Interview with Disney Legend, Joanna Romersa

A skype call interview i did with Joanna Romersa about Women in the Animation Pipeline and what has changed over the years. I later typed up for anyone who is interested.

  1. You started your career in the inking and painting department of Disney, despite the obvious sexism of the job, was it an enjoyable experience? Did you always yearn to do more?

Well it really wasn’t very enjoyable in the beginning because it was really, pretty boring. They made me draw circles and loops and ovals and landing of a plane and taking off and gliding with the pen. It was really boring, and I almost quit, because I thought I can’t just do this. A dear friend of mine later said “Just sit down, shut up and learn it, and you’ll have a job for the rest of your life” and little did I know, just how true It was.


  1. Was it after sneaking into the animation building (and being caught my Walt) that your desire to animate grew, or was it always there?

No, I had no intention of animating when I started, it was just all kind of a fluke, but as I progressed as an inker and it was no longer a challenge, I realised that I needed to do something else. I actually asked the production manager if I could indeed train as an inbetweener and he said “no, because you are a woman you are going to go away and get married and have babies and never come back, and we invest too much time and money into your training and it would be for nothing, therefore you are delegated to the ink and paint department, or you could be a checker if you choose.” But that really was not interesting at all to me, and so shortly after that I left.



  1. What was it that made you decide to finally leave Disney and move to Hanna Barbara whilst studying?

Well, I didn’t go directly to Hanna Barbara, I took time off to have my son and I worked for a independent ink and paint company that inked commercials. We did the very successful commercials of the day, like ‘The Bank of America’, ‘The Western Airline’ and things, and it was a good entering job for me because I could work at home a lot of the time. Then as Joe (her son) grew, and was able to go to nursery school and kindergarten and what have you, that was when I went to Hanna Barbara.


  1. In relation to a man, were your wages equal? In recent years has this changed? Do you feel that the wage you were paid fairly represented the amount of work produced? Do you feel that it was enough money to live off.

For the time it was enough money to live on, and yes I was paid the same proportion to a man, because it was ‘union’. There were stipulations as to what your salary would be. You had automatic pay raises in the beginning, an inbetweener would be paid so much and an apprentice or whatever, And then you would skip to a different place in the system and you would be at the bottom of the barrel again. And you would have to go through the progression of pay raises, eventually, by the time I had gone through all of the stages of assistance animation, they made me an animator. So then I started at the bottom again, but it was quite a bit more money at that time. It was very comfortable.


  1. In more recent years of your long career, it appears that you have had the role of ‘timing director’ what exactly does that role entail and what led you to that job?


When the animation was being shipped over seas to Australia and Taiwan and the Philippines, there was no longer a job for Animators, so timing directing came in as a way to fill in the jobs for the animators that were still there at Hanna Barbara. And a timing director charts how on the timing sheet how many drawings it will take for a given action. We work with the storyboard. In the old days we didn’t have what they call ‘quicktime’ that they use now. We just used the storyboard and a thing we called ‘slug’ and each of the panels of the storyboard were designated an amount of feet and frames, footage written onto the exposure sheet, and that exposure sheet then followed the storyboard and the soundtrack too the animator. Also the dialogue was written on the exposure sheet and Bill Hannah was the one that invented the idea of mouth charts, and mouth charts were A, B, C, D, E, F and that indicated a closed mouth, a slightly open mouth, a wide open mouth and ‘Ooo’ sound. And because we spoke English, many of the places that the animation was sent too had absolutely no idea what that dialogue represented, so these letters would phonetically explain the sounds so that they would animate that the picture of the mouth witch would then of course bond to the soundtrack.


  1. In an industry swarming with men, what made you decide that this was what you wanted to do, and in fact something you as a woman COULD do?

Because it paid well, and all of the directors and producers were men and again the pay scale went up the higher you went up on the totem pole, so to speak. And since I was going to be spending all my time there, I just assumed make more money, and more interesting jobs, because the director does direct but he or she may influence the actors to annunciate certain dialogues, certain expressions and It was basically just more interesting. The industry swarming with men…well they kind of nice men, haha. I didn’t really suffer from being one of the only women in the building, but some people were real jerks, but for the most part they were friends of mine, and they helped me. It was hard wok, and that’s what it took, I think for any struggling artist or someone who is trying to get into the business, don’t think its going to be easy, because its not. Its going to take a lot of patience and a lot of hard work and I think one of the reasons I did succeed was that I was just very stubborn and I wouldn’t accept ‘no’. Many times I had to go around it because I was a woman. You can’t really confront somebody who is your boss, I did that once and I realised it really didn’t work. If your determined and you want to do it, you can do it. You just have to be smart about it and go for it, and if it doesn’t work for you do something else.


