Chrissy Guest: Drawing Attention to Women in Animation

Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Lauren Faust
Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Lauren Faust
Behind the scenes with Lauren Faust, writer, producer, and director best known for her work on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010-2017), Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (2004-2009), and The Power Puff Girls (2001-2003; 2008).

#DirectedbyWomen team member Allison Michelle Morris recently had the opportunity to chat with educator and filmmaker Chrissy Guest. After struggling to find a comprehensive resource to use for her history of women in animation course, Guest took it upon herself to create one. Her documentary film Beyond Ink & Paint: The Women of Animation explores the often underrepresented history and artistic contributions of women in animation while celebrating women’s future within the industry.

Directed by Women: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Chrissy Guest: No problem, I’m excited!

DbW: Me, too! Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background in filmmaking?

CG: I am a professor at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and I teach television production, primarily studio and field production. My career started back in the early nineties; I worked in broadcast news as a director and photojournalist. I worked in broadcast news for about twelve years before I moved onto academia and became an instructor. And since I’ve become an instructor, I’ve started combining my passions for filmmaking, animation, and education, which is how my documentary Beyond Ink & Paint got started. It was supposed to be a short film, funny story, but it very quickly became a feature-length film because there is just so much history out there about women within the field of animation.

DbW: When did you realize your passion for storytelling and filmmaking?

CG: I think I’ve always had a passion for storytelling, but I actually really started getting interested in film in high school. I went to a small, rural school in New York and I had a teacher who saw I had a passion for [filmmaking] and she said, “Why don’t you start a video club?” She suggested we make a show and she essentially sponsored our club. And up until that point, I didn’t really think it was possible. I knew this was what I wanted to do—I wanted to make movies and tell amazing stories and inspire people.

After high school, I wanted to pursue film school, but I couldn’t afford it, so I went to the community college in my area instead. The problem was, at that time, New York didn’t have a filming community in the same way that Hollywood does, and I didn’t know of any clear path on how to get there. I took internships at a local college station and the public access station, and I was offered a position after my internship wrapped, and I thought, “This is my way in.”

DbW: What kinds of stories or themes are you drawn to as a filmmaker?

CG: I did a lot of human-interest stories with public access television, and that helped me to define more of the kinds of films I wanted to do. I find that I’m interested in anything that allows people to look at something in multiple ways and that can elicit social change and can actually address that change through media that then everyone can see.

For example, when I was working in broadcast television, I was often the only woman in the control room. Those experiences made me especially aware of and want to address gender inequality—it’s real. Inequalities in pay, leave time, family responsibilities; these inequalities leave people wondering if they can really have it all—a career and a family. These are the kinds of stories I’m drawn to, especially right now through this particular documentary project.

There’s this need for people to know this history and the contributions women have made to the field of animation, but also to know that the problems are still going on today. Education has a big part to play in that, and I want this project to be an educational tool, too, for folks to look at and start looking for ways to solve this problem.

DbW: How did you become aware of this problem within the animation field and how did it inspire your documentary, Beyond Ink & Paint: The Women of Animation?

CG: That’s a funny story. I came to work at Ithaca College three years ago, and my office is next to a colleague of mine who teaches animation. He’s been a great mentor, and when I’d been there about six months he came in to talk to me and noticed my entire office is decorated with animation—movie posters from Brave and Monsters Inc., and books on animation everywhere and he just stopped and went, “Do you like animation?” Of course, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m a huge fan, I love it!”

He was working on developing a minor in animation at the time, and I was more than willing to help him because I love designing curriculum. So we worked on that together, and the minor was approved, and then he suggested that I teach a special topics workshop on the history of animation.

I teach a lot of “women behind the scenes” specialty courses, so I decided to create and teach a history of women in animation class. It made sense for me to teach this workshop as a part of the department until I started actually researching materials for the class, and that’s when I said, “This is awful.”

The last book that cited women in animation was in 1993. I was shocked. I asked the librarian at [Ithaca] to pool any resources, documentaries, any excerpts or chapters from books, really anything about women and animation. I thought for sure I would at least find a parody book – like the “Nine Old Women” – but there was very little about women in animation, period. All we could we find were footnotes or excerpts from chapters or one interview [from a woman animator] out of sixty men. And I just thought to myself, “This is a huge problem.” How are women supposed to enter this industry if they can’t even see themselves working in animation or understand their history within the industry?

When I told my colleague about the issues I was having finding resources and my realization of an even bigger problem [about women in animation] he suggested I make a documentary about it. I initially thought I would be making a short, “abridged history” of women in animation, but quickly realized there was just so much history and so much to address and discuss. We’re now two and a half, almost three years into this project and have interviewed sixty women so far, and have only just touched the surface.

DbW: Even I remember in college, writing a research paper about the representation of female characters in animated films and, I had hoped, about the women who worked on those films and couldn’t find anything!

