Vankin 2015, n.p.). Kathy Smith, ex-pat Australian animator and former Chair of the John C. Hench division of Animation and Digital Arts at USC, is also a member of the Women in Animation organisation. She states, “Part of our mission as a program is to infiltrate the traditional male-dominated areas with women artists and animators. The doors are slowly starting to open. Most studios in Los Angeles will employ a (male) 3D animator over a woman, unless it is a woman recruiting” (qtd. in Quigley 2005, p. 118). Maureen Furniss, animation historian and former program director in Experimental Animation at CalArts, concurs: “Women tend to be working in development or preschool programming or in producing, and the males tend to be in more creative roles like directing and heads of studios” (qtd. in Valkin 2015, n.p.). This mentality is possibly ingrained in the education institutions; one graduate from CalArts character program recalls an instructor lecturing on the “difference between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ story elements. Elements such as linear storytelling and big external stakes were ‘for men’, while relationships and emotional storylines were ‘for women’” (Lange 2015, n.p.). I consider and challenge these stereotypes as part of my larger argument against blanket categorisation of women practitioners and how this negatively affects their opportunities for professional advancement. At the same time, I argue that the supposed ‘woman’s perspective’ that incorporates elements such as emotional intelligence and non-violent action is essential to develop a long term sophistication in the animation industry. By dismissing either gender from engaging with ‘big stakes’ versus ‘emotional relationships’ creates limiting barriers to creativity.

Working Girls

The trends of women in animation, and indeed all facets of professional practice owe something to changing societal mores as much as technological affordances. As Brooke Keesling, Animation Talent Development Director at Disney TV, notes

the gender-neutral Internet—where users on social media often go by androgynous handles—has had a major effect on young women’s ambitions. People can share their artwork on Tumblr and Vimeo and YouTube and DeviantArt, … and see that it’s actually a thing that a lot of people are interested in, not just men. (Vankin 2015, n.p.)

Current oft-cited examples of successful women show creators are Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe (2013) for Cartoon Network, and Australia’s Mel Roach who continues to develop work for Cartoon Hangover after making the popular Rocket Dog (2013). But their success is still the exception rather than the rule. Despite the realms of internet distribution, wider-access television, and the explosion of short film and animation festivals around the world offering more outlets and greater entry options, it remains a rarity to see women in the roles of film director or TV show creator, or conceiving and green-lighting new content in the commercial animation field. Females in the Australian animated feature industry generally remain hidden, and it’s difficult to find statistics, aside from counting the names in the credits roll. The recently released Blinky Bill: The Movie (2015) lists less than 10% female crew, and other contemporary successes, such as The Lego Movie (2014) and Happy Feet 2 (2011) films have 8% and 10.5% respectively in their animation related departments, with less than 2% in leading roles (IMDB 2015).

It could be argued that the dearth of women in the profession is due to them being unavailable or not skilled enough; however, it is rather the case that negative and often downright misogynistic attitudes have continued to permeate the industry. In the early 1980s, Sari Gennis worked her way to being a commercial director with a US advertising agency, taking the “jobs that no-one else wanted.” (qtd. in Lange 2015, n.p.). When she asked the creative director when she might get to work on the high-end commissions, he responded, “When you grow a penis” (Lange 2015, n.p.). Being a mother is an added disadvantage, and women with children referred to as “high-drag” (qtd. in Lange 2015, n.p.). Being ‘old’ is even more of a disadvantage, with one woman in film stating “that the boss felt that the problem with women my age (47yrs) was ‘the smell of dried eggs’” (SPSTWD 2015, n.p.). Perceived availability and efficiency are the key contributing factors in favouring the hire of young men. When I consider the women that I worked with in the senior positions in the Australian animation studios noted above, very few of them have children, yet none were credited with directing roles in high-end productions.