  1. Do you feel that being a woman has ever been a factor that has held you back or slowed you down in progressing through your career?

Oh yeah, in the beginning. They really didn’t want me in there because it really was like an ‘old boys club’ and I couldn’t talk about guns and cowboys and whatever else, haha…fishing gear etc. But it didn’t bother me, if the conversation turned to something I wasn’t interested in I just either left the room or shut up. In the beginning they just said “no, you can’t” but because technically the business changed because inkers were women but when the Xerox machine came in, that left room for us to excel or go back into Xerox or go ahead into animation. It was a good opportunity and they did accept women as assistant animators so when you became an assistant animator, that meant you eventually became an animator. So that was a door that opened naturally.



  1. What advice would you give to young women trying to get into the industry?

First of all, most of the studios nowadays demand a college education, and education is going to make you a broader person, through the years do better without, but initially if you want to get into a major studio they are going to look for that degree. So go to college, get your degree, major in film, or art or literature that will aid you. Always remember no matter how pretty the picture, if you don’t have a good story you don’t have anything.


  1. When starting your family, did you find it was difficult to remain in the industry?

I worked from home and It was no problem as long as I did my job and met my deadlines it was fine. I have to tell you, sometimes I worked very late at night because I was taking care of kids during the day, but because I could work at home, I had a salary, you just do it. I think it would have been easier if I didn’t have my children but that would not have worked, haha. I am glad I did have them.


  1. Discussing the topic of sexism and inequality, is there anything you would like to add?

Well, nowadays…I don’t know. The role between men and women is pretty much equal. I don’t really think, well…yeah if you get an old guy that’s just hard nosed about it then you might have a little bit of trouble. But for the most part the world is changing and its changing for the good as far as equality is concerned. I think just to be smart, considerate, to go for the opportunity when you see it. If you see something isn’t working don’t just sit there, and don’t become obnoxious about it, you back up and you find another avenue. Be persistent and go for it, pursue your dreams whatever they are.


Interview with Rachel Creaner

1.How have you managed to get hired so quickly after leaving university and what advice would you give to others about to graduate?


Honestly, with the same approach as I’m sure many others in my class did, by simply scouting out the companies that I had an interest in working with, and sending in an application. After doing a little freelance work with a smaller company, I was lucky to be accepted on to the ‘NI Screen Placement Programme’ which enabled me to apply for the company of my choice, and give me the added security of knowing that I had the support of NI Screen in case things didn’t work out, which thankfully wasn’t the case. As for advice, I would highly suggest that those who are about to leave university, make sure that they have an updated showcase of all of the work that they are most proud of, whether it be in the form of a portfolio, a CV, a showreel, a website, or all of those mentioned, and put it together so that it’s just a matter of attaching a cover letter and sending them into whichever company they want to apply for. I would also suggest applying for more than one at a time, even if you have your heart set on a particular company, as it’s better to have additional opportunities in case that one in particular falls through.


  1. Have you ever felt that you have been hired or given (or not given) a role because you are a woman?


I have been quite lucky throughout my limited career experience, in that the majority of places I have worked have had an even spread of male and female employees. There are, however, a few times in which I do recall my opinions being overlooked because a project had been more male orientated, or vice versa, in that I have been placed on specific tasks or asked for opinions on how to make characters more “cutesy” or to be more precise, “add a woman’s touch.”

3. In an industry swarming with men, do you feel like you are the minority? Do you see this changing?


To be completely honest, I used to feel quite strongly about this and found it to be a very disheartening thought, however, in recent years, this seems to have changed quite dramatically, and women have most certainly marked a path for themselves in this industry. My opinions on this matter began to change drastically during my time in university, especially when tutors brought in guests or had web chats with highly successful women from all over the globe who told us stories about their journeys into this industry, and how they refused to be categorised or held back because of their gender. Overall, the general consensus from these women was that gender equality will only be a problem if you let it be, which, although better, does suggest that women do still have to fight for their place in this industry.


  1. Do you think the industries treatment of the sexes differs from company to company or even country to country?


Due to my limited travel experience, I can only base my answer on the experiences I have had in Northern Ireland, which unlike those in my year that traveled to the likes America etc for placement, may not be as well rounded an answer. I can address, however, that in regard to my personal treatment from company to company, minus a few hiccups, that it has been quite a pleasant and positive experience. My first job was the one I had most problems with, in the beginning, however, personally I feel that might have been more of a managerial issue than one of gender. I have noticed, however, that in my current company, which is run and owned by a woman, that not only do we have an even balance of male and female employees, but we are rewarded and noted more so for our strengths and personal skills, rather than placed on specific tasks or projects based on whether it’s tailored to a more male or female approach.


  1. Regarding payment, have you ever suffered inequality with someone in the same role as you within the studio? Do you feel the wages you get is a good representation of the work produced? Do you feel you deserve more?


