Five Women Animators Who Shook Up the Industry

From the silent days to the present, women have been a solid—if often unrecognized—force in animation

Merida in Brave
Merida in Brave ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Pixar’s new release Brave is being singled out for, among other things, having the studio’s first female lead character. For years writers have been criticizing Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for holding onto outdated gender attitudes: helpless princesses, evil witches, etc. After Disney’s 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office, the company renamed its “Rapunzel” feature to Tangled in an attempt to attract a wider (read: “male”) audience.

It didn’t help Pixar’s reputation with feminists when Brenda Chapman, the original Brave director, was replaced by Mark Andrews well after production started. (Chapman still receives co-director credit.) But it’s not like DreamWorks or other studios have gone out of their way to let women direct animated features. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is an industry problem or just a reflection of society. But film has been blessed with some extraordinary women animators. Here is a brief list:

1. Lotte Reiniger. Credited with directing the first feature-length animated film, Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin. Fascinated as a child by acting and movies, she worked on an animated sequence in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and other films. Reiniger earned recognition for her use of cut-out silhouettes that she would move frame by frame. Capitalizing on a German fascination with “shadow plays,” a technique stretching back to the time of the Egyptians, Reiniger began work on a project in 1923 drawn from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a delicate, whimsical, enchanting film built around tinted silhouettes, with some sets and figures constructed from wax, soap, and sand. After a screening in Berlin and a premiere in Paris, the film became an international hit. Reiniger continued making movies until 1979′s The Rose and the Ring. The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been beautifully restored for this Milestone release.

2. Janie Geiser. A world-acclaimed puppeteer, Janie Geiser was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957. After attending the University of Georgia, she formed her own puppet company, whose work she began to document on film. Gradually she began to experiment with animation techniques to make stand-alone films like The Red Book (1994). Geiser’s films combine cut-outs, dolls, graphics, newspapers, and other items to form a collage of animation effects. She uses collage for the soundtracks as well, layering snippets of dialogue, industrial sounds, and music to form dense, elusive aural clouds. Geiser teaches at CalArts, and is the co-founder, with Susan Simpson, of Automata, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to experimental puppet theater, film, “and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects.”

3. Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born in South Korea in 1972, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. An encounter with a storyboard artist at California State University, Long Beach inspired her to try a career in animation. After working on direct-to-video and cable projects, Nelson was hired by DreamWorks as a storyboard artist, where she worked on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, and the first Kung Fu Panda. Her accomplishments on that film convinced DreamWorks executives to give her Kung Fu Panda 2, a project that took three years to complete. “There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson told LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”

4. Helen Hill. Animator, documentary filmmaker, activist, teacher, wife and mother, Helen Hill completed 21 short films that explored the full range of animation, from stop-motion with models to painting directly onto celluloid. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, and began making Super 8 movies at the age of eleven. Hill studied animation at Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies Program and later at the California Institute for the Arts. After obtaining her masters, she joined her husband Paul Gailiunas in Nova Scotia, where he was attending medical school. When he received his medical degree, they moved to New Orleans.

Hill loved film as a medium, studying filmmaking methods and learning how to process stock. Her Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet has become a standard resource for alternative filmmakers. In shorts like Scratch and Crow (1995), Hill’s exuberant drawing and surreal sense of humor captivate viewers. Many of her films are available from the Harvard Film Archive, which preserved her work after it was damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

5. Sally Cruikshank. One of the first countercultural films to break through to a mainstream audience, Quasi at the Quackadero enlivened many midnight screenings when it was released in 1975. It was written, animated, and directed by Sally Cruikshank, a New Jersey native who attended Yale Art School on scholarship. She finished her first cartoon, Ducky, at Smith College, then enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. She found inspiration from the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney as well as experimental filmmakers, and by combining these two traditions, made films that were anarchic as well as accessible, filled with memorable characters and bizarre gags. Cruikshank went on to animate some twenty pieces for “Sesame Street” and contributed animated sequences to feature films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982). She offers this DVD collection of her work.

There are several more female animators I hope to discuss in the future, including Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Hubley, Vicky Jenson, Lorna Cook and Danielle Ash.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.