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Women Directors Talk Shop at WIA NYC Gathering

Karen Disher, Signe Baumane, Anna Samo and Peggy Stern share insights and realities at Women in Animation New York chapter March event; AWN’s Miscweant reports.

(From L-R) Speakers Signe Baumane, Anna Samo, Karen Disher and moderator Peggy Stern at last month’s Women in Animation NYC Chapter panel discussion event.

“A lady doctor?! Has science come that far?”

So wondered the ever-clueless Johnny Bravo in one of his cartoons a few years back. There may be a few folks in the animation world equally out of touch when it comes to “lady” animation directors, but a March event held by the New York City chapter of “Women in Animation” might help set them straight.

On hand were MTV animation veteran and Blue Sky co-director Karen Disher, independent feature director Signe Baumane (Rocks in My Pockets, My Love Affair With Marriage) Anna Samo, creator of award winning animated films, in a panel led by producer/director Peggy Stern.

Stern’s first question to the panel was what interested in them in animation. Disher recounted a visit to Disney’s now long-gone Orlando studio where tourists could walk through the glass-walled facility and study the captive animators working on the other side. Even though she never thought of animation as a real career, the sight helped her realize “I could probably do that,” a realization that led to an NYU degree, a stint at MTV Animation and her ongoing work at Blue Sky Studios.

Baumane and Samo, both former students at Moscow University, recounted similar stories. Samo was waylaid from a prescribed career as an architect by an exhibit of Russian animation, while Baumane half-heartedly studied philosophy while searching for something that inspired her as much as the true believers who lived and breathed Marxist dogma and found herself “possessed” by animation. (“I’m only 23,” the former 23-year old fibbed tongue-in-cheek, “this is what animation has done to me.”) When a colleague told her “don’t be so emotional,” her response was “emotion is my profession.”

Baumane’s off-color anecdotes were a highlight of the event. When the subject turned to finding collaborators, her solution was quite simple: “the trick is to sleep with them.” (Slightly) more seriously, she extolled the value of working with others: “Doing it all yourself is like inseminating your own ovaries. A second person brings in unexpected results and asks [important] questions.”

Samo pointed out “sometimes it’s difficult to find the right person to sleep with…I’m fortunate to have people I like to work with.” While she hates working alone, she admitted, “I’m a control freak, it might be hard for people to work with me… I’m trying to learn to respect [other peoples’ opinions] more.”

As part of a full-fledged mainstream animation studio, Fisher has no choice but to work with others. “It’s unavoidable in a big studio; although sometimes it’s hard to hear some criticism, you need the honesty of trusted collaborators.”

Other questions focused on working with new technology, how to move up the ranks in a studio (Fisher advised starting in the story department, then told of a lawyer who quit the legal racket, took a receptionist job… “and two or three years later he was [a network’s] head of children’s animation”) and how the directors spent their workday. Samo’s day begins with getting her kids ready for school, then working from 9am to well into the evening. Resisting the temptation to go online and interrupt her work flow, she waits until she’s completed a second’s worth of animation to check her e-mail. Baumane described her very structured schedule and the importance of sticking to it: “If you die you don’t finish your film… I feel disconnected from working people; sometimes I’d walk around the block to pretend I’m going to work” -- and waits until the weekend to answer her e-mail.

Before coming east and joining MTV, Fisher worked remote, storyboarding from Silicon Valley in California. “I would just fuck off all day long, then work until 3am to get [an assignment] done. Right now, Blue Sky [‘s current projects] are in a development phase; a year from now I’m going to be working twelve-hour days.”

One question had more to do with psychology than animation: do you ever feel like an impostor? Samo: “Occasionally, then the discipline kicks in. You have low and high self-esteem at the same time; panic is your usual condition.” Baumane’s crisis of confidence occurs “three times a day,” and sometimes fears My Love Affair with Marriage, her currently in-production second feature, is “a castle built on a base of snot.” Fisher’s solution was elegant in its simplicity: “I look back at my body of work and tell myself “I did this.”

Fisher and Baumane shared some final thoughts; Fisher speculated, “If I got laid off for a year I don’t know what I’d do -- probably make something filthy” and Baumane admitted “It’s hard to do something if no one’s making you do it, but if you feel your film is important you can’t wait to get to work.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.