CG: It’s sad. Mindy Johnson’s wonderful book [Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation] is coming out in a couple of weeks, and I know it will be a great resource. Mindy is Disney’s historian, and I had the opportunity to hear her speak in L.A. about the women in the ink and paint department at Disney. Now, I was under the impression that, and I think as many others were, that women were relegated to the ink and paint department because men didn’t want them in the creative roles, they didn’t think they could do it, so I concentrated on what happens “after.” But, it has taken Mary twelve years to work on her book because she had a similar experience in that she thought she was going to sit down and interview a few artists from the ink and paint department and it would be a quick little book, no problem. Well, that “quick little book” is now several hundred pages long. Her book is so expansive and full of information about the kind of influence women had in the animation industry.

Director Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Beyond Ink & Paint producer Tracey Miller-Zarneke and Rita Street, founder of Women in Animation (WIA)
Director Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Beyond Ink & Paint producer Tracey Miller-Zarneke and Rita Street, founder of Women in Animation (WIA)

DbW: But your documentary focuses more on what happened after this specific age in animation history?

CG: Yes, my film took a different turn. Once I got started, I didn’t even know the organization Women in Animation (WIA) existed – so this is back in 2014. WIA had just rebooted the organization in 2013 and had just completed a study about the percentages of women who attend art school. They determined that about 65-70% of animation and art students are women, but women in the actual industry make up about 23% of animation positions within a creative role. That to me became a bigger concern and a larger focus of the documentary project.

We still include women in animation history for contextual support, but our project focuses more on what’s happening in the education of women and where are they going after they graduate from art school if they’re not going directly into roles within the animation industry? And why aren’t they going into the animation industry? My film addresses this gap and where the future for women in animation is going.

A lot of the women I’ve interviewed are women who are now in large creative roles in the industry, so I wanted to know what their influence is and how is it changing for women in animation not only in the U.S. but for women worldwide.

DbW: And you’ve conducted sixty of these interviews so far, right?

CG: Right.

DbW: Have there been any particular stories or experiences you’ve heard that have surprised you or encouraged you? Or, more than likely, upset you?

CG: Honestly, there’s been a little bit of all three of those things. I would say more recently the women I have been interviewing, especially the younger animators who are coming in now who are creating new content and showing their range have been really inspirational. I see a lot of optimism and hope among a lot of these women, not only at Disney but at other studios like Warner Brothers too.

Director Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Deborah Cook
Director Chrissy Guest speaks with Deborah Cook, costume designer and puppet modeler known for her work on Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), ParaNorman (2012), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Corpse Bride (2005).

I have to say that one of the things that really surprised me was hearing about LAIKA, which is a stop motion animation studio out of Portland, Oregon. Their work culture is, hands down, the most amazing and supportive studio I have had the pleasure of visiting. They have a lot of women in leadership, they have a culture that supports families and family life, and they seem to nurture learning and growth. Mentorships are really big with them – they love to mentor and support each other there.

In contrast, many animators are overworked, which fosters a working environment that isn’t as supportive of women. Women play very specific roles in society, so many are feeling like they still have to choose between work and family in ways that men may not. Many of these artists are working sixteen-hour days, and are being judged for not “being apart of the team” for taking time off to be with their family.

Another serious issue for women in animation is that they haven’t been credited for work or are more easily pushed out over creative differences. Some have gone years without recognition for their work, and many were pushed out of projects because they didn’t want a “traditional” romantic relationship within the story. Women in leadership were saying, “Hey, we don’t need a love angle in this” or “A male savior isn’t necessary here,” and being completely dismissed because everyone else in the room thought no one would see the film without it.

Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Brenda Chapman
Behind the scenes with Brenda Chapman, animator, writer, and director best known for her work on Brave (2012), The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Lion King (1994), Beauty and the Beast (1992), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

Speaking with Brenda Chapman was very powerful. Hearing her talk about not being invited to the Golden Globes, and of course Brave won because tickets are given to the studio, but if you’re up for an Oscar, as she was, you get tickets. But at that point, she was a co-director because in the last year of the project she was asked to leave. If you watch my interview and then rewatch her acceptance speech, it brings on a completely different meaning because you have context. She felt like this was her story – she wrote [Brave] about her and her daughter – and in the process of it winning all of these awards, she was left out. She only got to attend the Oscars because the Academy sent her the tickets directly, but she had to choose between taking her husband and her daughter, whom she wrote the film about, and so she took her daughter. [Brenda’s] interview was very interesting.

What I also found surprising through my research is that animation directors are not covered by the Directors Guild of America.

DbW: What? Really?

CG: Really. We know that women make up a small part of animation industry positions, just imagine how small of a percentage of women make up animation directors. And then, putting that into perspective, the small percentage of directors who are women.* It’s overwhelmingly underrepresented.

