Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Women in Animation: Lynn Dana Wilton

Lynn Dana Wilton
Lynn Dana Wilton is one of those reasons why I make the four hour drive to Toronto every couple of months and attend the TAIS workshops. As the industry becomes more and more digital--all the while chanting the mantra of "faster-cheaper"--we run the risk of seeing traditional methods of animation not being passed on. Not only does taking the time to animate under the camera offer that tactile experience of working with traditional materials that you can't get with a computer, but it also offers us the opportunity learn some of the many innovations puzzled out by these artists. Workshops like Lynn's offers animators the opportunity to be mentored by those who have gone before and are willing to share their tips, tricks, and techniques--often discovered during tight deadlines.

When I met Lynn and heard her discuss her background while we constructed our paper puppets, I knew that I had found someone with a rich variety of experience that needed to be shared. For this year's Women in Animation month, Lynn brings us some hard won wisdom directly from her time battling through the trenches of the animation industry along with some sage advice that is applicable to your career no matter who you are.

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Q: What is your current job description?
A: Freelance animator/artist/designer (yeah, I know, that covers a lot of ground) but my commercial work is on IMDb and you can find both my Commercial Demo Reel and some more experimental work posted on Vimeo ('www.imdb.com/name/nm4357411' and 'www.vimeo.com/lynnscrowbar', respectively').

This past year I’ve also been doing a little comic book work, sold my first creative short story to “On Spec” magazine, and have dipped a toe into teaching.

Commercial Demo Reel (current) from Lynn Dana Wilton on Vimeo.

Q: How long have you worked in the animation industry?
A: I started at Sheridan in 1998 (at the age of 31) and graduated in 2001.  I also have a few previous careers and hold a BAAID from Ryerson.  I worked as a registered (ARIDO) healthcare/institutional designer but have also been an opera production designer, worked in the commercial appraisal industry, and a host of pay-the-rent, pink-collar-ghetto gigs.  It’s amazing how many of them have informed my animation, though.

Q: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?
A: Commercially, I’ve worked most often as a stop-motion animator for TV series and specials but I’ve also worked in set and prop build, set dressing, and puppet build.  As well, I’ve used a range of experimental techniques as an independent animator (both alone and part of the group Scratch Track).  These include direct scratch/burn/etc. on film, hand-drawn sound on film, sand, paper puppet, object animation, et. al.  As an independent, you end up doing every role from concept development, writing, and direction right through to editing and promotion ... so a little of everything.

Q: Is there a book or film that you worked on that you are particularly proud of?
A: There’s something to be proud of in every project, even commercially where you’re hired to set aside your own objectives (and sometimes your sensibilities) for the sake of your director’s vision or the needs of the producer or the studio or the budget or the deadline ... you get the idea.

BUT ...

... I love the way “Lunar Jim”, a CBC/BBC/Alliance-Atlantis/Halifax Film Corp. co-production, turned out.  I feel good about the mix of positive life lessons for kids and a really lovely aesthetic there.

I’m also immensely proud of (and, in hindsight, a little amazed!) at what our tiny built-from-scratch studio (for Alliance-Atlantis) managed to do on 2nd season “Henry’s World”.  That was a phenomenally talented crew and uniquely tight bunch that became good friends.  I would work with them again any day of the week.

I was also thrilled nearly to death to animate a bit on “A Miser Brothers’ Christmas” for Dave Thomas at Cuppa Coffee.  I sang Christmas songs every July day I got to handle Heat Miser or Snow Miser.  I did better and more elaborate/challenging animation on several other productions at the same studio but nothing compared to the feeling of working on a project so tied to the Rankin-Bass productions I loved so much as a kid.

Independently, I’m proud of my experimental short “(Re)Cycle”, especially the sand animation sequence.  It was produced for the 2011 Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto and I’m grateful to Toronto Animated Image Society (TAIS) for selecting my proposal and supporting the whole process.  I’m pleased I was able to integrate so many techniques into a single piece and (hopefully!) still managed to make the transitions feel natural.

