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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Women in Animation: Ellen Besen

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my Smudge Animation site on March 22rd, 2011.

Ellen Besen
I had heard of Ellen Besen, but we didn't meet until 2009 when I was giving a presentation at the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International. Since I hadn't spoken in public for a while, she took me under her wing and helped me focus not on my discomfort but on the importance of the information I was presenting. Since then, Ellen Besen has been the angel sitting on my shoulder who quietly and patiently encourages me to become a better animator than I am. I think that my fondest memory of Ellen so far was when we were sitting at a pub in Toronto and talking about the style and structure of story in animated films. With that one discussion, Ellen made an elegant critique of "The Incredibles" (my favorite Pixar film to date) and showed me where the strengths and flaws of the movie were. Ellen continues to challenge my best ideas and shows me that I can take them further than I had ever dreamed possible. If you have the chance to read it, I cannot recommend her book "Animation Unleashed" highly enough. In it, you'll discover why that evening at the pub in Toronto listening to Ellen challenge my entrenched ideas was so valuable. Ellen tackles difficult abstract concepts with a very approachable style that cuts through the mist and shines a spotlight directly on the heart of the concept itself:

"Animation is particularly effective when it communicates with movement. But this potential can only be tapped when movement is given a meaningful role."

From page 16, Making Movement Matter, Animation Unleashed, Ellen Besen (author).

Two of Ellen's films, "Illuminated Lives: A Brief History of Women's Work in the Middle Ages" and "Sea Dream", are currently on display for viewing at the NFB's Mediatheque in Toronto and their Cinerobotheque in Montreal.
Here is our third interviewee in this year's Women in Animation series, Ellen Besen.

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Q: What is your current job description?
A: Hard to pin down these days. I’ve played a lot of different roles in this field over the years and find that I return to all of them from time to time. I am still filmmaking, consulting on other people’s projects, both personal and commercial, teaching (private classes only) and writing about animation storytelling. Most important project right now is the new book- an in depth look at animation and hybrid storytelling techniques which I am co-writing with animation filmmaker/professor Aubry Mintz.

Q: How long have you worked in the animation industry?
A: Began my studies at Sheridan College in 1971 and have been in the field ever since.

Q: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?
A: Producer, director, animator, filmmaker (doing the whole thing), professor, mentor, event/festival organizer, curator, journalist and author

Q: Is there a book or film that you worked on that you are particularly proud of?
A: My three favorite film projects are Sea Dream, NFB 1979; Slow Dance World, Independent 1986 and Stroke, commissioned for 11 in Motion 2009.

Also proud of my book, Animation Unleashed, MWP 2008 and the new book, Whole Cloth Storytelling (working title), MWP- work in progress.

Q: How have opportunities changed for women pursuing a career in animation today as opposed to when you started your career?
A: A lot in some ways and surprisingly little in others. When I started, there were very few women involved in the field and there was some resistance to their participation. Now they are more accepted and participating in greater numbers but still way less than you’d expect- commercial animation is still a guy’s game in so many ways. Why is this so? Are fewer women applying to the schools or are they applying but not being accepted? If the latter, is this a bias among teachers, a genuine deficit in preparation or an orientation within the field itself which favours one set of skills, one approach to design, story, etc over another?

Worth noting, the substantial female audience for anime which is going to grow up with its leading edge generation may prove to be the true ground breaker for women in this field.

Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?
A: Because of any or all of the above, you need even greater persistence and commitment, I think. It is a hard field by its nature- for anyone, male or female, wanting in, you have to dig in and you have to love the medium in order to be able to make the commitment required. But male or female, if you are talented, persistent, disciplined and comfortable in a team situation (not much room for big egos in the trenches!)- you stand a reasonable chance of advancing.

Q: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?
A: That depends on her goals. if she wanted to work in the studio system I would suggest that she develop her art skills to a reliable level before tackling the animation curriculum. If she were interested in a more independent approach, developing a personal style to both visuals and story- and jumping right into the filmmaking would offer a real advantage. As would developing enough technical skills to be self sufficient from idea to finished project.

For all young women- be bolder- don’t be afraid to ask for a challenge and to take one on if offered even if you aren’t 100 percent sure that your skills are in place- a lot of learning takes place on the fly.

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?
A: Try to dig past the hype about the field and form a realistic picture about what it means to work in animation. Look for a genuine affinity with the medium- it’s not a field for dabblers. Encourage them to see a variety of animated works with different techniques, approaches to story and thus widen their frame of reference. Encourage them to observe movement in the real world and to develop their art in whatever technique suits them.

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*The image and quote used is copyright Ellen Besen and used with her permission.