Image courtesy of Disney. 

The stories of bad-ass women in the early days of animation are just now being told, thanks to the work of author and historian Mindy Johnson. She went digging through peoples’ basements, under beds, and in old photo albums in Los Angeles to uncover the lives of women in early Walt Disney Studios for her book Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. Johnson shared what she found with an audience at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in late September, and Ottawa Beat sat down with her to get the gist.

Mindy Johnson (MJ): It was based on a previous book I had been working on. I happened to notice that I’d written about a page and a half worth of just the inking and painting aspects of Disney animation and began looking around, realizing that no other books really talked about where women were and what they were doing, not only at Disney but throughout animation. So I put several pitches together, and one was focusing on ink and paint and the women of animation. We all thought it would be a charming little book —  and nothing could be further from the truth. I got about maybe eight months into my research and quickly realized this was massive.

Ottawa Beat (OB): How did your book get started?

I called my editor right away and said, ‘Look, this is an epic story — women were virtually everywhere. I don’t know where it ends. But this has to be told.’ And she said, ‘Okay, just keep going.’ And it kept growing and growing and growing. And even as large as the book is, it’s amazing that these stories are still just scratching the surface of what women were doing and what their contributions were.

OB: I think a lot of us don’t realize how much goes into animation if you’re not in the field. And it is kind of an invisible anonymous art, if you don’t look close enough. So I guess that makes it even harder for the women that were working behind the scenes.

MJ: Definitely. And if you go back to the very beginning, sadly, women have always been written out of history, which is exactly that, his story. So this has been an attempt to give us the other half of our animated past that we’ve never really taken the time to document, explore, or share. And then you realize we’ve only been told half the story. To fill this out, it’s really critical to examine where women have been and what their contributions have been, particularly in terms of colour. We are not watching pencil sketches on the screen when we look at classic animation. We’re watching beautiful, vibrant, masterful, colourful pieces and experiences. That is where women’s contributions in the earliest days began — with colour. And their talents expanded further. And we’ve had a really rich foundation of women in animation, but we’ve never taken the time to document it until now.

OB: What do you think are some of the stereotypes or barriers that they would face on the day to day working at the studio?

MJ: Well, Disney Studios was actually fairly progressive as far as employing women. There were a lot of firsts for women at Disney Studios over the years, but you have to recognize that in context. When they started at the studio in 1923, women had only had the right to vote for three years. In the United States, they had a fight of almost a century to be able to get that the vote. We’re still struggling today in many ways in terms of equal representation and equal pay and recognition for our work and our roles. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were prevailing attitudes that women should be in the home and not out earning a living.

Walt Disney is on record in the 30s saying, you know, ‘I don’t know why, but for some reason, women don’t have the power to animate!’ But you have to recognize at that time in the 30s animation was a lot of sight gags and physical comedy. As he moves towards feature length animation, he realizes audiences aren’t going to tolerate that for an hour and a half. People even thought it would hurt people’s eyes to see that much colour on the screen, to watch animation for that long. He widened his scope and recognized he needed a fresh approach to storytelling.

 This is where you start to see women coming in, in terms of story artists, writing, and concept development. Women progressed and advanced the art form particularly with feature length animation.

We wouldn’t be able to get the emotion and the narrative drive that Walt was after with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, without women. For audiences to really take hold and latch on to this for an hour and a half, he knew it had to be moving artistry. And indeed, women rose to the occasion.

OB: Out of all the stories that you’ve come across, do you have a favourite?

MJ: There are so many — not only the women and what they were doing at studios, but what they were doing in their lives beyond their work. At times, we have women who were aviators, pilots who are breaking records, and establishing firsts for the aviation industry, but still couldn’t get work because they were women. We have women who are fine artists in their own right, doing portraiture and landscapes and remarkable pieces of work and bodies of work within their careers.We have women who went on to change how animation is taught. We have women who went off and had really harrowing experiences during the war of life tragedies that they overcame. It’s hard to pinpoint any single one because each woman and her story are so remarkable.

But in the course of working on this particular book, and my continuing research, I have come across met some really exceptional ladies. One example is her name is Ruthie Thompson. She’s 108 years young, still with us. She was a little 10 year old girl when Walt and Roy Disney were first starting their studio in Los Angeles in 1923. She was one of the kids in the neighbourhood that they’d pay a quarter to, to be part of the films. She would sit next to Roy when he was putting the cells on the camera to shoot them. And many years later, she came back and worked on virtually every animated film at that Disney from Snow White up until the early 70s. In the 1950s, she became one of the earliest women in the camera union.

Ruthie Thompson, then and now.

You have women like Wilma Baker who’s first job was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, working 12 hour shifts. She was engaged and got married, but she was pregnant. Her husband was called off to war, and he never met their son. He was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in the final days of World War Two. And as a young widow, she had to take care of her son and keep herself and her son going. She continued working at the studio, and well into her late 80s she was still painting on different animated pieces. It was a great joy to meet her in her final years, and for her to know that her story was going to be told.

OB: After people read your book, take it in, and see all the stories of these women, what do you hope that they come to understand better?

MJ: Well many things — first of all, that women have always been part of our collective past, we just have sadly forgotten or neglected to tell their side of the story as well, which is half of the human experience. I think it’s important that we re-examine what we’ve learned about our past and recognize that women have always been there. Think where we can go when women are given a full sense of their abilities! That’s what I hope for the next generation of young animators, artists, scientists — wherever you choose to take your path as a young woman.

There are incredible shoulders that you have to stand on. The trail has been blazed — so you can get out there and do whatever needs to be done.

Look for those who came before you. You’ll find they were accomplishing remarkable things, we just never took the time to examine that. We can change that now.

Johnson is currently working on a children’s book called “Pencils, Pens, and Brushes: Great Girls of Disney Animation” that is set to be released in summer 2019.