And I am HUGELY proud of Scratch Track.  To this day, I have never seen anything quite like it.  At one point the small army we’d assembled fell apart but we ended up with an incredible core of dedicated individuals.  The indomitable Ellen Besen facilitated our work with the one-of-a-kind Richard Reeves who generously shared his storehouse of knowledge with us.  By the time we  (Ryan Fairley, Matt Ferguson, Mike Weiss, and I) hit the stage at the Ottawa Festival in 2002 we knew we had something special.  I will always have it in my demo reel.

Scratch Track from Lynn Dana Wilton on Vimeo.

Q: How have opportunities changed for women pursuing a career in animation today as opposed to when you started your career?
A: Not nearly enough and, I fear, in some spheres, in the wrong direction.  A friend who worked in gaming ten years ago has recently been exposed to that part of the industry again and she’s horrified by how many fewer women are working in it.

I am always the oldest female animator working on any production (but, for the sake of balance, sometimes, being in my mid-40s, am the oldest animator, period).  It’s frustrating to see the number of female animators drop exponentially as they age up.  Many of the women who started out so enthusiastically have admitted to me that they get tired of the behaviour they have to put up with in the studio system and finally move into an associated field.

At the same time, I’m told by friends who teach, there are more women in the school programmes than there used to be.  I find this heartening.  Maybe this is the generation that will finally create a more balanced playing field, and with it, bring some much-needed diversity (gender-based and otherwise) to a broader industry.  Once that happens we’ll be able to get animation to appeal to a much broader audience ... which will result in more work for all of us.

Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?
A: Actually, I believe there are TWO issues that provide an equal level of challenge.

THE BOYS’ CLUB:  I find this question really splits according to the age of the women it’s asked of.  When I was in my 20s I would have said things were rosy (I was in a different industry then but the sense of personal empowerment is consistent).  I assumed if you had a good work ethic, did good work, and behaved in a professional manner your gender made no difference.

As I get older I find it’s difficult to maintain that view.  You gain experience, watch the progress of friends and colleagues, and see more of the industry from a wider range of perspectives.

There’s a theory that as people age men get more conservative and women get more radical.  I can name numerous exceptions but, in a broad brush kind of way, I do see definite signs of it in the animation industry.  I think younger women find it easier to be “one-of-the-boys” but there are more barriers to this as they get older.

There seems to be a basic difference in the way the genders present themselves when they are even searching for a position utilising a degree of the “unknown”.  Men are generally more comfortable presenting themselves as confident in their abilities even if they’re not very familiar with the skills required for a potential job – they trust they’ll figure it out on the go.  In general, I find women more likely to undersell their abilities:  not wanting to present themselves as an expert unless they’ve racked up a lot of experience even if they’ve proven again and again that they get up to speed quickly.  This means they don’t interview as well even if they would be at an equivalent level of competency.

And it’s difficult to break into certain positions if you don’t socialise in certain ways.  I actually know a couple of situations where women couldn’t bring themselves to go to strip joints with ‘the guys’ and felt they were missing out on the bonding or networking that casually took place there.  On a less extreme level, a lot of women get tired of scatological humour sooner than men do (unless it’s very clever and original) so just casually joking around can sometimes put people on different sides of the room.

There can be gender differences involved in conflict resolution as well.  I’ve known women who felt incredibly uncomfortable animating certain scenes they found deeply offensive (more pervasive in the late-night TV genres) but felt they were sabotaging their chances of future work if they spoke out against it.  I’ve also run into men who felt that if a woman tried to address a problem in a diplomatically tactful way it meant she wasn’t being straight with them.  Of course, there are men AND women who are just plain lacking in confidence and defensive so approaching them about ANYTHING gets interpreted as a personal attack ... but you can’t do anything about that.

Working conditions can also have gender specific issues.  I’ve known women who felt they weren’t perceived as having a good work ethic because they were unwilling to work into the middle of the night in a mostly deserted studio in an industrial part of town out of concerns for personal safety.  I also find women more likely (though, by no means exclusively) to speak out against health and safety or hostile workplace concerns – then be ostracized as not being “team players” for not sucking it up.

Of course, these are HUGE generalisations I’m making.  For every statement I’ve made I can name at least one exception that went in the opposite direction.  Certainly, misogynistic behaviour can come from women, too.  And for each issue that seems to indicate a problem of misogyny, there could be a version that meant someone else, male or female, was dealing with homophobia, intolerance to their ethno-cultural background, ageism, etc.

