Bonita Versh profiles some of the commercial industry's leading female animation directors.
The world of TV commercials. . . where 30 second megabuck monoliths litter the landscape, dedicated to the sole purpose of selling a product that many of us would not bother to buy if not for the stunning visual aides created by some smart-ass directors. . . . directors who have the foresight, the talent, the right agency, the right campaign, the best crew, the right producer, and, with any luck, the right budget to make a short, sometimes minuscule film. But a film never the less. The short format of animated commercials is an avenue for all of the artists involved to get the hands-on training of making animated films from beginning to end--and get paid for it! One can quickly learn all styles of animation, from traditional to wacky, experimental to computer generated. When a director needs to get a difficult project done on time, he (yes, most directors are still male) wants the best, most dependable, most versatile artists available. Women have proven that there is no gender call here. Commercial animation is a field in which gender is less important than talent. For women in animation, myself included, the commercial arena has sometimes been the only place where one could get hired as an animator, assistant animator, or ink and paint person when all the TV series jobs were going overseas. That's not to say there isn't any prejudice around. A common myth among the men of the "old school of thought" is that women can't be funny. You'd better not say that to Becky Bristow, Cynthia Wells, Sally Cruikshank, Peggy Yamamoto, Pam Cook, Pattie Shinagawa, Tissa David, Sue Kroyer, Sara Petty, Candy Guard, or Caroline Cruikshank, just a few of the many talented (and funny) women who have worked in the commercial arena at some point in their careers, and who have animated some pretty wild scenes.
While there are countless commercial animation houses throughout the country and across the globe, a few in particular that I'm familiar with have worked with notable women over the years. Personally, I am grateful to Klasky Csupo Commercials for trusting my abilities as a director, and for championing other women directors such as Tamara Varga and Ingin Kim. I have a great crew to credit, starting with assistant director (now producer) Liz Seidman, executive producer Tim Bloch, assistant director/animator Renate Kempowski, as well as Jackie Ross, Lisa Cupery, Adam Byrd, Nancy Avery, Cristi Lyon, Kim Tatum and all other animators and assistants who help me look good! Duck Soup Producktions, a long established commercial house, has probably used every talented animator in Los Angeles at some time or another. In the early 1990's, they had an all-female animation staff that consisted of Peggy Yamamoto, Patti Shinagawa and myself. We did a slew of commercials for Duck Soup, including the award-winning 7-Up Dot campaign. Kunimi Tarada, their color stylist, is a master of cel animation. Beth Epstein, Duck Soup's assistant director, has a long history in the animated commercial world, starting back at Film Fare with Frank Terry. Recently, Duck Soup actually hired a female director, Maureen Selwood, who also teaches in the experimental animation department at CalArts. Producer Caroline Bates brought the studio into the 21st century with her computer expertise, and now Duck Soup is establishing itself as a cutting edge digital studio as well.
Playhouse Pictures, one of the oldest commercial houses in Hollywood, pays great tribute to Sterling Sturdavant, a female designer who established the Playhouse look in the 50s and early 60s, setting the commercial standard for the times. Years ago, Playhouse gave Sally Cruikshank, a wacky American independent filmmaker, a chance to direct, still a rare opportunity for a woman in this business, unless you own your own company. Cynthia Wells, Becky Bristow, and Ruth Kissane are also alumni of Playhouse.
In Chicago, Calabash Animation Studios' producer Monica Kendall works with wonderful animators such as Jackie Smessart , sand-animator Priscilla Olson, cel artist Diane Grider and technical director Celene Pecker. Star Toons, also out of Chicago, is headed by female producer Chris McClenehan. She mentions that the few women animators they've managed to train soon leave for the larger studios. This is a problem for all of the commercial houses.
Ron Diamond of Acme FilmWorks has been a real impetus for matching independents with sponsors. The list of artists he has produced commercials with reads like the "Who's Who" of the international festival circuit. This roster includes Caroline Leaf, Wendy Tilby, Simona Mulazzani, Aleksandra Korejwo and others. British director Sue Loughlin recently completed the third spot in Acme's series of cel animated commercials for Weight Watchers. Loughlin has directed several spots for Acme, including one for the award-winning Levi's animated series, a campaign which put Acme and many other studios on the map in the commercial world.
