From animators and producers to directors and DPs, women production specialists are getting together to tackle the gender gap behind the camera, writes Laura Swinton
In the world of commercial production, there’s never been a shortage of inspiring, bad-ass women. Many of the great production companies are run by female managing directors and executive producers. However, when it comes to creative and technical talent behind the camera there’s a huge disparity.
Free the Bid and then some
The good news, though, is that there are a number of organisations, platforms and networks springing up to change the ratio and address some of the systemic problems that funnel women away from these roles. The most prominent and well known in advertising is probably Free the Bid, the initiative that aims to open opportunities for women directors by persuading agencies to include at least one woman in every commercial pitch. Spearheaded by director and founder Alma Har’el and Emma Reeves, the movement has had a huge impact on the industry in a relatively short space of time – at the end of last year they revealed that at BBDO the number of women directors invited to bid on jobs had gone up 400%
and that the number of women directors they worked with on projects had doubled.
It's easy to retrospectively see Free the Bid as the solution the industry was crying out for but when Alma first kicked off the movement, there was no guarantee that it would take off.
"When you start something like this, you are staring into the abyss of bias. I didn't know how it would be accepted, how it would be sustained and how big the impact would be," says Alma. "The most satisfying thing is to see the family we now built around this. The women who work with me on this (Emma Reeves and Chloe Coover) are an inspiration to me. Of course, we're most excited to hear that women are getting hired, making money (!!!) and having their work noticed to a level that they weren't previously!"
What's important to Alma is that Free the Bid is a tangible, substantive platform and she says that hearing from women who are now being invited to pitch and getting hired is 'incredibly fulfilling'.
"I want women to be financially independent so they can remain creative and competitive," says Alma.
But what if you’re not a director? Well, for one thing Free the Bid has expanded its online directory of female talent to include DPs and editors. And, for another, there are a host of complementary collectives and platforms and networks that are supporting female talent as well as bringing women together.
Sisters of Cinematography
Illuminatrix, for example, is an online directory of female cinematographers based in the UK, founded by Catherine Goldschmidt and Vanessa Whyte as an easy way for directors and producers to find female DPs. “So many producers were telling us they’d love to work with more female DPs, but they just didn’t know where to look. Obviously we all have the same agents as the male DPs, but we know it’s tough when you’re up against the clock and producers and directors don’t necessarily have time to trawl all the agencies’ websites. So now there’s a quick resource showing many talented women - all represented by different agencies and shooting all types of genres - there’s no longer an excuse to say people can’t find them,” says Vanessa.
Illuminatrix was founded when both Vanessa and Catherine realised they needed to create a public resource to create real change. Prior to Illuminatrix, Vanessa had set up a social meet-up called ‘Ladies who Light’ for women in camera and lighting, which inspired Catherine to set up a Facebook group called Camerawomen London. But they realised that private networks weren’t enough and that there was a need for a DP-specific resource – so in 2016 Illuminatrix was launched. “We thought, if we're going to start a group, this group should have a public face to it as well as act as a private network,” explains Catherine. “We were all sick of turning up on set and being told, ‘Oh - you're the first woman DP I've ever worked with!’, when we knew there were other, talented women out there doing the job.”
Women have been chronically underrepresented as cinematographers – this year Rachel Morrison was the first woman to be nominated for the Best Cinematography category at the Oscars. And it only took 90 years. Catherine and Vanessa have theories as to why this imbalance has arisen.
Catherine suspects the issue has roots in education. “The problem likely goes back as far as early childhood development. The field of cinematography is both a technical and an artistic one, and the technical side can certainly be linked to other STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields where women aren't often encouraged or properly educated,” she muses.
“There’s lots of statistics and research that shows while film students are broadly 50-50 in gender parity, women’s roles in the industry get marginalised the bigger the budget for the project. There’s a feeling that hiring a woman is a ‘risk’ - I have no idea why! - but it definitely sticks, and as a lot of men are the ones making the hiring decisions, they do tend to hire more men,” says Vanessa. However, there is cause for hope. “The evidence shows when there’s a female director or producer on a project, more women get hired in the crew. So, at Illuminatrix we hope to normalise the image and idea of a woman as a DP by highlighting all the fantastic work of our members and gaining more visibility for women on set. We also promote our members on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.”
