A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more.
Hosted by John Rabe
Arts & Entertainment

Which Oscars category doesn't have a whiteness problem? Animation

Sanjay Patel photographed June 4, 2015, at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif.
Sanjay Patel photographed June 4, 2015, at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif.

Listen to story

Download this story 13MB

The Academy is under fire because not one person of color was nominated for an Oscar in the major categories for the second year in a row. If the Academy - and Hollywood in general - want a model of increasing diversity, they should look to animation.

In the animation categories, diversity is the rule rather than the exception, and has been for years.

A painting by Tyrus Wong, who gave Bambi its look.
A painting by Tyrus Wong, who gave Bambi its look.
Tyrus Wong

Why hasn’t anyone noted that Pixar’s "Inside Out," the odds-on favorite for Animated Feature, has a woman screenwriter, Meg Le Fauve, and a Hispanic producer, Jonas Rivera? Among the major films that weren’t nominated, "The Good Dinosaur" was directed by Korean-American Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream. Two of the three producers on DreamWorks’ "Home" were women, and the co-presidents of animation production there are Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria. Two years ago, Jennifer Lee wrote the screenplay and co-directed "Frozen."

"The Croods" had two women producers, and "Despicable Me 2" had one. 

In the Shorts category, Pixar’s "Sanjay’s Super Team" - about a father and son who reach an important understanding - was produced by Nicole Grindle and directed by Indian-American Sanjay Patel.

Two years ago, Kristina Reed co-directed the winning short "Feast;" the other nominees included Torill Kove, Daisy Jacobs, Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi.

For more than 50 years, women have been nominated and have won in the Animated Short category, beginning with Faith Hubley, who shared Oscars with her husband John for "The Hole" in 1963 and "Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature" in 1967. Other female artists who have won include Joan Gratz, Torill Kove, Eunice McCauley and Alison Snowden.

Not surprisingly, many recent animated films have centered on independent, interesting heroines: Riley in "Inside Out," Anna in "When Marnie Was There," Tip in "Home," Anna and Elsa in "Frozen," Merida in "Brave." These characters were interested in more than winning a man: They struggled to understand themselves and resolve problems. They were more interesting to watch than the bland, gentle princesses in older features.

At the same time, the worlds depicted in animated films are no longer exclusively white; they feature ethnically diverse characters and voice casts. "Big Hero 6" focused on Japanese-American teenager Hiro Hamada, whose friends were voiced by Genesis Rodriguez, Damon Wayans Jr. and Jamie Chung. Jordan Nagai spoke for Russell, the over-eager Asian-American scout in the Oscar-winning "Up."

Actors Kit Harington and America Ferrera attend the DreamWorks Animation & 20th Century Fox screening of
Actors Kit Harington and America Ferrera attend the DreamWorks Animation & 20th Century Fox screening of "How To Train Your Dragon 2" on June 11, 2014 in New York City.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images



In "How to Train Your Dragon 2," the villainous Drago was voiced by Djimon Hounsou and America Ferrera’s Astrid was every bit as capable as Hiccup.

The first on-screen credit for a musical score given to an African-American was Phil Moore for UPA’s "Rooty-Toot-Toot in 1951."

"Rooty Toot Toot"


During the 1930’s, Walt Disney had artists who were Jewish, Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese and female working at his studio in key creative roles. Iwo Takamoto was hired there a few weeks after being released from the Manzanar internment camp. A friend told him, “They don’t care what color you are if you draw well enough.”

In 1941, male employees complained that Disney was promoting women to creative positions so he could pay them less. Walt replied in a speech to the studio, "if a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man" and "the girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men." Those were radical statements in 1941.

But the greater diversity I’ve been talking about isn’t just fair to workers. It’s resulted in more original and interesting films that entertain and stimulate audiences. How much duller a trip to the movies would have been without Mary Blair’s brilliant designs for "Cinderella" or Brenda Chapman’s sensitive story work of Belle tending Beast’s wounds. Tove, McCauley and Snowden brought a new kind of humor to the screen. And in just seven minutes, Sanjay Patel offers a deeply felt examination of the conflict between immigrant parents and their more assimilated children.

Has animation achieved complete gender equality or proportional representation of all minorities? Not yet, but the industry and Academy Branch are moving in that direction rapidly — and offering a model to their live-action counterparts.

Charles Solomon is the author of the landmark "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation," and he's a regular contributor to KPCC's Off-Ramp and Filmweek.