Even in the independent or creative/ artistic production arena, the disparity is strong. The 2015 Annecy International Animated Film Festival celebrated The Year of The Woman, with a curated selection of eight programs dedicated to films by women. Nancy Denney-Phelps, renowned contributing editor to the Animation World Network blogroll, travels extensively to animation festivals around the world writing about the events, the films, and the animators. She was surprised that the organising committee for this significant curatorial focus didn’t comprise any women:

When I first heard that Annecy had decided to pay tribute to female animators in 2015, I assumed that women would play a big role in organizing the event. Alas, that does not seem to have been the case. The catalogue lists three men in charge of films and program planning, and under “Festival Direction,” it was not until I got to the sixth and seventh name on the list that I found a woman’s name, and they were not programmers! They were the Guest Hospitality Hostess and the receptionist. (Denney-Phelps 2015, n.p.) Denney-Phelps does however note that the festival juries were entirely composed of women for the first time in the festival’s fifty-five-year history.

Surveying the films selected for screening at the Melbourne International Animation Festival over the past ten years reveals a similarly low percentage in female presence, despite the noteworthy initiative to include a special programming and forum section in the 2007, 2008, and 2009 editions curated by representatives from the local Women in Film and Television organisation. Focusing just on Australian selections, in the early editions, of sixteen films screened in each session, one-quarter were generally directed by women. In later editions, the average across three selected Australian-focused sessions was seven out of the sixteen films screened. Disappointingly, however, in the 2015 AIAF travelling Australian Showcase edition, there were no female directed films out of the twelve. Of course, festival selections are not made on gender, and perhaps fewer women submit entries. As Latvian-born animator Signe Baumane notes,

maybe the gender division doesn’t quite make sense to you because you are looking at the field of animation where we are all marginalized, women animators and men animators, all alike. But even on our margins there is a deep seated bias against women and women stories. (Baumane 2015, n.p.)

Fortunately, Australia now boasts a number of smaller female-directed commercial production companies that are making breakthroughs in international markets. Sydney-based SLR Productions is notable for having an all-woman executive, including Jo Boag as creative director who has initiated and developed a number of animated TV series for the world market. Sticky Pictures and Galaxy Pop are also run by women in executive producing positions. Other well-known Australian producers of large-scale animated projects include Melanie Coombs (Mary & Max, 2009), Deborah Szapiro (Leunig Animated series, 2002), and Suzie Campbell (Li’l Elvis Jones and The Truckstoppers, 1998). Going back further, Anne Jolliffe (1933–) was a pioneer of Australian animation production, whose company Jollification (1979−2006) created works for television commercials, educational applications and continued to produce narrative projects following Jolliffe’s career as an animator from the late 1950s onwards. Other smaller commercial studios, mainly trading in television commercials (TVCs), had female directors (for example, Jan D’Silva at Moving Ideas Animation and Maggie Geddes at The Funny Farm); however, they also tended to take on the production management and organisational roles in these small businesses. Of course, for most commercial and advertising reliant businesses, the creatives are very much hidden in favour of the product and brand. Again, it is difficult to find statistics, let alone name high-profile female commercial animation creators/directors in Australia. There is certainly a need for future research surveys in this topic.

