Panel Recap: The Women of Pixar
Early last September, the GeekGirlCon copy team huddled together to discuss and assign some of the most important jobs at the con (well, to us). With a nearly finalized schedule in hand, we gathered around to pick with panels we would each be covering to write up, as I am now, to help invoke all of those con feels we all felt in October.
When I first learned about The Women of Pixar panel, I knew that I needed to cover it. Before realizing my personal calling to become a writer, I started my college career at Ringling College of Art & Design in their Computer Animation program. Although I ultimately decided to switch fields and focus solely on storytelling through writing, my love of animation (especially Pixar) is strong and true. Although I was never introduced myself, some of the contributors on the panel worked closely with a handful of my friends and former mentors, so I was already familiar with some of their work and stellar reputations. It may have been because I looked mildly crazed as I requested it, but I was unchallenged when I asked to cover the panel.
I set up camp right in front of the main stage, as I was assigned to the first three panels that were being hosted there: Inclusion & Evolution of Female Role in Modern Animation, the Q&A with Ashly Burch and Sarah Elmaleh, and finally, The Women of Pixar. By the time the first of those panels had come and gone, the convention floor was just starting to buzz with activity. More people filed in for the Q&A, but then it happened. Like there was a mass consensus, what seemed like hundreds of attendees swarmed the hall the minute the Pixar logo was flashed across the two large screens that flanked the stage. So many people, in fact, that it immediately turned to standing room only. Guests young and old, readied with notepads and cameras, collectively gushed about their favorite animated films in anticipation of the panel. Current and prospective animation students, curious passersby, and fans alike gathered together in what I thought to be one of the liveliest crowds at the ‘16 con thus far.
And so our panelists took to the stage. Yun Lien, Becki Tower, Jude Brownbill, Trina Roy, and Angelique Reisch. The women on the stage were animators, software engineers, and artists – many of whom worked in senior leadership roles.
The group was lead by Angelique, who is currently a Lighting Technical Director at Pixar. She is also the Co-President of the San Francisco Chapter of Women in Animation (WIA), and has been working with Pixar in traveling to various events, schools, and organizations to help inspire girls and women to pursue education and careers in animation. Each a role model indeed.
All of the women on stage came to share their journeys and perspectives as women in the field.
Catching “The Animation Bug”
How did they catch the bug? The animation bug, that is.
“When did you know you wanted to pursue animation?” Angelique asked the group.
“I got the bug early,” Becki answered first, a Pixar animator and SCAD graduate. The rest nodded, a general consensus.
Every Friday night Angelique watched movies at her local high school, which is how she first encountered Toy Story (another nod from the group; first seeing Toy Story inspired just about all of them). She went off to study architecture at Texas A&M University, but was enamoured when she went to her school’s Visualization Lab. She immediately switched her major to Computer Science, and then went on to get her Masters in Visualization Sciences.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Once the panel had settled in, they dug into the first major topic: the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in the field.
Jude, a Directing Animator on the upcoming film Cars 3, highlighted that 17% of her department are women. She thinks that there are more advantages than not, noting that because Pixar makes a lot of films with prominent female roles, women’s opinions are highly valued. Her male colleagues are very responsive (in a positive way) when their female counterparts step up to make their voices heard.
Becki agreed, emphasizing the importance of having a unique perspective. You have to live your life to bring in new ideas. “How do I make this (work) feel genuine?” Make it you.
Generally, however you identify, you’ll be taken seriously so long as you “bring the goods.” Bring that unique perspective, bring your best work, and you’ll be greeted with respect – regardless of gender.
Both Yun and Trina said that most of the software engineers in the company are also male. Yun is a part of Render Pipeline Group, and Trina is a Senior Engineer on the RenderMan Software Team. Their advice for best way to stand out when you’re the only woman in the conference room?
“Get in there, sit at the table, and don’t sit back,” Trina says.
The goal is to be heard. Ask questions. Make them pay attention to you, and bring good ideas.
“Go the extra mile, it’s never crowded there,” Becki says. Your work and work ethic can’t be challenged if you don’t give them space to challenge it. “Every shot is an opportunity, do so well that they have no choice but to give it to you.”
It’s important to make your voice heard, because you never know when your vision is the one that nobody else sees.
During the audience Q&A, the panel was asked if they’ve been on the receiving end of sexist comments or jokes from their male colleagues, and how do you deal with them. It was Jude who immediately nodded.
“Point it out,” she said. Most won’t actively realize what they’ve said is wrong until you call them out on it. The whole panel stressed that there’s a time and place to talk your colleague, and that you should be aware of difference between private and public conversations and learning what’s appropriate.
Life and Work
“You have to have a life to pull from life,” Becki said, on the topic of bringing your all to the table. By that, she stressed the absolute importance of a work-life-balance at Pixar. Long hours are common, especially during crunchtime.
They all agreed that practicing balance by spending time with family was vital for producing great work, and that Pixar is great for families with children (even exclaiming that they can bring the kids in, sometimes, dependent on schedules and situations). If you need to work remotely that your project permits, it can happen. Becki even mentioned that Pixar encourages all to take advantage of their Paternal Leave when welcoming a new member to the family.