If you truly love animation, read this ... then put it in the back of your mind.  Whatever field you go into, you’ll run into challenges.  I still think you should go after what you want and find a way to do it on YOUR terms.

The other big obstacle is:

INSTABILITY (FINANCIAL AND OTHERWISE):  If you can be disciplined enough to live on half of what you earn (or less!), if you can remain geographically mobile and maintain personal relationships over fluctuating distances, and if you can find ways to truly enjoy your life without spending much outside of necessities, you may have the stomach for the animation rollercoaster.  Some spheres are more stable than others but there are waves of feast and famine in all of them ... some just a lot more frequent than others.  Some areas like feature film and “lower tech” styles, i.e. classical, stop-motion, etc., are very dependent on trends to support their financing.  Other areas like gaming, advertising, and “cutting edge tech” styles a little less so.  Experimental animation has very little support ... and it’s getting less.

Develop good personal finance habits ASAP.  Get yourself educated.  If you’re looking for an accessible gateway book, “Balancing Act” by Joanne Thomas Yaccato is targeted at women and, while some of the information is specific to Canadian women, will still get you up on the basics in a very readable and non-baffling fashion.  To be honest, I’ve bought copies for or lent it to male friends and they still found it very useful.

Attack your debt ... aggressively!
Build an Emergency Fund when you can (how many months is up to you but I aim for a half-year to a year’s worth).
Put towards your “retirement” as soon as your debt is under control (10% is a typical figure).
Define “necessity” and “luxury” ... then reexamine that definition.

Develop good mental health habits, too!  If you have a tendency to be easily derailed or demoralised, start building up your mental toolbox right away.  And you need to take command of your life in a very self-assured fashion.  As Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume” advises:

“Should you fail to pilot your own ship, don’t be surprised at what inappropriate port you find yourself docked.  The dull and prosaic will be granted adventures that will dice their central nervous systems like an onion, romantic dreamers will end up in the rope yard.”

... and ...

“The price of self-destiny is never cheap, and in certain situations it is unthinkable.  But to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.”

There is no shame in being either type but you need to be honest enough with yourself to know which you are or, more accurately, which degree of grey between them suits your temperament.  Once you know that, you can go after the experiences that will suit you best.

And be creative – that’s your strength, don’t forget it.

Q: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?
A: KEEP UP WITH TECHNOLOGY:  Even if your great love lies in the more tactile, hand-made techniques, it’s good to keep expanding your toolbox.  At least, my personal experience would suggest you’ll have an easier time keeping a roof over your head if you don’t turn your nose up at new approaches ... even if you find some of them lacking soul.  Learn them first THEN decide whether to apply them.

STAY WELL-ROUNDED:  Nothing gets old faster than animation in-jokes.  Read.  Travel.  Stay/make friends (yes, even OUTSIDE the industry) and maintain those relationships.  Read.  Play sports or exercise.  See good movies, art exhibits, concerts, and theatre.  Read.  Get out in nature.  Nurture an interest in something completely different.  Is family important?  Spend some time with them.  Did I mention, READ!?  You’re not going to have anything to bring to animation if animation is the sum total of your whole life.

STAY HAPPY AND HEALTHY:  Protect your most important tool:  YOURSELF!  Develop good habits – it’s never too late.  And make them so routine that, when things are tough, you don’t even question making time for them.

Almost no commercial work comes with sick days, benefits, or pensions anymore.  The best insurance you can carry is to put off infirmity for as long as possible by taking care of yourself.  That means paying attention to your diet and exercise.  It also means balancing stress and relaxation.  Saving for regular physicals, dentist visits, ophthalmologist appointments, psychiatric tune-ups, whatever.  And think hard about any “vices” that don’t support your able longevity.

Animation can be really hard on your body, your mind, and your spirit.  The postures for everything from stop-motion and classical to computer generated puts unhealthy strain for extended periods on everything from backs to your carpal tunnel.  As a stop-mo animator, my heel spurs and shin splints are a big problem when I’m standing and leaning forward for eight hours or more on concrete.  Animators frequently don’t get enough sunshine, exercise, or human contact – especially hard if you’ve got issues with depression and anxiety.  Your visual focal length doesn’t get exercised outside of a few feet.  And the higher stress the environment (especially if deadlines are coming down) the more likely animators are wolfing down poor quality fast food and drinking lots of caffeine or sugar (or worse).

