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Re-visiting Memory Lane with Mindy Johnson: A Chat about Women, Walt’s World, and Animation

  • When I read Ink & Paint, it was hard to believe that telling women’s stories, as you have in this context, is so trailblazing. This book is the first of its kind! How have these achievements not been acknowledged before? It was very, very eye-opening.

I’m glad you caught that because this imbalance is so subtle and yet so pervasive. I have to catch myself when I see ads or in something I’m reading or writing. I often remark, “Oh, that’s a little imbalanced.” The bias is just so everyday and commonplace that we aren’t aware of it. Becoming more aware is key, I think, to getting change happening.

  • How did you choose an appropriate writing style in which to convey these stories?

I identified several tenets as I was working through the book. I needed to tell the story in as many firsthand accounts as possible. The story is not me interjecting or imposing my views or opinions. It is the women who were there sharing their experiences. This casts a true light on their voices and their contributions. 

I consciously had to push to find photos of only women, as well as in finding the women, or their families of these women. I felt it was important to contextualize the experiences of women at various points within our past. The narrative of the book is also from a female perspective which gives you a subtle but a different approach to the stories we’ve heard a million times told by men and through the eyes of men. This casts an entirely different light on those experiences. There is a difference – the difference being women’s experiences and perspectives. We, as women, are so filled with rich stories and yet we have all missed out by not hearing them.

  • One blurb for Ink & Paint states that Walt hired women to expand the scope and sensibility of storytelling. One of the great examples of this is the process of rouging Snow White’s cheeks – technical aspects aside, only women at the time were familiar with where rouge should be applied on the cheeks! In a very different way, World War II also contributed to the expansion of women’s talents in the Studio by giving them the opportunity to step into what were previously men-only roles. Do you think women would have had the chance to broaden their horizons at the Studio without the events of the 1930s and 40s?

I think so. From a 1930s perspective, Walt was not gender biased. His approach was, “Can you do the job? Whatever hair color and shoe size you are, the question is: can you do the job?” It was about artistic skill; it wasn’t about your race or your gender or your background or whatever. He was interested in the best product possible and whoever could do that. Early on, Walt brought several key women artists and writers into his early story departments for different sensibilities in the studio’s storytelling. Walt is on record in the 1930s, as saying: “I don’t know why women can’t animate, but maybe they just don’t have the power to do it.” Well, along came Retta Scott, Mildred Rossi and Viola Anderson. I think Walt was open and pleasantly surprised that women could do more. 

In the 1930s, before Walt moves to feature animation, animation was still comprised of a lot of physical comedy and psych gags. We start to see differences explored in the Silly Symphonies. There is a need for power and for push in what’s being done with pencils. But remember that the women were right there with ink pens transferring those pencil lines into final content. There was this pervasive attitude that they were merely tracing, but after examining and studying and really digging into the training that they went through, tracing was the last thing that would be involved with this. So, I ultimately think Walt was ahead of his time in a 1930s kind of way (laughs) and it was a very pleasant surprise to see. 

As early as the late 1930s, he begins training women specifically for animation because he himself comes to enlightenment [about women’s artistic skills and the fact that he can harness those previously untapped talents.] He leads the industry in that regard. There was a growing number of women – and my research continues with regards to other studios as well – that were moving forward at this time. I think it’s safe to say that overall animation was a very progressive industry. That is not to say that there was not sexism and other barriers, but that’s just largely due to individual mentalities and societal structures at the time. But undeniably, women were there. 

  • You mentioned that the women received some training. As a result of some of their training, what impact, if any, did women have regarding animation technique(s)?

A huge impact! The rouge on the cheeks you mentioned is one great example. There is a charming myth that they were using real rouge – this is false! It was Mary Weiser and her teams – a powerhouse example of a woman taking the lead – who came up with the “blend” technique which achieved the rouge effect. 

Mary was brought to the Studio from Chicago. Walt knew her from his studies in Chicago when he was studying art there and he contacted Mary and brought her out to California to join him. (Very much like how Ub Iwerks was brought out.) She started working as a painter and identified so many problems with the paints. For one, they were working with paints off the store shelves at the hardware store used to paint heavy duty items like bedrooms or furniture. These types of paints were hard to blend or suspend or otherwise made it difficult to hold color or to dry evenly. It was a problem and Mary said, “You know, we can do better.”

So, she studied chemistry (laughs), because that’s what you do, right? And that’s exactly what she did – she got her degree in chemistry and established the first and only paint lab in the world creating paints exclusively for cel animation. There had been color in animation before, but Mary and her team employed the latest and greatest technology that was the truest approach to color. Hazel Sewell oversaw this transition in the Inking and Painting department with Flowers and Trees (1932) which is the first animation to garner an Academy Award, not for the animation, but for the women’s work with color in that film utilizing the advent of the three-strip Technicolor approach. 

The rouge-like quality on the cheeks is a combination of pink and orange dye to get that rosy-cheeked dimensional look to Snow White. They also added slight subtle dry brush features to her hair to give her a sense of three dimensionality in a two-dimensional art form. The dye had to be carefully injected into the cels and then blended. Only two or three women would animate that color cel-by-cel across thousands of cells for each time Snow White appears in the scene and her face has to turn and move. Walt was quoted, while marveling as one of the women applied the dye, saying: “How do you know to do that?” And the response was, “Well, how do you think we put our makeup on every day?” The myth was later perpetuated again because it was men interpreting that as, “Oh, they used rouge on this!” Oh no. It was a unique dye technique that was applied in a similar sensibility, as women would use to apply their own rouge.

