Interview with Brenda Chapman

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She’s an american writer, story artist and director. She became the first woman to direct an animated feature film for a major studio with the Prince of Egypt (Dreamworks) in 1998, and she was also the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Brave (Disney/Pixar) in 2012.

Due to my research for my dissertation about the representation of women I considered contacting some professionals in the industry to answer some questions based in their experience.

I found Brenda Chapman’s blog and had the feeling that she was approachable. She agreed to answer some questions because it’s “always good to have that subject discussed”. It’s very exciting when a professional finds the time to help a student.

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Brenda Chapman Interview – 24th March 2016

  • There aren’t many women directors in Hollywood (Keegan, 2015). In your experience, do you think they don’t get hired or there aren’t women that want to be directors?

I think a few years back that was true – that there weren’t many women going for director jobs. But today, that is not the case. I know many women who are out there trying to get projects green lit, or putting their hats in the ring for films and getting passed over.

  • Not many women directors receive the merit they deserve for their work (Buchanan, 2015), do you agree?

I think some do and many don’t.

  • Recently there have been cases of  women in the film industry that claim they end up earning less money because they try to be liked, and asking for more would earn them being called ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled’ (Lawrence, 2015), which wouldn’t happen to men. Do you agree with this?

I definitely agree with this. I’ve experienced the same discrimination that Jennifer Lawrence has. Certain studios act like they are doing you a favor in even giving you the job as director, and insinuate that you are not remotely on the same level as their male directors – even though you may have had more experience and successes than many of those male directors.

  • You said in an interview (Chiu, 2015) that when working at Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg asked you to fill the position of director. Do you think that opportunity would have happened if you had been at another studio at the time?

Certainly not on the level he was offering me on Prince of Egypt. I had been offered to direct a short for one the theme parks at Disney before I left… but that was also while Jeffrey was still at Disney.

  • Some animators have said that female characters are more difficult to animate because they need to be pretty [eg DiSalvo’s comments on Frozen (Stampler, 2013)]. It is also the case that in the games industry there are fewer female protagonists because they are more difficult to animate [eg Assassins Creed (Gittleson, 2014)]. Do you agree with this statement?

I agree on the level that the people animators and character designers are working for, i.e. studio execs, producers, marketing, some directors, want to keep the female characters looking “pretty” and subconsciously looking like their sense of a “perfect” female. That is definitely hard to maintain when trying to animate a wide variety of emotions and still keep the female character looking beautiful. If the designers and animators had more freedom to create a broader variety of female character designs, that difficulty would lessen substantially, if not completely disappear. All you have to do is compare character designs of male characters with that of female characters, and you will soon find that all the female characters will have very similar face and body shapes. You will also see the much wider variety of shapes and sizes of male characters.

  • In the games industry many people believe that games with non-sexualized female lead characters won’t sell (Chambers, 2012). Do you think this is true or is there a market for more realistic representations of women as role models?

As they say, “sex always sells” – however, I think more and more girls and young women are into games nowadays, and there is room for other types of portrayals of female characters… as well as male characters! And I think a BIG component to that is marketing. Marketing departments have become too involved in the creative process of games and films alike. It’s the proverbial tail wagging the proverbial dog. Let the creators create and then let the marketers market the creation, not the other way around. I believe very strongly that that is why we have the same things over and over again in films and games – because marketers want to market what they know and are afraid of anything new or unusual… even if it might be a fresh take on the same thing. … Okay. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  • You created a very different Disney princess (physical representation and character). What obstacles did you face in breaking with tradition and establishing a more enlightened and contemporary female role model?
Thank you for that description.
Oddly enough, at Pixar, it was convincing them that she WAS different. They were so anti-fairytale, most of them thought I was trying to do that same old thing because I’d worked on both The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast at Disney. Once they got on board, then it eventually took a swing in another direction in that they kept pushing to make Merida more like Jessie from Toy Story – a guy’s version of a tomboy – which Merida was not.
Also, when the public found out that Pixar was going to have their first female protagonist, many feminists were up in arms that it was going to be a fairytale and that she was a princess. I completely understand that knee-jerk reaction, however, what they didn’t know that I was intentionally trying to break the traditional princess role-model to give girls another point of view about princesses – that it’s not what they look like but who they are.
  • Why do you think is necessary for young girls to have a role model?

Well, partly because of what I just wrote in the previous question about it’s not what you look like, but who you are that’s important. So much of the media that is out there, TV, film, the Internet, magazines, social media – the vast majority of it portrays girls and women as someone’s version of perfection. The images are manipulated to make them look thinner, taller, “sexier”, etc.,.. Girls are absolutely bombarded with it from birth! We definitely need to have a multitude of other role models and images out there that girls of different shapes, size colors and demeanors can relate to. Yes, there are a lot of images of “sexy” buff men, but you will also find many more varieties of images and role models that guys can relate to. Girls need the same thing. That’s why I love Melissa McCarthy, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Schumer, Lilo… and I’m already running out of examples, which is incredibly frustrating!

  • Your facebook profile says “Feature Animation Director. Writer. Artist. Mom. Wife. (Not necessarily in that order!)”. All of those seem to be at the same level of importance, do you think a man would put them at the same level too? Is it a gender or personality difference?

I think some men would. And I think it’s a gender difference, yes. I know my mother instinct will take over at the expense of everything else, where I’m not so sure that’s necessarily true for men. However, I know plenty of men who put their family above their careers, so it could well be a societal thing that seems to be shifting ever so slowly.

  • Do you get asked questions that nobody would consider asking a male director? [like female celebrities and female athletes are asked about their outfit and relationships instead of work related questions]
Not as much, I think, because I am rarely physically in the public’s eye as celebrities and athletes are. I get asked about my marriage a lot, but I think that has more to do with the fact that my husband, Kevin Lima, is also a successful director who started in animation. However, I do get asked about my hair a lot because it is red and a little curly – in relation to Merida. And I’m ALWAYS asked what it’s like to be a woman in my field. I’m always called a “woman” or “female” director – rarely am I ever referred to as a plain old director.
For the longest time, I refused to put “first female director, etc,…” in my bio, because I thought it was irrelevant. But during BRAVE, I began to realize that while I was trying to create a role model for young girls, that I was being looked at as a role model by young women wanting to get into or working in the industry. So I decided to own it, in hopes that making a point of being a woman in this business would inspire others to keep trying. It really is a double edged sword for me.
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