Identity

The New Pipeline For Black Women in Animation

In an industry dominated by white men, these creators hope to pave a way for women and non-binary people of color for more nuanced portrayals of Black characters.

by Natelegé Whaley
Mar 18 2019, 2:17pm

Photo by Ivan Gerer 

By the 1950s, Walt Disney had produced classic animated films such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan in his flagship Burbank, Los Angeles animation building. Yet, during the first half of the century, the majority of women and people of color at Disney worked outside the main building in departments like “Ink and Paint,” where artists hand-drew and colored finalized animations for Disney films.

Yes, there were exceptions such as Disney animators Retta Scott, the first woman animator hired in 1938, and Mary Blair, hired in 1940 or male artists of color Tyrus Wong, the studio’s first Asian-American animation artist in the 1940s, and Floyd Norman, the first Black animator hired in the 1950s. But by and large, up until the late 20th century it was an anomaly to be a person of color and/or woman working as an animator at the world’s most recognized film production company. Fast forward to 2017 when actress Rashida Jones and writer Will McCormack left production on Pixar’s (a Disney subsidiary) Toy Story 4, claiming, “women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice” under former chief creative officer John Lasseter.

As of 2015, 60 percent of animation students are women, yet men make up almost 80 percent of animators in the workforce, according to Women in Animation data. And representation is even lower for women of color working in animation who are in less production roles than their white counterparts.

Currently, for Black women, who hold 2.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in animation and related fields as reported by the Department of Education, networking with peers and those in executive positions are essential to finding opportunities in the industry. To do so Black women and non-binary people are finding unique ways to navigate the animation space and share resources.

“In New York City, the animation industry is very small,” Pilar Newton an animation professor at the City College of New York tells Broadly. “Meeting somebody doesn’t guarantee work. Being persistent guarantees work.”

Newton got into the business in 1996 after her sister discovered her office neighbor was John Dilworth, the creator of Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog. “She walked in his studio and the person she talked to happen to be Dilworth,” Newton explains. “He brought me in as an unpaid intern. After two weeks he said, ‘You’re good. You’re a freelancer now.’”

After Courage the Cowardly Dog was picked up by Cartoon Network, Newton worked on set as a prop designer, storyboard artist, and background designer. The 20-year animation veteran later worked on MTV’s Daria as a layout artist and designed children’s books based on Nickelodeon’s Rocket Power. Currently, she runs her 2D flash animation studio Pilar Toons and is pursuing her master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts.

For others, the path to getting into professional animation work is through fostering professional communities with like-minded artists.

New York City-based writer and producer Taylor Shaw, who is also a content strategist for Broadly’s parent company VICE Media, began developing an animated series centering Black women in their early 20s living on the South Side of Chicago, her hometown, in 2017. Shaw envisioned a dream team of talented Black women bringing the project to life. But she had trouble finding them and figured if she had an issue tracking down these creatives, then others might be too. So, Shaw launched Black Women Animate, an initiative to close the talent gap in the animation space for Black women and non-binary people.

“It was mind-boggling that the Black women in animation that I found, they themselves were the only Black women in their entire undergraduate program at their schools or they hardly knew of another Black woman in animation,” Shaw tells Broadly. “How do you really succeed in the field when there’s no representation of yourself and if you don’t have a community?’”

In the year since launching, Shaw has cultivated supportive spaces digitally and in-person with Black women and non-binary animators based in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. During a one-day bootcamp event in LA, participants heard from animators, studio executives, and writers who were mostly women and people of color that share the vision of an inclusive animation industry.

“We are looking to build with industry partners that are going to do the work,” Shaw adds. “And it’s the responsibility of the industry to meet the call that we are setting forth.”

While the industry catches up to the call for diversity, Black women and non-binary animators are finding their own creative ways to make their work as visible as possible. For instance, Mia Lee, a Chicago-based artist whose portfolio includes designs for brands such as Nike, Kith, and Timberland, is ambitious about getting her work to the decision-makers in animation. Currently, she’s focused on a 2D animation Unwonderful World, a personal project she is shopping to networks now.

During her career as an artist, Lee has met executives in animation and production who want to hear more from young people of color. “They just need us to speak up and a lot of people are afraid to put themselves out there,” Lee says. The designer’s networking method has been to research who’s who in the industry and send short cold emails or direct messages on Twitter and Instagram to those running the show.

“Sometimes people respond and sometimes they don’t, but I state my purpose and why I’m emailing them. Also, send a portfolio link because a lot of people are busy and you want to grab their attention right away," Lee says.

Monique Henry-Hudson, the founder Diverse Toons, an organization that hosts panels highlighting women of color in multi-media, believes that the recent success of Marvel’s Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—that features an Afro-Latino Spiderman—is a mark of what’s to come from more diverse animators entering the work force.

“Peter Ramsey, a Black man who is one of the three directors of it, working on a film with a Black lead character Miles Morales—that is really the start of a renaissance in animation,” she tells Broadly. “Where we see the character does not need to be a white male and doesn’t need to be a white person. And it doesn’t have to be a musical to get you through the story. I feel like the industry is taking account of the risks taken on that film and hopefully, it shows that it is worth it to diversify studios.”

The perspectives of Black women in the animation industry are critical as visual effects and gaming continue to be one of the fastest growing segments in the global media and entertainment industries. Their artistry can also assure Black characters and stories are properly represented, especially as younger audiences demand more diverse storytelling in TV and movies.

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When asked if she believes there are systems in place to exclude Black women from obtaining leadership roles in animation, Sonya Carey, the lead animator behind The Princess and the Frog, tells Broadly, “no.” But she does think implicit bias is a deterring factor. Ultimately, to her, Black women need to be encouraged to get the education and apply for roles—even if they may not see anyone on these production teams who look like them.

“There are very few Black women applying for the jobs at the executive level,” Carey says, “I'd love to find a way to encourage and mentor younger Black women.”

Fortunately, some of this work is already being done.