Inspiring girls

To deal with the kind of marginalisation described above, women hoping to succeed in the film and/or animation industry need inspiration. For most girls, this comes from either seeing females with agency on screen, or role models working in positions of agency across a wide scope of professions. On the “Women Who Inspire” section of her blog, Nicole Lenzen features interviews she has conducted with a number of women in the international arts industry (Lenzen 2014). Christen Smith (freelance animation director form NYC) comments on the gender balance in the animation industry: “I think in the schools, it’s pretty close to 50-50. I’m not sure where the disconnect is happening. I don’t have a gut feeling as to why. But the women animators who are out there working on their projects, I look to as an example” (qtd. in Lenzen 2015, n.p.). She mentions Baumane’s almost solo produced feature Rocks in my Pockets (2014), stating “it’s inspirational knowing that there are women and people like her out there who are taking that plunge”, and acknowledges her first boss Jennifer Oxley (creator of Emmy Award–winning Peg + Cat, 2013), who has “always been a person with a vision… She’s out there still doing things on her own and having that happen for her, so I know it’s possible” (Lenzen 2015, n.p.) Smith also notes other inspirational friends, not necessarily working in her field, including one of the co-founders of an anti-sex trafficking non-profit organisation and another with an organisation also working towards eradicating sex trafficking. Considering a large variety of successful female-initiated projects is essential for women to combat the ‘impostor syndrome’ of feeling that they don’t belong and that even when they are in a senior creative or executive position, that they’re there by accident. Many female artists do have a markedly different sensibility in the way they approach their work and in the topics and themes they have been seen to tackle, which adds to the varied voices that I argue should be heard. The male-dominated commercial animation industry is referred to as a “locker room mentality,” with the kind of behaviour unfriendly to a woman’s sensibilities (Pearce qtd. in Clewley 2001). Following the release of the family-focused Stuart Little (1999), the head of animation for the film seemingly dismissed the project, when he responded to a question on whether he enjoyed creating the animation for the film by stating, “To be quite honest with you, I like to blow things up.” (Pearce qtd. in Clewley 2001).  For one audience member attending this Q&A session, this comment was particularly revealing; research associate at the Annenberg School of Communication Celia Pearce noted: “That about summed up the industry for me […] For a woman, that’s not particularly appealing. And I think that’s why women go into the fine arts. It gives them the opportunity to not blow things up” (Pearce qtd. in Clewley 2001).

If theoretically there are no longer the historical societal barriers for women to be part of the animation industry, this schism in sensibilities highlights why women aren’t as interested in animation careers as men are. In her article “What’s So Funny about Cheese? And Other Dilemmas: The Nickelodeon Television Network and Its (Female) Animation Producers,” Furniss reviews the divide in taste of what male creators and female producers consider funny, chronicling the problems and arguments women encountered when opposing humor they saw as gross, inappropriate or obscure (Furniss 1994, p.14).

This difference is echoed in Marion Quigley’s interviews with twelve Australian animatrix,[3] most of them graduates from animation programs around the country, who spoke about their experiences in larger scale studios, within funded production environments, and in an international festival context. Quigley reports,

The interviews themselves indicate that, while male animators may be more likely to pursue commercial work and to be more interested in special effects, 3D CGI and animation as the ‘gag’; Australian women animators tend to focus on personal subject matter relating to childhood, family and memory, ‘women’s issues’ such as sexuality, abortion, menopause, and women’s representation or environmental or humanitarian issues. (Quigley 2005, p. 17)

Most of the women Quigley interviewed did not continue in a mainstream studio or industry environment; instead, they choose to pursue a hybrid independent practice coupled with some funded projects and sessional teaching contracts. Quigley notes that their films address a variety of topics around “social issues, rather than merely women’s issues,” with an approach that is “often intuitive or poetic, sometimes utilising metaphor or allegory” (p. 17).

Defining Girls

In his key text Understanding Animation, animation theorist and academic Paul Wells focuses on a theoretical unravelling of how one might define animation. In the section on ‘the feminine aesthetic’, Wells outlines some aspects that emerged through an overarching analysis of a range of female-directed short films. Any or all of these elements might constitute what is considered a ‘feminine aesthetic’ in animated films. Firstly, women are represented as subject rather than object, and not “merely erotic spectacles or of marginal narrational interest” (Wells 1998, p. 198). Secondly, language and dialogue are minimal, with ideas and story expressed in purely visual terms. Thirdly, a variety of artistic forms and techniques are used, including many tactile and hybrid methods such as puppet crafting, collage and painterly images requiring greater engagement from the artist/craftsperson animator and the viewing audience. Wells writes,

The feminine aesthetic seeks to reveal a woman’s relationship to her own body; her interaction with men and other women; her perception of her private and public role; her social and political identity within the domestic and professional space, as determined by law; and also, the relationship between female sexuality, desire, and creativity. (p. 200)

Echoing Wells’ notion that the feminine aesthetic (or as I posit, ‘animatrix’) leans more towards an artist’s method in terms of the way they incorporate hybridity and exploration, as opposed to a factory-style process, is a key point. As an originating point or formative part for transformative development, here the suffix ‘matrix’ proves a crucial connection in defining a female animator.

