‘Bao’ Down to the Female Filmmakers Changing Animation

“Bao” © 2018 Pixar Animation Studios

In honor of Women’s History Month (a U.S. observation in March), we are shining a spotlight on the female faces of animated filmmaking who are making waves in the industry.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the 2019 Academy Award nominations marked a true sign that the animation world is evolving thanks to three of the nominees having been directed by women. Female nominees have showed up in the Best Animated Short category 32 times in the award show’s 91-year history, a margin of about 35 percent.

Read on for the perfect dose of girl power to fuel your March.

Domee Shi

Notable Work: “Bao” (short film)

Domee Shi is taking the industry by storm. Not only will Shi go down in animation history as the first woman ever to helm a Pixar short, “Bao,’ but she also now has an Oscar for her work directing the emotional, personal short film.

In a recent interview, Shi noted, “One of the great things about ‘Bao’ was doing a lot more research and diving into my heritage. I took it for granted — like my mom making dumplings — but after studying the love, sweat, and tears, I really learned what it was like for her.”

Find out how to make her family’s dumplings via Nerdist.

Brenda Chapman

Notable Work: “The Price of Egypt” (feature film)

From her home studio in Mill Valley, CA, Brenda Chapman always begins writing a project using a beat board. It may sound simple, but that attention to detail led Chapman to become the first woman ever to direct an animated feature at a major studio in 1998. Watch the video below for more on her creative process, then check out this in-depth interview — 20 years after her first film — with Polygon.

Kristen Lester

Notable Work: “Purl” (short film)

The newest name in the group, Kristen Lester has risen to prominence thanks to the February release of a short she wrote and directed via Pixar’s SparkShorts program, “Purl.” Praised for taking on “bro culture” (by Glamour and BBC), the adorable short has been the subject of many think pieces in the short time since its release and we cannot wait to see what she does next. Follow Kristen on Twitter.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Notable Work: “Kung Fu Panda 2” (feature film)

“Directing an animated feature film is like directing a 90-minute effects movie.”

The above comment from Jennifer Yuh Nelson comes from her interview as part of the Academy Originals “Creative Spark” video series and could not ring more true. A force in animation, Nelson is known for being the only Asian female director (she is Korean-American) to helm more than one film in Hollywood in a span of at least 10 years and the first woman to solo-direct a major animated feature, as well as for her incredible talent. She most recently completed her first live-action film, YA adaptation “The Darkest Minds,” and was the recipient of the 2016 Unforgettable Director of the Year Award. Her first animated feature, “Kung Fu Panda 2,” proved to be one of the most financially successful films directed by a woman. Check out her interview with TIME from 2017, when she appeared on the publication’s “FIRSTS” collection of women who are changing the world.

Louise Bagnall

Notable Work: “Late Afternoon” (short film)

Though not her first foray into animated short directing, Louise Bagnall’s “Late Afternoon” is perhaps her most recognized. Part of the three, female-directed 2019 Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short, the work has been recognized with many other honors, including the Tribeca Film Festival’s best animated short award. Bagnall is already at work on her next project, assistant directing Nora Twomey’s (see below for more on Twomey) next feature, “My Father’s Dragon,” which was written by Oscar nominee Meg LeFauve (Pixar’s “Inside Out”) and based on the novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett. The female force is strong on that one! Follow Louise on Twitter.

Lauren MacMullan

Notable Work: “Get a Horse!” (short film)

Credited with bringing Mickey Mouse into the world of 3D, Lauren MacMullan is a true innovator in animation. Her short, “Get a Horse!” won the 2013 Oscar for Best Animated Short and was Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first short film to be solo-directed by a woman. Its combination of 2D hand-drawn and computer-generated imagery is a true showcase of Disney’s history and marked Mickey’s first screen appearance in 20 years, released alongside “Frozen.” Discover 10 secrets from the making of this short via Entertainment Weekly.

Nora Twomey

Notable Work: “The Breadwinner” (feature film)

Co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, Ireland’s Nora Twomey has an incredible body of work that includes the solo-directed, Oscar-nominated “The Breadwinner,” which chronicles an Afghan family struggling to survive in contemporary Kabul, is based on a YA novel by Deborah Ellis, and was championed by Twomey alongside Angelina Jolie. “The Breadwinner” is also 1 of 4 animated films on IndieWire‘s list of “The 100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women” (“Frozen” also made the list). In May 2018, she told the Irish Times:

I get asked about being a woman in the industry almost every day. It’s odd. Because you don’t get up and look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m a woman in the industry.’ Obviously, we need to see more films being told by women. Too often there are female characters in films and things just happen to them. But with more women making films, female characters will have greater agency. That’s a big thing. Changing that passive narrative will change the stories we tell to boys and girls for the better.

Follow Nora on Twitter.

Jennifer Lee

Notable Work: “Frozen” (feature film)

Where to start with our eighth female filmmaker? Jennifer Lee and the Oscar-winning “Frozen” broke some serious ground for women in film. As the first woman to direct a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film, Lee also became the first female director to surpass $1 billion at the box office and was recently named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Hear about Lee’s success in her own words via the “CBS This Morning” segment below.


Are you a filmmaker? Submit your latest work to the SIGGRAPH 2019 Computer Animation Festival Electronic Theater, an Academy Awards-qualifying festival, through 19 March. Then, comment to share your story!

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