  • Wow. That is incredible.

It is great example of how this kind of stuff was overlooked. We just assumed it was rouge so we moved-on thinking that was the way it was. It is a great lesson in thinking peripherally and really examining these myths that we’ve long lived by to come to understanding beyond them instead of accepting that maybe they are nothing more than our original assumptions. 

  •  While always forward-thinking, just as Walt was, Disney Studios simultaneously fosters an endearing continuity or reprisal of these bygone animation techniques. We have just talked about Mary Weiser’s “Blend” technique (method of adding texture and roundness to characters) that she patented in the 1930s. This same technique was later used in the 1980s, in addition to other resources, for the creation of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Similarly, Ariel’s finer features – like lips, eyes, lashes – in The Little Mermaid were inked by hand (while Sleeping Beauty (1959) was the last Disney film to have fully hand-inked cels). What do you make of the Studio’s continued use of these tried and true methods?

I think it speaks to the quality and the artistry of what these women developed and accomplished. It also speaks to our move into a digital age in the sense that it is all wonderful and accompanied by great new tools, but let’s do what we need to do with what works. Artistry is at the heart of it – I think it’s important that approach doesn’t get lost in the new bells and whistles of technology. It’s why it’s important we make a study of how things were. 

Another thing that became very apparent in the avalanche of the impact of this book that hit me just a handful of months after I started was that the 100 years that are encapsulated in the book – from Disney and beyond – was the hand-rendered artistry. Animation is not exactly accomplished in that way today. We still have methodologies and tenants that we apply to the storytelling but the technology, as a tool, has shifted things somewhat. It was important to preserve and somehow retain the nuts and bolts of how animation was achieved so that we can move forward thinking, “You know, there’s something to this.” 

The blend technique that Mary developed was the precursor to a lot of the software now that’s out there that will give you fur and hair, which is one of the biggest challenges as the transition was made from hand-rendered to digital artistry. When I was exploring that mystery of the blend technique and what Mary and her teams were doing, I said, “Oh my gosh, she solved this!” Eighty years prior to the transition into digital, and the mystery of how do we get this sensation of fur? How do we get this quality? Mary had solved it. It was time consuming – but they could do it in any color and it wasn’t just for the rouge technique. There was this sensation of texture and that’s how they achieved the fur-like textures to the animals in Snow White and later films. 

Plus, Mary and her team’s ability to create paints with specific qualities, that when you watch Snow White especially – I love this example – you get the sensation, the visual cue, that the Queen’s robes are velvets and satins and that Snow White is in a very plain, linen cloth dress. This subliminally gives you this sense of division between the two characters. Yet, that’s paint! The textural quality and sheen applied to the paint, and how it’s then applied to the cel, gives us that sensation. But we’re not even conscious of that.

  • My goodness, Ms. Mary Weiser’s chemistry degree certainly wasn’t just for show!

Uh huh, that was a lady on a mission!

  • Ink & Paint is not only a biography and important time capsule of gifted and hardworking women, it is also a thorough, deliberate record of history. At the start of each chapter the book showcases a bullet-point timeline of events from the 1920s to the 1980s. How did you choose which historical facts to include in the book, as they relate to Disney and beyond?

It was important to contextualize when these developments were occurring. To set the wider world against what was happening in terms of animation and Disney and then dial down into Disney and the women. That is the context I wanted it in. Context was key to place this larger sense of world events and pop culture events at various times; where women were and how they were progressing through industry. Providing that larger, more universal approach to the book was key in order to establish the firmest possible platform. 

As a teacher, I find that as I teach film history or animation history, it makes a difference when you know that in 1923 – when Walt Disney started his studio – women who had only had the right to vote for three years. For students today, that clicks them into the context and wakes them up to the differences. When you look at the fact that women were making $13 a week in Ink & Paint, you might say, “What? Oh my goodness, that’s embarrassing when some of the animators are making a couple of hundred dollars a week.” Well, those are rare exceptions. $13 a week for a woman was actually very good pay and for skilled artists. 

I always try to contextualize it by showing a grocery store ad where a loaf of bread is $0.05; buying a brand new car is $300; buying a little pre-packaged home costs you $500 and you might pay a $15 a month in rent. So yes, $13 was very good pay. You could raise a family on that. A couple of young gals, renting an apartment together and they’re doing just fine financially. I have example after example of women getting hired to work in the Ink & Paint department or as secretaries, which is a very socially acceptable and prominent position for women in the 1930s, who were the breadwinners for their families.

One example is Betty Smith. Her father passed away when she was in high school and her mother had never worked outside of the home – she had always taken care of the home and still had a younger child to raise, so her extended family rallied. Betty was able to graduate from high school early and found a clerking job to make money. But then her uncle helped introduce her to Ward Kimball. Ward helped her put her portfolio together. She then got the job at Disney working in Ink and Paint. There she was supporting her family and at far better pay. Then, in the early 1940s Betty had to leave as a result of the strike but still had to support her family, so she got special releases to work at a bank, but at half the pay she made at Disney. Most school teachers weren’t paid that well in that day. 

So, it is important to contextualize and to give a sense of not only where women were at that point and to pinpoint women who had made great accomplishments, but to also give a wider sense of world events that we could latch into. For example, the Hindenburg explosion or the Mount Everest climb. Adding to events that we know within our own historic timeline gives you the full picture. That was a lot of fun to consider what was going on and what was happening at that time. I wanted to help bring readers into an understanding of what the world was like at that time.

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