Make no mistake – Coraline (the just-released stop-motion feature made by Laika Productions right here in Bitch’s hometown of Portland, OR) may be a girl’s story, but the animation industry is still very much a boys’ club. Stick around for the credits after the film and you’ll see that the screenwriter, director, editors, most of the animators, and the “Based on the Novel by” guy are all dudes. This tidbit may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. Men were at the helm of almost every major animated feature in recent and not-so-recent history, including those movies that have been embraced specifically by female audiences.
I’m not going to venture into a feminist critique of Coraline as a film (although I would love to read one) because I think the behind-the-scenes portrait of who’s making the movie is just as interesting as any textual reading. (Full disclosure: I worked on the movie for 5 months as a sander.) Let’s consider the Little Mermaid, a movie that developed a serious following among almost every girl I knew back when it was released in 1989. (Fuller disclosure: I can count myself as one of the boys who watched the movie enough times to wear out the VHS and to shed tears when my family’s cocker spaniel ripped the plush stuffing out of the tail of my Ariel doll.) It’s the same news – male directors, screenwriters, animators, “Based on the Fairy Tale by” guy, etc. Beauty and the Beast at least has a female screenwriter. We’re not even going to touch the Disney movies from before then (just search for crew photos of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves if you don’t believe me), and Pixar hasn’t been so great at bringing females into the world of commercial animation either. So what does this mean? Should we just pull a Larry Summers and say that women are just genetically predisposed to lack talent in the areas that make a person desirable in the animation world?
I don’t think so. There are definitely women kicking ass in the animation world. My roommate Georgina, for example, headed up the puppet shop on Coraline, which produced some of the most impressive puppets ever seen on the set of a stop-motion project. And Ans Ellis, the woman who drove me to work on the set, has worked as a model maker for the past 25 years and amassed a quite impressive resume with movies such as the Abyss, Titanic, and Killer Clowns from Outer Space. And just because the credits of major animation features aren’t listing off dozens of women animators doesn’t mean that there aren’t talented and provocative animators out there who happen to be women. There’s Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis fame. And lesser-known animators such as Jen Drummond, Signe Baumane, and Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby are also worth checking out.
But what does keeping female voices out of the upper echelons of the movie machine do to the industry as a whole?
In my (admittedly limited) experience, it creates a stressful, and at times hostile, work environment that trickles down from the top (in this case Henry Selick- the film’s sometimes maniacal director) all the way down to the bottom (in this case me- a lowly, minimum-wage working sander.) There was a definite machismo feeling on the set. Competition among co-workers and an assembly-line type of atmosphere was imposed on employees, many of whom were there because of their obsession with the art form but seemed let down by the studio’s poor treatment of its workers.
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m discouraging them from going to see Coraline. It really is a beautiful, handcrafted film. Also, most of my friends from the film are out of work and twiddling their thumbs waiting to see if Laika is going to produce another movie (hopefully under friendlier conditions that acknowledge the talents of the crew instead of sweeping them under the rug once the work is finished. Most of us weren’t even invited to the premiere!) My point is that the introduction of other voices into the popular movie machine would most certainly yield a different product, as well as a different production.