Illuminatrix is largely focussed on UK DPs, but there are other collectives and platforms active in markets around the world including Cinematographers XX
in Los Angeles and ICFC
, which is based in the US and operates internationally.
The gender imbalance found in the world of live action filmmaking is just as present in animation. That’s why three friends, Bee Grandinetti, Hedvig Ahlberg and Linn Fritz set up Punanimation in 2015 – and yes, we snorted our lukewarm tea out of our nostrils when we first read the name too.
“We saw a lack of women in the animation and motion industry, and wanted to create a community where women, trans and non-binary creatives could connect, support and encourage each other,” they say.
“Similar to live-action filmmaking there is some female talent in the industry, but the majority of productions are made by men. We’re seeing a shift towards a more diverse representation, but there is still a long way to go. With Punanimation we hope to speed up this journey.”
The inclusion of trans and non-binary talent is also notable, marking out Punanimation as a platform that’s truly welcoming and one that is woke to the hurdles and discrimination faced by those who don’t fit neatly into traditional gender boxes.
These days, Punanimation has grown to include over 1700 members from across the world, who work in the various fields of animation and motion graphics. As well as their Vimeo channel, which highlights cool new work, Punanimation also hold screenings and are soon to launch an online directory of talent.
“Our goal is to create a more equal playing field, we don’t want any more excuses for male-only studios, speaker line-ups and director rosters. By bringing women, trans and non-binary people together we’re aiming to create a support network and to inspire, encourage and promote a more diverse industry,” says the trio.
If you’re female and work in any field linked to commercial production, chances are you’ve come across WAP – Women in Advertising Production. It was set up by Jess aan de Wiel, a senior freelance producer, in 2012 as a private Facebook group. Around four times a year, WAP meets up – and anyone who has attended can attest that these loud and jolly soirees attract a true cross-section of the industry, from producers to directors, editors to sound designers and music supervisors. And Jess has also started holding panels and inviting speakers to the popular meet-ups.
“Networking Events are really key to the Group and I try to host at least four per year. I love the fact that we have young industry newbies attending alongside WAP stalwarts to super-experienced doyennes of Adland!” says Jess.
Over the years, WAP has evolved. The private Facebook group – kept private so that members aren’t spammed by sales calls and to insure a degree of discretion – has evolved into a lively place where the women of production are more likely to exchange practical tips and connections than bemoan the plight of women particularly.
“I set this up, but it is the members and users of the group who have shaped how it has turned out,” says Jess. “There are all sorts of requests and discussions on the Facebook group. This is definitely something I wanted for the group. I love the ‘Hive Mind’ the group gives us, especially when we are all so busy and up against it…knowing that you have a huge network of supportive females behind you to help you is a wonderful thing!”
However, though the day-to-day exchanges tend to focus around practical production challenges, Jess believes that WAP and groups like it can play a huge role in changing things for women in the industry. “I think it’s important to highlight the huge imbalances at play in our industry. Equal pay is a huge issue, not just in our industry but across the board (except I think for female models!). Also, a hot topic is motherhood/parenthood. Our industry is notorious for the unpredictable nature of the work and also the long hours. Tightening deadlines make it hard to work if you have young children. I would like to look into ways we can help support each other in this. I also think groups like this really help young people coming into the industry meet a wide variety of people from different departments and disciplines, so that they can also slowly start to grow their own network. They also help those women who have been in the industry a long time, meeting new and upcoming talent and keeping things fresh.”
And it seems that the rest of the world agrees with Jess. While WAP has become a London institution, production communities around the world are getting in touch. On International Women’s Day, WAP’s Spain chapter will host its very first meet up. Talks are also underway about helping set up WAP in China.
“I would also like to look into other production centres around the world, such as South America, South Africa even the USA. If anyone out there is interested in leading some of the local chapters they should get in contact with me,” she says. “I want to aim for the WORLD WIDE WAP domination!”
Mutually Assured Success
While each of the aforementioned is specific to particular production niche, what’s kind of cool is that when you take them as a whole – and add the various agency-side initiative – the various platforms and networks create a collaborative ecosystem. They’re not in competition and quite often they collaborate.
