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‘Breaking the Glass Frame’ Celebrates Diversity, Seeks Strategies

Three-day symposium spotlighting female contributions to the field of animation and exploring solutions to sexual harassment, bias, and lack of diversity within the industry calls for heightened awareness of and increased empowerment for women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

Courtyard of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. All images courtesy of Breaking the Glass Frame.

This past weekend animators, students and educators gathered at the USC School of Cinematic Arts for Breaking the Glass Frame: Women and Animation, Past, Present, Future, a three-day symposium spotlighting female contributions to the field of animation and exploring solutions to sexual harassment, bias, and lack of diversity that challenge women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ+ community working within the industry and academia.

Presented by USC in partnership with UCLA, CalArts & Women in Animation, the symposium kicked off on Saturday with a keynote address delivered by Oscar-winning director Brenda Chapman, who shared her story about her education and early years as an entry-level cleanup artist, before breaking into story and becoming the first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio, DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. Chapman also recounted her experiences working on Pixar’s Brave, including how she was removed from the project a year before its release but fought to retain credit on the film, becoming the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

“It was the hardest rejection of my life,” Chapman said. “It wasn’t pretty, and if I hadn’t fought back I wouldn’t have received credit on my own film.”

The “Pushing for Diversity and Inclusion in Animation: Race, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Disability, and Age” panel, moderated by Teresa Cheng, Chair of the USC School of Cinematic Arts John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, drew on panelists’ personal experiences to examine bias and discrimination within the animation industry, along with strategies for change.

“Men dominate animation, not in numbers but in the roles they play,” panelist Caress Reeves, a visual effects artist at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, observed. “Many of these men mean well toward the women they encounter them but a significant number do not,” she said, going on to describe her own encounters with harassers in the workplace.

Oscar-winning director Brenda Chapman delivers the opening keynote address at the Breaking the Glass Frame symposium.

“Undoubtedly there’s been progress but we have so much further to go,” Los Angeles-based writer, director and stop-motion animator Musa Brooker noted. “It takes people who are able to speak up, who are in positions of power and are hiring people.”

The “Breaking through the Boys’ Club: Effective Strategies for Positive Change in the Industry” panel, moderated by Ashley Long, supervising director on Netflix series Paradise P.D. and Animation Guild Executive Board member and Anti-Harassment committee Co-chair, similarly sought solutions to harassment and the lack of diversity in animation and visual effects.

“Even when you are not the victim of something, it can be helpful to stand up for someone when you see something,” entertainment lawyer Louise Nemschoff said. “If other people are saying ‘wait, that’s not funny,’ it can be very helpful to help break up the bro culture that exists because of the imbalance of women in the industry.”

“Empowering your sister does not disempower yourself,” panelist Sidney Clifton, currently the creative recruiter at Riot Games, emphasized. “That’s worth paying attention to wherever you’re at in your career,” she continued. “Sometimes there’s nothing in it for you. Sometimes you ‘ll have to make a decision that elevates someone but there’s no personal reward. Sometimes there’s nothing in it for you and you have to be comfortable with that.”

L to R: Animation historian Mindy Johnson with pioneering Disney animators Enid Denbo Wizig and Jane Shattuck-Takamoto-Baer.

“I do believe that you are most vulnerable when you are first starting out because there’s no one to turn to,” panelist Jane Hartwell, producer of upcoming animated feature UglyDolls for STX Entertainment, noted. “It’s important to stand up and not be a victim, because it just gets worse. It’s surprising how effective you can be in standing up for yourself.”

Animation historian Mindy Johnson, the author of “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation,” led a rapt audience in her discussion of the historical role of women in the animation industry, noting that the early ink & paint artists were akin to Ginger Rogers, who “did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.” Joining Johnson on stage were pioneering Disney animators Enid Denbo Wizig and Jane Shattuck-Takamoto-Baer, both of whom shared their perspectives on their careers at the studio during the 1940s and 50s.

The “Women in Animation (WIA) presents NextGen World View” panel, moderated by Emily Nordwind, Vice President of Production at Paramount Animation, brought together several early and mid-career filmmakers to describe their goals and strategies for workplace inclusion. Introducing the panel, WIA president Marge Dean emphasized the need for continued momentum in resuming the conversation about women in the workplace that was started back in in the 1970s. “There is great power in diversity,” Dean commented. “When you bring people together you get better ideas, better results.”