As Estella Lauter notes in her survey of women visual artists and poets, “The most pervasive pattern I found in the body of visual art by women of many ages, colors, backgrounds, and persuasions was a network of related images concerning the process of transformation by which one form becomes another” (Lauter 1984, p. x).

Within the framework of the feminine aesthetic, examining the aspects of adult female character design and story space for ‘mainstream’ commercial productions versus ‘independent’ productions show marked differences. The mainstream productions have an overarching design vernacular where everything must fit as a ‘set’. Female characters are non-sexualised, or alternately hyper-sexualised, and exist in a domestic space or offering support services. Their appeal is through blandness, and operating as secondary characters to the male lead, with low expectations on themselves. These television sitcom style shows are dialogue driven, with a fixed story structure for each episode. The independent females epitomise the vehicle they’re shown in: being the individually designed non-stereotypical primary character; occupying a personal space; being voluptuous or conscious of their bodies and self-reflective minds; participating in an evolving story that doesn’t rely on linguistic communication; and often having an earnest truth-seeking appeal. Many female animators model the external design of their characters on themselves. As María Lorenzo Hernández writes,

Some female characters designed by animatrices appear as thoughtful, inquisitive, fighting women, as a projection of their own creative personality, disrupting the association between femininity and fragility, or femininity and passivity, as we can specially observe in animatrices’ self portraits. (Hernández 2010, p. 76)

If this helps to define a particular set of criteria, it does not necessarily define the whole or only approach of female-directed films. As Charlotte Brunsden writes,

Films can be ‘for’ women in lots of different ways—and obviously women are not a unitary group. We may have biology in common, but the way in which we live our femininity is structured by class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, nationality, etc.—and our understanding of these factors. Many of the films discussed [in Brunsden’s book] were made for ‘women’, but turned out to be for white, ‘educated’ feminists. (Brunsdon 1986, p. 5)

It may also be argued that most male-directed independent or art house films fit these exact criteria. Estella Lauter considers women as mythmakers, offering insights into the human condition that provide an alternative slant to the hegemonies of male-recorded history: “I do not offer these materials [that she discusses in her book] as models to be imitated. These women have not discovered truths that are outside history; they have simply responded to the imperatives of their own history in ways that may disclose the imperative of ours” (Lauter 1984, p. x). It could be argued that the concept of an ‘animatrix’ might transgress biologically determined gender and embrace works that fit along the spectrum of the ‘feminine aesthetic’ criteria. Jayne Pilling comments on a “general shift in auteur animation culture that has seen a move from the universal to the more particular” (2012, p. 15). She cites the influence of feminism, the emergence of animated documentary, and using human voices that confer a sense of a real person speaking (Pilling 2012, p. 15). Hernández differentiates a male-centred approach as a mostly singular simple action-driven entity, whereas the woman-centred animation incorporates nuanced depictions of stories. She writes,

While the animated animator was generally a character without psychology—existing solely for cartoon fiction—animated animatrices have emphasised plural perspectives rather than their private and professional sides, creating a polyhedral discourse on life and animation. (p. 78, italics in original)

Hernandez introduced the term ‘animatrices’ as a plural form for female animators. I attempt to extend this notion to use the word animatrix that may work as both noun, interchangeable with a plural noun, and an adjective. I suggest that an animatrix work incorporates all the key defining factors (themes, techniques, approaches) as outlined in my core thesis, which therefore also defines the creator as an Animatrix.

