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Great Women Animators Project

Heather Smith talks about The Great Women Animators project, a growing international archive showcasing women animators throughout history.

The Great Women Animators project is a database that makes evident the substantial contribution of women animators to the world of animation. Heather Smith has managed to chase down information dating back as far as the 1910s, so it's also a terrific resource for information on the history of animation itself. I recently interviewed Heather Smith by email.

Ambling AroundWhat inspired you to take on this project? And how long have you been working on it?

Heather Smith: I started Great Women Animators when I was approached about facilitating an educational screening series at Quickdraw Animation Society in Calgary, Canada. The work I was seeing in typical screening contexts was lacking female representation and the history and knowledge of these animators' careers was difficult to access. As soon as I started I was overwhelmed by the amazing work I had never seen from women in the field of animation.

I've been working on the project for a little over a year now. The initial stages mostly consisted of gathering names and working from there. I began to have so much information that I started the website mostly as a method of organizing this research. The more I work on it, the more it seems evident that there is a gap it fills as a resource.

Ambling Around: I would completely agree. I'm amazed at how many animators there are on the site who I've never heard of. I particularly like that you've included those who worked pretty much behind the scenes for small and big studios as well as showcasing the independent and experimental animators. 

But we before we delve further into the project, I'm curious to know a little more about you. How long have you been working in animation, and how did you come to it? 

Heather Smith: I started gaining interest in making animations while I was studying drawing at the Alberta College of Art and Design. I remember being introduced to the work of Norman McLaren and William Kentridge and I saw such diversity in the medium's ability to translate drawings into moving images, and that was incredibly exciting to me. I experimented with some techniques over the last ten years, but it's only been over the last three where I've become more invested in learning and using it as a significant part of my ongoing drawing practice. 

Ambling Around: Tell me a little about your drawing practice. For example, the drawings from 2015 seem very figurative yet there are also dream-like elements that make me wonder at the ideas that lie behind the imagery. 

Heather Smith: My drawings typically use mid-century historical representations of femininity - from lifestyle magazines to thrift store postcards. Inevitably they become steeped in nostalgia which is a personal response, as well as an aesthetic associated with reverie or dream. I work in a representational style as a method of connecting to this material and filtering it through a contemporary lens. Naturally the way the images are drawn lends itself to animation. I also explore printmaking, small-run publishing, and illustration in my work. 

Ambling Around: Now we know a little about you, let's go back to the Women Animator's project. Which animators were the most exciting discoveries for you? Do you have any intriguing anecdotes?

Heather Smith: I was most excited by the work I discovered from the later 1960s and 70s. I'm not sure if that's because I found the techniques interesting or the content itself - but the range of style and approach during these decades is really inspiring to me. Sally Cruikshank, Suzan Pitt, Gisele Ansorge are among my favorites. 

I think some of the most interesting moments of this research are when you read about a film in an article or interview and you dig and dig to try and find something to see online, and then you come across new animators and even more films you can't find. There's so much work that hasn't been digitized and that's incredibly exciting for the future of archiving this field.

Ambling Around: I can only imagine the treasure troves waiting to be discovered as more and more work is digitized. I suppose the really big question is what happens to the work that isn't being digitized? If it's in a collection like V-Tape, then at least it's archived but if it's still in the artist's own collection, much of it might be lost over time. Do you know of any national video bank that families who inherit works could donate them to?

Heather Smith: I know that the National Film Board of Canada has been very active in their existing archives and I assume they are active in acquisitions of animators' work. The British Film Institute has an impressive archive and even independent resources like UbuWeb are great for hosting rare/unseen works.

Ambling Around: Going back to the artists who have really inspired you, can you share some online links of their work? Or if those aren't available, a still image or two? What is it about their work that you find most compelling?

Heather Smith: You can see Sally Cruikshank's work on Youtube and on Vimeo. And you can find Suzan Pitt’s work on Youtube. Both Cruikshank and Pitt are female animators who seem to knowingly investigate their identity through imaginary characters. This perspective, especially from the era they began working, is incredibly rich because of their relationship to feminism. The surrealist nature of their animations is founded in fiction (a staple in animated film), but also uses the form to talk about their bodies, realities, and personal narratives. 

Heather Smith continues to add newly discovered material to the website. It's an ongoing project, and a labour of love. Do get in touch with her if you know of a great woman animator who is not yet represented on the site. Her contact information can be found on the site under the About tab.