Female Pioneers in Animation
Female Pioneers in Animation - When people think of the pioneering history of animation, big names such as Walt Disney and Max Fleischer typically top the lists that pop into heads. However, the history of animation is complex and elaborate, with many early artists and pioneers being almost or completely lost to the folds of time. Despite the enormous impact that animation has on the imagination of adults and children alike, often the artists who create these entertaining pieces go unrecognized—and when it comes to the early, exciting days of animation when the craft was just beginning to blossom, unfortunately, it was often the women and female pioneers who were the ones who slipped through the cracks of animation history. Women were usually not given public accolades for their work at the best of times, and their accomplishments were taken credit for by their male counterparts at the worst of times. Because of this fact, the recent discovery of works by what is now understood to be the earliest female animator, Bessie Mae Kelley, shook the timeline of animation history.
Historian Mindy Johnson felt a hunch that Bessie was something more when she saw an illustration of early animation pioneers and noticed Bessie May Kelley’s image off to the side. She had previously been written off by historians as a likely cleaning lady or secretary, but Johnson knew that there was something more to her. She tracked down Kelley’s long-forgotten relatives who still had several notebooks, diaries, and film reels of Kelley’s creation—which Johnson restored and pieced together to discover that Kelley had been so much more than a secretary, she was the creator of the earliest known animation drawn and directed by a woman. Working in the late 1910s and early 1920s, she created short films such as Gasoline Alley, Flower Fairies, and A Merry Christmas, as well as contributing to the popular Koko the Clown series created at Fleischer Studios. Amazingly, she even created two characters for the “Aesop’s Fables” series led by Paul Terry—two mice named Milton and Mary who later inspired Walt Disney himself to create the iconic and enduring Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Johnson hopes that her discoveries leading to the re-emergence of such a prominent animator will inspire modern-day animators who might also come from historically underrepresented backgrounds in this field that has long been dominated by men.
But Bessie Mae Kelley is not the only female animator who has perhaps not been recognized for her works in the way she deserves. The history of animation is full of women who helped to develop the art form and drive the field ever forward. Some additional names that you may not have heard of include:
- Lotte Reiniger: Creator of one of the oldest surviving feature films, The Adventures of Prince Achmend, which was released over a decade before Snow White, she also was one of the pioneers of silhouette animation.
- Lillian Friedman Astor: She worked as an animator for the well-known Fleisher Studio and received very little credit for her vast work, which included highly popular animations such as Betty Boop and Popeye.
- Retta Scott: Retta was notably the first woman to earn an animator screen credit for a Disney film, for her work on Bambi. Later in her career she went on to produce Fantasia and Dumbo, as well as work as an illustrator on a number of other films.
- Mary Blair: An incredibly impactful woman in the field of animation, Blair had a unique style that had a huge influence on the appearance of Disney films, following her work as an animator and colour designer on Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.
As modern-day animators, Pushed seeks to appreciate the long and sometimes convoluted history of animation, because without the pioneers of decades ago, the field of animation would not have flourished into the art form that it is today.