If you can train yourself to avoid the things that don’t help and wedge in the things that do, you’re on the way to keeping your most important tool in good shape.  Animation is also more lifestyle than job.  Certainly, still loving what you do makes it less of a “job” but it would be nice to get to a certain age and CHOOSE to keep working ... not HAVE to.

LEARN TO LIVE WITH LESS (AND LIKE IT!):  Avoid stuff.  This is a “do as I say, not as I do” one!  I have a storage locker with 8,000 lbs. of books and furniture stranded in one province while I’ve been living in another ... for a few YEARS.  Yes, I know:  terrible!

The more mobile you are the freer you’ll be to travel to another city, province, state, country, or continent for that dream job.  And the CHEAPER it will be, too.  It costs bucks to move a lot of heavy or delicate stuff.  It costs more to house it when you could be living in a smaller, cheaper space, too – to say nothing of the environmental cost.

If you can start learning to live with your experiences and memories and not so much the physical representations of them or what expensive toys represent to your sense of personal success, you’ll be on your way to a leaner and more nimble lifestyle; one which suits an animator far better.

Q: What is the most important thing that authority figures (parents/teachers/professors) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

And I really mean this!

It’s a difficult but rewarding life when you do ... it is brutal, dispiriting, and soul-destroying if you don’t.  It’s also a short road to being a bitter, old woman before your time.  Or a bitter, old man, for that matter.  There’s nothing gender-specific about this response.

Some people get into this industry for a lot of the wrong reasons.  They may love watching animation, not doing it.  They may think there’s money to be made.  They may think there’s some kind of glamour, romance, or prestige attached to it.  They may think it’s a good compromise between art and “a real job”.  With all the best of intentions, they may be making a decision that looks good on paper but doesn’t take the reality of the situation into account.

Animation is HARD.  It’s also WONDERFUL.  I completely lose track of time when it’s going well.  When it’s not, the day couldn’t be any longer.  But, while I have had days where I practically ran out of a studio (or stomped out in a mood) thinking, “That was the worst day EVER!!!” I have NEVER come out thinking, “I hate this stupid job!”

That’s not to say I haven’t worked under some pretty nasty conditions or, more rarely, with some nasty people.  Generally, I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with so very many wonderful, fun, talented, generous folk.  I’ve made most of my best friends through this business ... friends I’ve kept for a lot of years and over a lot of distance, friends who’ve kept me young (in the best possible way).

And remember when I said I’d done a lot of pay-the-rent gigs?  Well, I have plenty of bad situations to compare animation work to.  I KNOW how lucky I am when I can pay the bills by moving little puppet divas around.  I really do!

But it’s also important to not disregard animation out of sheer pragmatism.  Yes, it can be difficult to put a full year of income together.  Yes, it’s tough on personal relationships.  Yes, you can burn out if you don’t take care of yourself properly.  Yes, there are some real low-lifes running the show in a few of the studios and there are politics everywhere.  Yes, your family may still prod you about getting a “real” job.

Yes, all of those things and more.

But if you DO love it, none of those things will outweigh the benefits.  After you clear away all the reasons not to, I truly believe you’ll find a way to your own kind of success.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared to change horses mid-stream.  We learn new information every day.  What was a good decision for you ten years ago, last month, or two hours ago may not be the right decision now.  Keep in mind that there are lots of spheres and even more related industries.  If you’re not happy in your current niche you can find another ... or MAKE another.

And keep updating your resume – not just because you may need to hunt out another job (virtually all of my work has come through my network of friends and colleagues, anyway ... one reason to work on your ability to play well with others!) but because it’s good to see what you can do on paper.  It’s easy to forget how much you’ve learned but every project will help you develop new skills.  Write ‘em down.  You’re more valuable than you think.

To thine own self be true.

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For my January 2012 review of Lynn's Silhouette animation workshop at the Toronto Animated Image Society, please click the following link: Animated Thoughts: TAIS Silhouette Animation Workshop.