Crafty Girls

Talking about the works and careers of Australian female animatrix who have gained notable attention, many speak in terms of craft and individual practice. Deb Szapiro refers to them as the “quilt makers of the film industry” (Quigley 2005, p. 19), while Ann Shenfield likens animation itself to “embroidery and tapestry that is likewise created stitch by stitch, or frame by frame” (qtd. in French 2003, p. 124). Similarly, Lee Whitmore compares animation to knitting — “you pull it out, and do a little bit at a time. Somehow it fits in with life.” (qtd. in Quigley 2005, p.66) Antoinette Starkiewicz believes that animation is particularly suited to women because it requires infinite patience (qtd. in Quigley 2005, p.75) Animation is likened to traditional female domestic crafts, since it is also characterised by painstaking, methodical work and attention to detail. Shenfield states “To be an animator requires obsessiveness, knowing in advance that there are 1440 frames per minute somehow to complete” (qtd. in French 2003, p.124).

The late filmmaker Sarah Watt pondered perceptions of being an animator from how she perceives other animators might be, and from the artist’s perspective, realising the unique characteristics required for this profession:

There probably is a certain type of person attracted to animation. I’m not sure I’m it. I’m not very in with the animation world but they’re probably, I don’t know, looking at myself I think, yes, boring, stay at home a lot, able to just keep doing the same things, so it’s kind of a weird mix of being very creative and very, you know, dull and embracing routine, I suppose, so it’s probably just the weird thing that only kicks in in certain people to have that combination. (Watt 2003, n.p.)

I use the metaphor of quilt making, and despite viewing the animatrix as an independent entity creating singular meditations of their personal lives (like the quilt squares), when animatrix films are viewed collectively the multiple voices of the filmmakers create a kind of polyphonic ode, “inviting the viewer’s identification through the exploration of universal matters” (Hernández 2010, p. 78).

Certainly, the works of many notable Australian animatrices, such as Sarah Watt, Antoinette Starkiewicz, Susan Kim Danta, Wendy Chandler, and Lee Whitmore would contribute to this ‘quilt’. All of them focus on a central female character questioning elements of rituals and belonging. Although these filmmaker’s films have a specifically female characteristic, the themes are universal, with “a reverence and respect for small and seemingly ordinary moments and objects” (AACTA 2013, n.p.). For example, Watt’s films consistently have a central female character who does not conform to stereotypical notions of beauty. In fact, her characters question their physical and emotional states. Through the process of caricatured reduction and non-photorealistic rendering, an animated character can cross the divide between being credible or inconceivable. Referring to the well-known cartoon character Lisa Simpson as a believable strong female character, Georgie Honisett asserts that her simplistic veneer belies her psyche. She attributes the presence of strong female cartoon characters to the fact that they can take different forms from humans: “We judge these female characters on their personality alone. We watch them, but the look of these women is not one that we are used to analyzing in terms of appearance. Cartoons allow the liberating possibility of freedom from the restrictions of being judged by looks” (Honisett 1999, p. 17).

All of Sarah Watt’s works involve some interrogation of the body. In Small Treasures (1995), the pregnant character likens herself to a whale, an elephant and brood sow while also questioning her suitability to become responsible for another being. In Local Dive (2001), reflections on body image and perceptions of ‘coolness’ emerge (and are submerged) while at the swimming pool. In Living with Happiness (2002), Look Both Ways (2005), and My Year without Sex (2009) (the latter two mostly live-action but using animated segments), the characters all comment on their body, perceptions of their domestic situation, personal expectations, and their mental states. From this, a universal philosophy emerges on what it means to be human, albeit a female human. Searching and questioning identity are consistent themes, whether from a migrant or traveller point of view, or reflected through lovers, family, friends, objects and artefacts, or through generational observations.

Among these creators, the impetus to tell specifically Australian stories is strong, and to portray characters who epitomise an inimitable Australian humour, not mired in a clichéd, jingoistic ‘cartoonified’ form. American writer, Gena Haskett considers the important role of storytelling to contemporary international cultures, stating that personal narratives

can have an educational and even a healing effect; not just for the storyteller but the recipient of the story as well… How does a country express the narratives of its people? Who gets to share that story and how is it held in trust for the future? (Haskett 2013, n.p.)

Telling personal stories remains an important avenue for the animatrix, particularly in the open-ended digital distribution market, whereby we can contribute and act as ‘caretakers of the national narrative.’