We can't talk about the L.A. scene without mentioning Jane Baer, co-founder and head of Baer Animation Studio in Studio City. She founded Baer Animation in 1984, and has proven to be a formidable force in the commercial world, with clients ranging from Coca-Cola to Pampers and Starkist Tuna, they have established a reputation for a classical, what some might call "Disney" style. Cynthia Wells is an animation director who worked on several of Baer's M&M's spots in the early 1990's.
Wells, who has also worked for Warner Bros. and Fox Feature Animation, taught at CalArts, and created her own independent films, just finished up directing two commercials for Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues, a studio known for its' computer animation commercials and special effects. Simon Says, for Twizzler's candy, and Bullseye, for Kraft barbecue sauce, were both created with Rhythm & Hues' proprietary software. Traditionally a 2D animator, this was a first time computer animation experience for Wells, who is working on a new independent animated film called A Shadow of Doubt, a five minute trailer for a feature film concept which she expects to complete later this year.
Independent women filmmakers like Cynthia Wells are really breaking ground in commercial direction and animation. Commercials have given them a chance to perfect their art while being funded by a sponsor. As you can gather by now, reading the names of directors at various studios, the commercials industry is one in which talent travels. Anyone with more than a few years experience in the industry has worked at their fair share of studios, on a variety of projects and techniques.
Becky Bristow has worked with most of the major commercial houses, animating on countless spots including over a dozen of Frank Terry's Raid commercials. Bristow also influenced the careers of many a young animators during her five-year position as head of CalArts' renowned Character Animation department, which is now headed up by Frank Terry.
Kris Weber-Sherwood, a long time assistant director and producer, started her career at Spunbuggy, the historically significant commercial studio that started the careers of people like Frank Terry, Bill Kroyer, Bob Zambini, and even Gabor Csupo back in the late 60s and early 70s. Auril Thompson was Spunbuggy's color stylist, and is now known as a legendary inker from Warner Bros. Sue Kroyer also got her start at Spunbuggy, and is now well known throughout the industry as one of the top directing talents. With her husband Bill Kroyer, Sue is currently working on development for Warner Bros. Feature Animation. Talent surely runs in Sue Kroyer's family. Her sister, Karen Johnston has run her own animation studio, Karen Johnston Productions in Racine, Wisconsin for 20 years.
Up in Vancouver, Debra Dawsen has designed for Marv Newland's International Rocketship for 15 years. Vancouver and Canada in general boast a large population of independent women filmmakers. Caroline Cruikshank (no relation to Sally,) a Canadian and a graduate of Sheridan College, went to London and gained an outstanding reputation as a commercial director, working with Richard Williams, Pizzaz Pictures, Richard Purdum Productions, Passion Pictures, and Hibbert Ralph in the 80s. Since 1996, she has been working at Walt Disney Feature Animation in L.A., where she just completed work on their next feature film, Hercules.
In New York, Tissa David leads the way as the "Grand Dame" of Animation (she deserves an entire article!.) She is currently working at Ink Tank, along with Suzan Pitt, an accomplished independent filmmaker who recently signed on to The Ink Tank's new division, Ink Tank Too.
Los Angeles-based Kurtz and Friends has long depended on the versatile talents of Peggy Yamamoto and Pam Cook. Pam also has a long-time relationship with Celluloid , a Denver-based animation house.
I know I have failed to mention many women who may be currently animating and directing in the studios that I didn't get to research. Hopefully, this article can serve as a catalyst to bring others out of the woodwork. The non-profit organization, Women in Animation, is planning to celebrate these and other women in commercials at a presentation and meeting next October. This is an open invitation to you readers working in the industry to let me know about other women working in the field. Through recognition of our accomplishments, we can foster the growth of a new generation of women in the animation industry.
Bonita Versh is a director for Klasky Csupo Commercials, and an active supporter of Women in Animation, a non-profit organization. She can be reached by phone at Klasky Csupo in Hollywood: (213) 957-4198.