L to R: Panelists Megan Dong, Louise Nemschoff, Amy Winfrey, Sidney Clifton and Jane Hartwell with moderator Ashley Long during the “Breaking through the Boys’ Club: Effective Strategies for Positive Change in the Industry” panel at the Breaking the Glass Frame symposium.

Other highlights included a screening of the documentary short, The Women of Titmouse Animation: The Inbetweens of Education, Employment & Everyday Life, and panel discussion with Titmouse VP and supervising producer Shannon Prynoski, independent animator and director Kirsten Lepore, Frederator Networks line producer Amanda McCann, Wink Productions production manager/production supervisor Helen Saric, and Titmouse illustrator and storyboard artist Sakari Singh. Moderated by filmmaker Chrissy Guest, the panelists offered advice to young animators, sharing their experiences from the classroom to their careers.

For Sheila M. Sofian, Professor at the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Art at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and one of the organizers of Breaking the Glass Frame, one of the most important gains from the event was the sense of community that it helped foster. “The panelists were very generous in the advice they gave, and it felt like a nurturing environment,” Sofian says. “I also learned a lot about the impact of subtle forms of discrimination, and it heightened awareness of my own unconscious bias that I need to always check. It is important to identify any form of discrimination and to stand up for others when you witness it.”

L to R: Panelists Kaitlyn Yang, Yvette Kaplan, Erika Dapkewicz, Caress Reeves, Musa Brooker and Jose Garcia Moreno with moderator Teresa Cheng during the “Advocating for Diversity + Inclusion in Animation: Race, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Disability + Age” panel at the Breaking the Glass Frame symposium.

BTGF organizer Lisa Mann, Associate Professor of Practice of Cinematic Arts at USC, had several takeaways from the symposium: “The Titmouse panel dug deep into the art of salary negotiations. Men are traditionally assertive when it comes to demanding higher salaries, while women tend to avoid asking for salary raises and higher positions, trusting that they will be paid what they deserve. That needs to change and women need to demand compensation and credit for what they do,” she says.

“Women need to also know that they should go home and have a personal life instead of sacrificing everything to the project and the company,” Mann continues. “The Teaching and Mentoring panel had similar advice. Male faculty tend to leave the administrative and service committee duties to the female faculty, and women faculty need to call them out on that because there is a seemingly shatterproof glass frame in academia as well.”

One year after the Hollywood #MeToo movement first achieved national attention, gains continue to be made, including an increased awareness of the benefits of a diverse work environment. “The benefits include achieving a spectrum of voices and stories that allow all audiences to see themselves mirrored in the films, television shows, and other media,” Sofian remarks. “We are seeing changes in the industry, and I think this will continue,” she says.

L to R: Moderator Emily Nordwind with panelists Emily Limyun Dean, Janet Wu, Tiffany Ford and Lindsey Olivares during the “Women in Animation (WIA) presents NextGen World View” panel at the Breaking the Glass Frame symposium.

For Mann, the silver lining behind the many recent sexual harassment cases in the animation industry --John Lasseter, Chris Savino, John Kricfalusi, and others -- is that it “ignited a large number of people to wake up and get motivated to change things for the better,” she explains. “I think that feminists from my generation feel re-energized and hopeful by the tremendous response of the next generation. On campus, it seems that ‘feminism’ is no longer being dismissed and derided as ‘the other F-word,’ but embraced and understood as essential. That is very encouraging. This symposium was a step in the right direction, to shine a light, to discuss strategies, to create a powerful network, and to ‘break the glass frame’ for good. We hope that the BTGF symposium will spawn other individuals, academic institutions, organizations, and studios to create many more networking events in the near future to keep the momentum going.”

“From the panel discussions it seemed there was a consensus that the #MeToo movement has impacted the industry,” Sofian concludes. “People are more aware of bad behavior and more likely to report it. In fact, [keynote speaker] Brown Johnson stated that she was inspired to initiate serious sexual harassment training for all of Sesame Workshop employees. I am hopeful that the symposium was impactful, but we do need more of this type of inspirational event to keep the momentum going.”

Sesame Workshop Executive Vice President and Creative Director Brown Johnson delivers the closing keynote address at the Breaking the Glass Frame symposium.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.