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State of the art: Women call few of film's digital shots

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's too bad women can't computer-generate more of their own participation in the technical side of filmmaking.
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's too bad women can't computer-generate more of their own participation in the technical side of filmmaking.

Digital animation and visual effects are so widespread today that studios can end up using them in nearly every shot. Yet as the trend grows, women may be lagging behind even more in the digital arts than they are in the film and tech industries generally.

"It seems like the more technical the department, the fewer women there are," said Sunny Teich, 31, a technical director who has worked at Walt Disney Studios, Weta Digital and now is at a major visual effects house in Europe. Alongside dozens of men in technical roles in her department, she is the only woman.

In tracking women in the film industry, San Diego State University professor Martha Lauzen found this year that they were "dramatically underrepresented" as visual effects supervisors.

Among the top 250 grossing films in the United States in 2013, women accounted for 5 percent of such positions - below directors (6 percent), writers (10 percent) and producers (25 percent), according to Lauzen's study, "The Celluloid Ceiling."

Being a supervisor means more than calling the shots; it is key to winning the industry's top awards.

All 52 people honored this year at the Scientific and Technical Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were men. The Academy's Visual Effects branch has 322 active members, and while it won't say how many are women, a Los Angeles Times investigation from 2012 put the number at 3 percent; their membership in the Academy overall is 23 percent.

"It is getting better, but it is hard to tell," said Michael Fink, an Academy member who won a visual effects Oscar in 2008 and is now chair of film and television production at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.


Decades ago, studios used visual effects to fix a movie's shortcomings in post-production. Today that artistry can be at the very heart of the storytelling, even giving the superhero his powers, for example.

Victoria Alonso sits at the top of Hollywood's technical pyramid as executive vice president of visual effects at Disney's Marvel Studios, the makers of comic superhero tales such as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

In that film alone she oversaw 2,500 visual effects shots, equal to 90 percent of the movie. It is the No. 1 film so far in 2014 with worldwide ticket sales of over $700 million.

Alonso, who has worked in Hollywood for 23 years, says she is constantly asking her team, "Where are the women?" and has known only two or three female visual effects supervisors.

"It is a job that takes a while to get to, which means that you start in your twenties, and by the time you are in your late thirties or early forties you can command the knowledge and the position," said Alonso.

"But if you are going to have children, that is the time to reconsider."

Many visual effects producers are women, yet while they are key to organizing and executing projects they are not recognized as the creative artists.

Jill Hopper, head of global production at DreamWorks Animation, says the majority of women in the industry are in management; few are animators, though more than from 25 years ago when she found none.

"It does make me worry if there is an environment whereby some women feel that they are not allowed to have the opportunities to pursue interest in this industry," Hopper said.

Many who spoke to Reuters agree that the problem lies in the workplace, not in any lack of appetite for the field.

Fink says about half the students studying film at USC are women, who also make up around half the applicants in technical specialties like animation at the school.

At DreamWorks Animation, Munira Tayabji, the supervising technical director on the upcoming film "Home," has only one woman on her team of 16. But in her recruitment work for the studio she sees many women graduating in technical fields who want to work in the industry.

"We don't have to seek them out," said Tayabji, 33, who earned a math degree at UCLA. "I am not saying it's 50-50, but the girls are coming out on their own."


But both men and women point to the toll of the industry's brutal hours. Many of the 52 men collecting the Academy's sci-tech awards in February thanked their spouses for putting up with their long days.

At the visual effects houses, the regular workweek is around 50 hours, but there are often months of 70-80 hour weeks and even 100 hours in a film's final crunch time. Those demands can prove intolerable for women with children.

"Even in our twenties and thirties, it is quite grueling to work these hours, so it makes me wonder about my personal longevity in this business," said Raqi Syed, 36, a USC graduate and technical director at Weta Digital in New Zealand, where she has worked on films such as "Avatar."

The studios tend to have more manageable hours. Tayabji, a mother of two, says her normal workweek at DreamWorks is 50 hours.

Despite the difficulties for women in the industry, Fink is upbeat about the prospects for his female students.

"What seems inevitable is that because (visual effects are) becoming so pervasive ... the opportunities for women to expand their roles and become more recognized and become a larger portion of the workforce are terrific," said Fink.

Getting more women into technical roles is healthy for the culture as well, said Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

"If you've got women who are creating the very images that all our children are seeing," she said, "they are going to be different than if they are only created by men."

(Editing by Prudence Crowther)