Along with the December 25th release of Soul, Pixar Animation Studio’s twenty-third feature-length CGI film, on Disney+, comes the latest original from their in-house SparkShort series: Burrow. It’s a whimsical, yet energetic tale of a bunny intent on carving out her own space amongst the many other underground denizens around her. The short exists just fine as a charming, traditionally animated standalone, but it also works as a fine metaphor for how director Madeline Sharafian is carving her own path in the contemporary animation field.
A CalArts grad and now Lead Story Artist at Pixar Animation Studios, Sharafian has worked for the studio since 2015 as a story artist on Coco and the upcoming feature release, Turning Red (2022). But with Burrow, Sharafian used the express lane that the Pixar SparkShorts was meant to provide their in-house animators who are keen to step up their game.
The SparkShorts program launched in 2018, the same year that long-time Pixar and Disney COO John Lasseter formally left the company in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, and Pete Docter was named his replacement. It’s been under the guidance of producer Lindsey Collins, who has treated the program as an incubator for their in-house talent, especially for women and racially diverse voices that have long needed amplification in the industry.
Burrow is the eighth title to come from the program, the fourth directed by a woman. And more importantly, it’s the kind of initiative that shows real progress, instead of just lip service about how to encourage a pipeline of experience from the small scale shorts to the larger scale theatricals in constant development at Pixar.
Having made it through the six-month gauntlet of producing the traditionally animated Burrow, and the even bigger achievement of forging a successful path in the typically male-dominated field, Sharafian says she’s felt a big shift in how the industry is opening up to women creatives. “When I first started at Pixar in 2015, I was one of six female board artists in a crew of 50. It took me a really long time to get brave enough to speak up and offer my opinion in brainstorm rooms.”
She blames some of that reticence to throw in with her ideas because of her own inexperience, but also because of the typical nerves that affect women in any field with a male majority room. “I needed to make sure when I showed up, that I was proving beyond a doubt that I deserved to be there and that cannot be questioned,” she explains. “Having been here now for just that five years, the landscape has changed so much.”
Under Docter and Collins’ watch, SparkShorts boasts half of its output with female directors including Sharafian, Kristen Lester, Rosie Sullivan, and Erica Milsom. And on the theatrical side, Domee Shi, the first female director of a Pixar short, Bao, is helming Turning Red. “There are these women now who we can all look up to, which is so nice,” Sharafian enthuses. “It’s so nice to get advice from my friend Rosie about what it feels like to stand up in a room of familiar animators and get the real scoop. And it’s been really amazing to watch Pixar change so quickly, and I think it’s still in its early stages.”
At Pixar’s sister studio, Walt Disney Animation Studios, story artist, director and author of the Boom graphic novel, I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation, Natalie Nourigat says she is also seeing quantifiable change in the industry that has been heartening. “I guess for me personally, the biggest change in recent years has been the visibility of women in highly aspirational positions…I also see more women directing, producing, becoming Heads of Story, leading departments and showrunning. It’s easier for me to believe that studios are invested in women and women’s stories when I see hard evidence in the makeup of their teams.”
As a Story Artist on Ralph Breaks the Internet and director of Exchange Student for Disney’s Short Circuit program (similar to Pixar’s SparkShorts), Nourigat says she was happy to discover the industry is more collaborative and less “cutthroat” than expected. And with the hiring of more women in positions of leadership, she’s also seeing a marked rise in women helping other women rise from within.
“When you combine that change of more women in leadership with the general collaborative atmosphere of the animation industry, I do think that we get women who make the effort to ‘hold the door open behind them,’ so it won’t be so difficult for the next person to get to where she is. I see women in extremely demanding jobs making the time to get lunch with up-and-comers. I see them mentoring both formally and informally.”
Citing artists’ resources like Latoya Raveneau Day-to-Day animation process explainer series, Madeleine Flores; free Google doc on demystifying storyboarding and Kellye Perdue free Twitch “how to” sessions, Nourigat says there is a wealth of knowledge being shared to give a leg up to the next generation.
And a peak example of women forging new roads for animation going forward, is Nora Twomey, an Academy Award nominee for The Breadwinner (2017) and the co-founder of Ireland-based animation studio, Cartoon Saloon. A 25-year veteran of the industry, she remembers being only one of a handful of women in her animation college class filled with men. “Of those women, I’m the only one still working in animation,” she says.
As a creator consciously making films at Cartoon Saloon about female characters, like The Breadwinner and this year’s awards darling, Wolfwalkers, Twomey says they craft stories that have inherent depth and truth to them, which is needed in animation storytelling. “That’s why I love characters like Mebh in Wolfwalkers: She doesn’t ask permission to be herself,” she explains. “She’s not anyone else’s idea of who she should be. It’s important to see characters like that onscreen – for all audiences. And as storytellers, we are very mindful that we are speaking directly to the next generation through our work—there’s a big responsibility with that and it’s one that the whole studio takes very seriously.”
Twomey says today she’s seeing a lot more women enrolling in animation colleges, which speaks to how much the landscape is opening to up more diverse voices. “The studios are more aware of what they had been unconsciously doing and why,” she observes. “And I can see a generational shift where there is a greater confidence in young women in particular. There is an industry-wide drive to be more inclusive. Whether there will be a sustained, active and committed push to diversify storytelling is another matter.”
While Twomey and her colleagues at Cartoon Saloon are making sure their ambitious slate of new animated series, including ones for Apple TV+, and their theatrical films will continue to push forward less typically featured characters, she is concerned that without continued inertia, the industry could get lax again. “It’s crucial it doesn’t,” she asserts. “Every now and then, I stop and think about how unfathomable it is that one gender got to direct nearly all of the films—especially for young kids who desperately need stories that reflect broader experiences. We need to normalize what was traditionally thought of as ‘women’s or minority issues’ so the workplace becomes more humane for all our colleagues. Whether by nature or upbringing, I’m shy, and public speaking is not easy for me, but I am aware that I need to be seen in order for others to see what I’m doing, and for them to go beyond what I dreamed of.”
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett