Animated films are, according to The Free Dictionary, ones that are “produced by photographing a series of gradually changing drawings, etc, which give the illusion of movement when the series is projected rapidly.” I’d like to think of them, however, as the movies that shaped my childhood.
Think about it. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Lion King. Inside Out. Most of us had animated films on DVDs—or, in my case, a Tarzan VHS—that played over and over during our childhood. For many people, animated films are their first exposure to movies in general, and they play a huge role in teaching skills like storytelling.
However, have you ever considered how animated movies came to be? How did 2-D drawings evolve to be Academy Award-winning masterpieces like Coco or Into the Spiderverse? It took a village of creators to create the animation styles we know today. Here are seven women animators who changed the history of animated films!
Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger (1899-1981), a German director, is credited for being the first female animator. She was one of the first people to work with silhouette animation, a style where characters are only black silhouettes. One of her many films, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was released in 1926—ELEVEN years before Snow White. It is considered one of the oldest surviving animated feature films!
Lillian Friedman Astor
Lilian Friedman Astor (1912-1989), from New York City, is considered the first American female studio animator. She began her career as an inker for Fleischer Studio in 1930, but, by 1933, she had already been promoted as an animator. Her most famous work comes from animating characters like Betty Poop and Popeye. However, she unfortunately only received six screen credits despite her vast work.
Retta Scott (1916-1990) is one of the early women animators for the Walt Disney Animation Studios. She was also the first woman to earn a screen credit as an animator for a Disney film. From Omak, Washington, Scott was hired by Disney in 1938 to work in the film Bambi (she designed the scene where the hunting dogs chase Faline!). She later produced movies like Fantasia and Dumbo, as well as continuing her career as an illustrator.
Mary Blair (1911-1978), from Oklahoma, is someone who I truly owe my childhood to. A painter through and through, she joined Disney Studios in 1940, where she initially got a chance to work with art for Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, and Fantasia. However, 1943 was the year when her career in Disney really took off as she took up animation and color design of major films like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.
Blair’s unique art style and color usage changed the looks of Disney films and animated films. She also played a critical role in designing the ride “It’s a Small World” for the 1964 New York World’s Fair—having her work replicated in the Disney parks in Orlando, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Paris.
Eunice Macaulay (1923-2013), a British animator, started out working as a radio mechanic for the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II. It wasn’t until 1948 that she discovered animation—and I am so glad that she did! Throughout her career, Macaulay worked in 25 films taking almost every position in the animation field. She is also the first woman animator to win an Academy Award for her own film with Special Delivery in 1978, which won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film.
Kazuko Nakamura (c. 1934 - ) was one of the first women animators from Japan. After starting her career at Toei Doga in 1956, she was later hired by Mushi Pro in 1960. Described by many as a “powerhouse,” she worked on a total of 18 anime films and TV shows including Princess Knight, which gave her the title of first female animation supervisor. Nakamura is also especially known for the subtle femininity in the art of her female characters, especially seen through her work in Cleopatra.
Reiko Okuyama (1936-2007) worked alongside Nakamura during her time at Toei Doga and was also one of the first women animators in Japan. Having to stay in bed as a child due to illnesses, Okuyama began drawing. Despite thinking that Toei Doga was a children’s books publisher when she applied for a job in 1957, she went on to work on movies like Magic Boy and 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which made her the first animation director!) She retired from Toei Doga in 1976, but she kept on teaching and animating through freelance until she passed away.
Like many of my articles for Make Muse, I feel like I would need at least ten more articles to cover all of the fantastic women animators from history and even then it wouldn’t be enough. All of the women listed above were great pioneers for animated films, and they should be recognized for it. However, I’d like to stress that there are many—MANY—other women who broke ground in this field, and they, too, deserve recognition. I encourage you to continue looking into this history: their stories, just like their work, are remarkable.
We also need to talk about animation beyond just history—we need to focus on the present as well. Women have played a huge role in shaping animation, from the mainstream Disney movies to Japanese anime to many other forms and outlets. However, in 2015, Animation Guild (a union for professional animation artists, writers, and technicians) reported that only 20% of all animation creatives were women. Since then, progress has been made, but arguably not fast enough: as of 2018, they reported that only 25.6% of the creators they represent were women.
These numbers are, of course, only a small slice of the picture. However, they still indicate that there is a huge gender disparity in work opportunities for animated films, despite women breaking ground for almost a century. Let’s celebrate the phenomenal women animators from history not only by remembering their stories but also by supporting the future women animators that will follow them.