“We've been supportive of Free the Bid since the beginning, and they have of us,” says Catherine, who adds that by tackling the issue of directors, Free the Bid is indirectly having a positive impact across the production community. “Their idea is that on every commercial bid, production companies and agencies should consider at least one bid from a woman. Statistically, it's been shown that women directors hire more women HoDs, including DPs, production designers, 1st ADs, etc. - so, theoretically, it should be a trickle-down effect that helps women overall.”
Jess too is seeing the benefit of strength in numbers. “I absolutely love what is going on right now. I have had some collaboration with The Girlhood and also Creative Equals. I am all for us joining each other and strengthening our networks. As we know from how the Internet works, the more the connections there are, the bigger the reward and the stronger we become!”
That's a sentiment shared by Alma of Free the Bid too. "We're in a moment where women are collectively looking around at one another and realizing that we're more powerful together, and that networks of organizations and initiatives can work in tandem with one another to achieve mutual goals. Free The Bid's advocacy is only strengthened by the coordination of efforts by other groups working to boost opportunities for women and members of underrepresented communities in advertising, and it's exciting to see what can be built collectively. Free The Bid is a simple intervention into a system that was previously shutting out women on a structural level - we can't wait to see how other groups of women can tear down further roadblocks in the future!"
A Woman’s Work is Never Done…
There’s positive momentum around women’s representation in the creative industries right now, while movements like #MeToo are shining light on the creepier and downright exploitative aspects of filmmaking, experienced by both women and men. In response the BFI published a set of Principles
to tackle harassment and bullying. Add to that the UK legislation forcing big businesses of over 250 people to reveal the truth about how much they pay male and female employees, some substantial change is happening.
But change is slow and everyone we spoke to was keenly aware of the work still to be done.
When it comes to issues around harassment, Vanessa at Illuminatrix suspects that it combines with the lack of opportunity to explain why women often don’t ascend the ranks in creative and technical roles. “I don’t think people choose not to enter the industry based on it being renowned for sexual harassment. As we’ve seen in recent news, harassment is rife through all sorts of industries. It’s whether women stay in the industry and stick it out that’s the question. It can be a rough ride and knowing women are such a minority and have the odds stacked against them, it’s no wonder women drop out along the way. Particularly when those bigger-budget opportunities continue to elude them in a way that they don’t for men.”
Moreover, while #MeToo has largely revealed imbalance, exploitation and harassment in the movie business it would be naïve to think that commercial production doesn’t need to do any soul searching itself. “Of course, there are these incidents in our industry,” says Jess. “ Anywhere where, historically, you have very senior and powerful men in charge of younger more vulnerable women and men, this kind of abuse is bound to be found. Quite a few of the big production companies did often have a bit of ‘lad culture’ and certain crew departments could definitely do with a bit more diversity in them. I would like to see more males in the ‘Glam Squad’ and wardrobe etc. and more females in the Electrical and Grip departments, for sure!”
Anyway, a few sacrificial scalps of won’t be enough to tackle the structural deadlines that impede women behind the camera. “There's other societal issues that prevent women from accelerating in the world of freelance filmmaking, and a big one is pregnancy, child birth, and child care,” says Catherine, who also signposts the great work being done by Raising Films. “We want to give a little shout out here to our friends at Raising Films
, who are working tirelessly to try and come up with solutions for how women can both have babies, raise children, and continue to thrive as filmmakers. In the field of cinematography, that is especially challenging, to say the least. There is a lot of work to be done in both the private and the public sector to give women filmmakers the resources and the support they need to have the family and the career that they deserve.”
But it’s important not to lose sight of what is being achieved – at a grassroots level, women across production are coming together to find strength in numbers, build support networks and combat biases.
With resources like Free the Bid, Punanimation and Illuminatrix, and WAP production companies and agencies no longer have the excuse that female talent is hard to find. The initiatives mentioned here are just a snapshot of what’s going on across the world in commercial production – wherever you’re based, we’d love to hear about what’s going on in your market. Because, as this lot have proven, connecting and sharing information is the key to change.