“Animation was my hobby,” Jude admitted. She said it’s also encouraged that employees to look after themselves, beyond family. Longevity is key. If you focus too much on the quantity of work, and not on the quality, you’re going to burn out fast.
One of the biggest questions Becki posed, was “can it last?” On those crunch days when you’re trying to wrap up a project, you’ve been in the office from sunrise to sunset, do you enjoy it enough to keep going? While the importance of self-care is universal across the company, you still have a (time consuming) job to do.
“How do you know when you’ve hit your limit?” one audience member asked. Even if you’re passionate enough for the work, we all have limits. Going the extra mile while avoiding burnout can be tricky to master (something I wish I’d known when I was a young Computer Animation student at Ringling, and something I still have to practice as writer).
Well, learning to recognize your limits takes just that, practice. Becki says that understanding your limits is important. She recommends listing your obligations and priorities, and practicing repetition (in your craft) to get faster and more efficient. She stressed that this takes time, and that the “duration” of practice is important.
Similarly, Trina stressed the importance of setting priorities and choosing a focus. Focus on one thing, get it done, then move onto the next. Casting too wide a net can hurt your work, so it’s good to focus on one project, do it right, and then move onto the next. That way you’re always putting your best foot forward and not stretching yourself too thin.
When Jude reaches her limit, after you’ve practiced both Becki and Trina’s advice, sometimes it’s best to step away. You have to have a life to pull from life, after all. They all have other creative hobbies outside of the workplace and Pixar.
…and their biggest tip? Prioritize the quantity to quality of time spent in the studio (advice that can be applied to any field).
If there was one major takeaway each member of the panel went out of their way to mention, it was the importance outreach. They all stressed how vital it is to find mentors and groups to help encourage girls to pursue careers and education in animation. Girls Who Code was one group that was mentioned, and Angelique spoke on behalf of Women in Animation. Jude, I later learned, is a mentor for Animation Mentor – an online school for animation taught by professionals (like herself).
Internships were another big one. A lot of the panel had started out at Pixar as interns (like Becki and Angelique), and Jude even mentored a former intern from the Pixar Undergraduate Program that was present in the audience.
When you’re first getting into animation, you need exposure. It’s important to tackle everything and then narrow down. Lighting, rigging, modeling, animating – see what you like to do. A lot of young students start school wanting to become character animators (myself included), but find themselves drawn to other aspects of production. Very often, it won’t be what you set out for.
Students tend to produce the work that they think Pixar wants to see. It’s important to do what you want, and embrace the individuality of your work. Someone, somewhere, will see what you’re doing and appreciate it for what it is.
Getting The Call
To end on a high note, the panel’s final talking point was of beginnings: getting the call.
Like, the call. The coveted “Welcome to Pixar” call.
“I cried,” Becki said. She was working at Blue Sky when she got her’s.
Before Jude moved to the US to start work at Pixar, she’d moved back in with her parents. Animation was always a fascination of hers, but one day bit the bullet and decided to pursue the dream. She took online courses, starting building up her animation portfolio, and sent Pixar her short film on a whim with a kiss. She was called to come interview all the way in California. She was a day away from flying back her parent’s house in the UK when she got the call – whilst she was standing alone on the Santa Monica beach. At Sunset. “I cried as well,” she looked to Becki. “It was…very romantic.”
Yun applied for Pixar three times before she was finally accepted (although she swears it felt like more). She was more relieved than anything else, but remembers walking through the doors as an employee for the first time and just thinking to herself “…wow.”
Emotion was radiating through the hall from the beginning of the panel to the end, but that emotion was at an all time high when a young girl stepped up to the mic during the Q&A, nearly in tears. After taking a deep breath, she explained that she needed this talk, that listening to a group of women working in a field she’d always been interested in had left her awestruck. She asked a question that was bound to retort answers with the same emotion: “When did you know that you made it?”
“Walking onto the campus,” Trina said, matter-of-fact. All nodded.
“Seeing John Lasseter,” said Angelique – it was when Yun saw Steve Jobs. Superstars, the fathers of Pixar.
Jude knew she made it when she walked through the back door, because only people “on the in” got to walk through the back door.
For Becki, it was the coffee. She knew she was in when she got to drink the “Pixar Coffee” (a necessity for the daily life of an animator). Not that it was all that good.
“This is the kind of thing I want to see at GeekGirlCon,” someone whispered to their daughter just behind me.
The panel had used every second that it was given, running over just a bit. It was only when the panelists were ushered off of the stage to make way for the Cosplay Contest preparations that the crowd finally dispersed into the rest of the conference center.
The Women of Pixar all lined up outside of the seating area to take more personal questions from the (many) audience members that wanted to express their thanks and appreciation – I caught Trina myself for a brief moment before she went off with her own family to enjoy the con.
Before everyone left, the room was filled with applause and sniffles, like we’d just watched the end of Toy Story 3. Indeed, it was a similar mixture of nostalgia and childhood curiosity. For many of the members of the audience, the women on the stage helped create the films that they’d grown to love and cherish as children, and some with their own children. Young girls left starry eyed with inspiration, muttering to themselves, “I can do that, too.”