DbW: That’s mind-boggling to me. I just–

CG: Oh wait, it gets even better. With women that write for animation, they are not represented by the Writer’s Guild of America. Animation writers are not covered by the writer’s guild. They can be part of the Writer’s Guild Alliance, which they have to pay dues for, but they are not covered by the Writer’s Guild. The Animation Guild represents them. The really great thing, though, is that the Animation Guild only covers Los Angeles, so the animation studios LAIKA, Pixar, and Blue Sky, or any of the animation studios in New York, are not represented.

So when we look at the representation of women writing in animation that the Animation Guild puts out, it only covers Los Angeles. It doesn’t even give you a really good indication of the representation within the industry itself.

DbW: How is that even supposed to make sense?

CG: It doesn’t. I recently presented at a conference with a survey on women in animation and tried to address this gap between the guilds [DGA, WGA, and the Animation Guild] but it isn’t fully representative because, for example, Brenda Chapman, who won for directing, isn’t a part of the DGA, which skews the data. I want to include statistics in my film, and as I tried to pull the numbers together, I called the DGA, but they hung up on me.

DbW: No way.

CG: [laughs] Yeah, I called them and asked, “Out of the directors you say are women, how many of them are animation directors?” and the woman said we don’t represent animation and hung up. I even asked in writing and received the same response….and I will be using that in my film.

DbW: Yes, please do! I can’t believe that was the kind of reaction you got!

CG: I think what’s worse is that people still don’t realize the disparity in statistics. When the small percentage of women directors [used in statistics] doesn’t include animation directors, it skews the data. But even male directors are not represented in the DGA’s numbers, which means that animation isn’t fully recognized and represented.

However, I will say that, since starting this project in 2014, the numbers [of women] have increased; we’ve gone from 20% of the animation industry made up of women to 23%, but that’s still a very small percentage of growth in just three years.

DbW: It’s at least encouraging to hear that there is some progress, but three percent just isn’t enough.

CG: I hope though that this film will be a conversation starter. By no means will we be able to address all of the history and experiences of women in animation, but, when I look at what this film will do, I hope that it gives students an overview and gives some insight into the influence women have had on the industry. I hope that they will want to continue telling untold stories and will inspire them to pursue opportunities in animation themselves. Of course, I hope that this documentary will be interesting for fans of animation, but I really hope that it will educate that next generation of storytellers – male and female – on the importance of animation history and the contributions that women have made.

DbW: I think this film will be a great educational tool – I would have loved to have seen it when I was a student! What will you be doing with all of the interviews?

CG: All of the interviews are being compiled and collected into an oral archive at Ithaca College. Scholars will be able to watch the interviews in their entirety, some of which are three hours long. Especially since before starting this project there were very few resources, this archive will be a wealth of information for people studying animation and film history.

Chrissy Guest behind the scenes with Allison Abbate
Chrissy and Tracey behind the scenes with Allison Abbate, EVP Theatrical Animation of Warner Animation Group and producer best known for her work on The Lego Movie (2014), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Corpse Bride (2005), and The Iron Giant (1999).

DbW: You’ve been traveling cross-country to conduct these interviews, which I imagine is pretty expensive. How can people help support this project financially?

CG: I’ve been funding this myself. As I said, I thought this was going to be a short project, and Ithaca College did give me a $5,000 grant to work on the film, but as you can imagine, traveling to twelve different cities to interview these women has been very expensive. I’ve been using my credit card to do it! I’m pretty tapped out personally and need financial help for post production, and it’s all going to add up.

We have raised $15,500, but ideally, we need $75,000 to complete the film. We had previously been crowdfunding on Kickstarter, but we were approached by Indiegogo, and my producers and I have decided to move in that direction. As soon as it is available, our website will have the updated crowdfunding resources. Our initial goal has also changed thanks to some generous footage donations from studios. We feel that Indiegogo’s flexibility and additional support they offer will better suit our needs.

DbW: And finally, do you have any “words of wisdom” or insights to share with other filmmakers?

CG: One thing that I have learned through this process is that you just need to do it! Regardless of where you’re from or what your background is, no one knows exactly how to do this. I teach short form and news packages and broadcast television and, although I don’t necessarily know how to make documentary films, I do know how to make this documentary. It has been a wonderful experience, and I’ll be better for it the next time around. There’s this perception that [filmmakers] have this secret knowledge about how to make a film when really we’re all just trying to figure it out. Go out, make the film you want to make, and ask the questions you want to ask

DbW: Thank you so much for your time! Where can folks find you and support your projects online?

CG: People can find more information about Beyond Ink & Paint: The Women of Animation on our website and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We will also be launching our Indiegogo campaign soon.


*Editor’s Note: Based on a 2015 DGA study, 6.4% of major box office films were directed by women (5.1% Caucasian females and 1.3% minority females).