Broke Girls

Creating animated films or projects is expensive, although nowadays less so in terms of facilities and equipment requirements. Nevertheless, the time investment remains significant. With multiple opportunities available in higher education institutions and a plethora of technology, graduate films are a market in their own right. But what happens after graduation? How many students go on to make further films or projects? How do they stay financially solvent? How are they contributing to the national narrative?

A more definitive survey to determine these statistics is imperative (though outside the scope of this paper); however, a simple review of the past ten years of female-directed films in the Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF) provides evidence for further deliberation. Of the approximately eighty Australian female student filmmaker graduates, only two or three names crop up again in following years, with roughly fifteen Australian women showing their second or subsequent film over this time. What happened to the others? And how do these successful ones survive? Of those fifteen women, half are now lecturers or teachers. In fact, a cursory glance at the list of all Australian ‘follow-up’ films show that almost half of our current animated filmmakers are associated with educational institutions. With the mushrooming status of post-secondary programs focused on animation, this has become a de facto ‘funding’ source in place of government arts grants. Many lecturers also serve as producers for postgraduate films, effectively extending their own filmography through the intensive efforts invested into these projects in place of their own work. For those not in full-time roles, sessional teaching work along with freelance studio work or commissions sustains their practice, although many find it almost impossible to maintain momentum.

The period between the late 1980s and the early 2000s were a kind of ‘golden years’ of funding for animation in Australia. The Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia) contributed annually to two or three key productions with established producers and/or directors attached. During that time, Film Victoria was actively supporting early- and mid-career animation producers and directors, with a number of smaller grant initiatives spread over a wider talent pool. Projects like Swimming outside the Flags (1998) and 4-Minute Wonders (2003), in partnership with the SBS and ABC respectively, provided a step-up for many of the animatrixes who continue to populate the festival selections. ScreenWest, ScreenNSW and the South Australian Film Commission also supported fledgling directly funded projects. This has now disappeared in lieu of partnering with commercial and international distributors to develop pop culture fodder for mass markets. While this also helps develop a thriving business culture in the animation industry, the tendency is towards a homogenous global monocultural output.

Gone girls

Why aren’t more women engaged above-the-line in the animation profession? Attempting to identify all the reasons for the dearth of the Australian animatrix is beyond the scope of this research paper; however, three broad factors have been identified: attitudes, opportunities, and flexibility. Each of these is interrelated. Changing attitudes helps foster wider opportunities for flexibility across a range of roles and types of approach to animation and women’s engagement in the industry. Cultivating the animatrix voice furnishes diversity and solidarity in our comprehension of the human condition. “[The animatrix] brings to our attention a voice that is not unique but multiple” (Hernandez 2010, p. 77). For the current millennial generation, a strong female lead and ‘real’ characters displaying authenticity are becoming the norm as our pop culture is filtered through the crucial lens of feminist ideology (Gemmill 2015). While this seems to be what the current generation of women are demanding, the mainstream industry is lagging in uptake. But most importantly, a variety of female views is essential—including those who want to blow things up.

Andi Spark (Griffith University) has lead the Animation program at the Griffith Film School for the past ten years, after a twenty year career in the industry (including Walt Disney Television Animation and Disneytoon, Mediaworld, Viskatoons, and the Australian Childrens’ Television Foundation) as an animation artist then director and producer for short films, music videos, childrens’ television series, TVC’s and independent features. She has since been supervising producer for more than 200 student films, which have screened and won awards in major festivals around the world including Cannes and Annecy.


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Amidi, Amid. (2012) “Cartoon Hangover Launches Micro-Series by 3 Animators.” Cartoon Brew, 20 April. Available from

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[1] The letter was allegedly found in the blog owners deceased Aunt’s belongings

[2] ‘Above-the line’ is film industry budgeting parlance for non-variable contracted costs of the key personnel such as the Director, Producer and often Director of Photography.

[3] I refer to animatrix as both noun and adjective, being ‘a female animator with agency’ and a ‘woman-influenced project.’

© Andi Spark

Edited by Amy Ratelle