Over the past 25 years, visual effects have morphed from a sometimes-niche component of a sci-fi or adventure film to a fundamental part of nearly every movie or TV show. But this boom hasn’t generally created increased opportunity for women and women of color, though.
Despite the desperate need for qualified VFX artists, producers and supervisors to meet the increasing demand, a report by Women in Animation, an advocacy group, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that just 2.9% of all VFX supervisors are women and only 0.5% are women of color. When they looked at the number of women credited for VFX work over time, the numbers also didn’t show that much improvement. When the groups analyzed the 400 top-earning films from 2016 through 2019, it was found that women were given 20.8%
of the VFX credits in 2016 and 22.6% in 2019.
The report also looked at how women were acknowledged for their work during awards season. In all of Oscar history, only four women have been nominated in the VFX category. VFX artist Suzanne Benson won for “Aliens” and Sara Bennett, VFX supervisor on 2015’s “Ex Machina,” took home the gold statue.
“As of today, we are 68% men, 21% women, 8% gender neutral and 3% no data,” says Jonathan Bronfman, co-president of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ), a VFX studio based in Canada. “We hope to be disruptive and disruption comes in many different forms, from technology to infrastructure. Our CTO and our head of production are women.”
Bronfman also says MARZ, a three-year-old company, employs about 215 people and recently raised $6.5 million in venture capital to develop its tech and add 100 hires. It is committed to diversity and inclusion as it moves forward. He acknowledges that live action and post-production historically have been dominated by males.
“We do a lot of work with colleges and different educational institutions that feed into our sector,” says Bronfman. “If you look at a given animation or visual- effects class coming out of college or any institution it heavily skews towards males.”
Jinko Gotoh, vice president of Women in Animation, sees systemic issues at work that have impacted the number of women who enter many technical fields: “There’s a long history to visual effects where it was dominated by these large facilities that did the VFX work. It’s very physically demanding work and very tech-driven work. And so, I think, men were more inclined to do the technical and the physical work. Women were hired into doing scheduling and budgeting, a support role. [Getting women into VFX] needs to be done earlier because it’s all about STEM. We should say early that visual effects is a career path and then teach them the craft and the technology.”
At Pixar, Danielle Feinberg recently served as visual effects supervisor on “Turning Red” and is the first woman to hold the title at the Emeryville, Calif.-based studio in about 20 years. Lately she’s seen more women move into leadership roles that were once held by men. Often the women started as interns and are now advancing through the ranks as they gain more experience. Pixar’s next film, “Lightyear,” which is scheduled for release June 17, will also have a female VFX supervisor.
“Things have changed a good amount,” says Feinberg. “There’s still plenty of room left to go, but I’m very heartened now by what I see in meetings. It’s far less likely that I am going to be the only woman in there.”
Feinberg, who participates in science and math mentoring programs for young women, gives a lot of credit to the mentors — both female and male — who’ve helped her along her career path. She found they provided a crucial sounding board for everything from technical questions to learning how to present ideas to a director on a project.
The same proved true for Sheena Duggal, a longtime VFX supervisor. She has worked on “The Hunger Games,” “Iron Man 3” and “Venom,” among many other visual effects-heavy films. Her work, along with her colleague Alessandro Ongaro, on “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” made the Oscar VFX shortlist.
“I luckily partnered with Victoria Alonso [president, physical and post-production, visual effects, and animation production for Marvel Studios] as a VFX producer when I was a VFX supervisor early in our careers,” says Duggal, who also considers effects legend Ken Ralston a mentor. “I later worked with [Alonso] at Marvel where she was very supportive.”
Ann Le Cam, senior VP of global talent and animation production at WETA, points out that policy changes are evolving at her company and elsewhere to help women (and men) maintain a work/life balance in an industry known for being high-pressure. WETA has implemented a parental leave policy and has an entry-level assistant technical director program in which it has committed to hire 50% women.
“We’re very slowly seeing more women entering the industry, which is fantastic news,” says Le Cam. “I think we’re still struggling right now and what will take time is for these women to access leadership positions. I think that will be an intentional effort that needs to be made both on a studio level and on an industry level. I think this study is amazing because a lot of these issues might be alleviated if there’s a clearer understanding of the problem. I’m not sure we had a clear picture of what the problem actually really was until the study presented it. There’s a problem with career paths and accessing leadership levels. This is not in the visual effects producer role because there’s a lot of women there but still in the creative side. We have a heavy lift to do.”
Lena Scanlan, VFX producer working on the “Avatar” sequels for WETA, agrees.
“I think that’s a longer job to get women into the creative side for several reasons,” Scanlan says. “First, I believe these are specialized skills that you really have to spend time honing. And you have to develop the artistic ability as well. For ‘Avatar’ we have about five or six teams at WETA. Because there are so many roles and so much content, I certainly set out to make sure there was an opportunity to bring more females into the team. Because you have to make an effort you can’t hope that somebody is going to change things for you. Because of the sheer scale of the industry, it really is time to make those changes. I don’t think this will take a decade to change. We’ve got some fantastic women already here and it’s just about making sure they’ve got room and support.”
Scanlan says other factors, such as flexible working hours, mentoring and encouraging women to take on leadership roles could also lead to greater retention and development of female employees.
For Holly Aldersley, head of creative operations for MPC in London, flexible working hours that are part of remote work are part of an adjustment that can lead to greater job satisfaction and possibly make visual effects a more appealing career path for everyone. MPC has core hours that most employees need to keep but allows for adjustments such as starting later or earlier to make room for other commitments.
While women in visual effects may struggle to find female mentors and face massive deadline pressures, Amy Smith, a former VFX artist, non-executive director of Access VFX, and global head of recruitment for Framestore, says you find so many more women on the producer side because the hours are better and more are already there.
“I’ve been on the administrative side so I have had role models and more senior women above me who mentored me,” says Smith. “But that is a sign of the generalized stereotyping that still exists in society and there’s this notion that women are organized, can manage things and communicate effectively and men are the doers who make stuff. You see that reflected in our industry very clearly, unfortunately. At the junior level we’re about 40% female even though, overall, we’re only about 27% female, which indicates that we are doing better at that entry level and we are bringing in more women at a junior level.”
Smith is still concerned that there appears to be data indicating young women opt out of advanced math, science and technology studies since these subjects are increasingly crucial to working on the creative side of VFX, where areas such as CG, AI and coding merge to create new approaches in the field.
At Ingenuity Studios, senior producer Rachel Hanson, executive producer Kieley Culbertson and producer Jumanah Shaheen have all found that working with a smaller, nimble VFX studio may make for faster career development. Each of them received the training and support they needed to advance their skills there.
“I can see myself working for [Ingenuity] until I retire because there’s always movement,” says Hanson. “That’s not the case with other studios. And I hate saying that all the time but there needs to be more development of skills and advancement. It needs to be part of career development.”
Data in the WIA/USC study has resulted in the formation of a task force by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well. It launched in December with about 10 members who will look at areas within VFX that need to be addressed and then develop a course of action. Academy task forces are not formally defined and are usually created when members discover an area that needs to be acknowledged or examined.
According to Jeanell English, vice president, impact and operations for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the task force has a few specific goals that may evolve as it progresses. The first is to take a look at innovation and VFX through the lives of Academy members and discover what they’re experiencing as they work in VFX, which could include analyzing workplace culture, hiring and career development. They also want to ask which kinds of mentorship or education might encourage more career paths for women, as well as ask how they can elevate and promote the roles of VFX producers who have not always been acknowledged for their contributions or visible in the credits of the projects where they work.
Since women who work in visual effects don’t have a union or guild where they could take many of their concerns, the Academy task force can become an opportunity to address longstanding difficulties or new approaches to solving them.
Erika Burton, president of global VFX production at DNEG, is hopeful the WIA/USC study and the task force will make an impact over time. But it’s still unclear how long it will take to see real change.
“There were many women in leadership positions that were my role models,” says Burton. “I was very lucky. We’re now opening up a small mentorship program in our Vancouver location and we will then grow it to our Montreal and London offices. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. But I do think these programs that we are putting into place that are such a huge part of the company’s mandate become part of the culture and they’re so critical for us to continue and not just have all of this be for the moment.”