In regard to the first question, unfortunately, yes. There was one company in particular that I worked for that was very unfair when it came to wages. Whilst working there I was a placement student, so I was already aware that I would not be on full pay, however, I was not the only placement student there at that particular time, and over the duration of our stay, there was a slight increase in some of the students wages depending on the projects they were working on. The reason I feel this is related to gender equality is because this was the same company, I mentioned above, that had placed me on to more female orientated projects and overlooked any opinions I had relating to anything otherwise. As far as decent wages are concerned, bar this particular company, I do feel that I have been paid a fair representation of the work I have produced, regardless of the fact that I am on placement programme, which is considered slightly less than the average wage, I still feel it is an adequate amount for the work I am currently doing, and I am more than happy with what I am receiving.


  1. Brenda Chapman was the director of Disneys Brave, until she was taken off the project and replaced with a man. She doesn’t speak of the subject other than to say there were creative differences. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think in this instance, it was to do with gender?


Considering I am not fully aware of this situation, and there is very limited information on the subject, I do feel that from what I’ve read, it could simply have come down to a matter of creative differences in this particular instance. From what I gather, Pixar were on a very strict deadline, and the story was not at the point it should have been at that given time, so with tension so high the decision to replace her with someone who had been on the project from the start, and describes themselves as a “scottishphile history buff”, well educated on the history and nature of the film Pixar wanted to make, may have just been the best decision for the project at that given time. The fact that she was replaced by a man, may have simply been blown out of proportion due to the sensitivity of her being the first female director.


  1. Chapman also states that when she was hired for Disney in the 1980’s, the executive who interviewed her literally said ‘We need a woman, and you’re the right price.” How would this make you feel If you were in her position? Do you think this kind of behaviour could still happen today?


I do not feel that what this executive said was appropriate at all, especially in the 1980s when the industry was considered to be very male dominated. Brenda Chapman seems to be a very headstrong woman, who knows what she wants and refuses to be categorised or held back by the restraints of her gender. I feel that a comment like this is one of the worst things you could say to someone who has worked so hard to build up to the position that she was in at that particular time. I wish I could say that this kind of behaviour is not around today, however, during an interview for my second job, my then employer told me that could really use my expertise on this project as it would be nice to have a woman’s touch. Considering the project was aimed at children, I took no offence at his comment, however, I could understand how other women might be insulted for this potentially being a reason for them being hired.

8. Reading Joanna Romersa’s take on working in the industry in the 50’s onwards, she discusses the men she worked with being horrible to her, not listening to her ideas because she is a woman. She has also discussed being groped in the workplace, and even explaining that if you did not receive this treatment as a woman, you felt like you were not doing a good job. This inappropriate behaviour was used as praise. Times have changed and (hopefully) these things don’t happen anymore. Whats your thought on this? Do you feel that this would still be a regular occurrence in the industry?


I think the treatment of working woman back in the 50s was beyond disgraceful. I can only imagine how humiliating and uncomfortable it must have been to come to work, only to be mistreated and disregarded when you were simply trying to do your job. The fact that she felt that by not being groped or treated poorly was a sign of her job not being done properly is ridiculous and unfathomable. Times have most certainly improved a great deal over the years, and due to the increase in women and human rights, one can only hope that this is no longer an issue, in any form of workplace.


  1. My opening statement is a letter from Disney 1938 basically explaining that ‘no women need apply’ and only men work on the films and that women can only trace and colour in, in the ‘inking and painting’ department. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel this was normal practice for the time period? And why do you think this began to change?


From a modern point of view, we find this kind of behaviour unthinkable and highly offensive, however, it is important to understand that during this particular time period, this kind of treatment towards women was considered normal. During the 1930’s the workplace was pretty much dominated by men, and women were treated as nothing more than mothers and homemakers. For a women, in these times, trying to carve a career was near impossible and they were forced to overcome horrendous obstacles, many in which they were left humiliated and treated unjustly. I believe that this all began to change when the war began, as men were shipped out, and women were made to go into the workforce to pick up the slack. It was during this time that people began to realise that women were more than capable of doing the jobs that men were responsible for, and in many cases did them a lot better. When the men returned from war, a lot of these women wanted to continue their roles in the workplace and this led to the introduction and long-winded fight for women’s rights which has had clear and vast improvement on the future of women in the workplace. Though there are still many shortcomings to be faced, we can still rejoice in the fact that thanks to these strong women and their desire to work, we finally have a voice is this industry, and one can only hope that we will continue to grow and thrive in the workplace and that one day gender equality will be a thing of the past.


  1. Do you have any thoughts on this topic that you would like to voice?


I don’t think there is any doubt that women in this industry get the raw end of the deal, however, fortunately for me, my experience in this field, both in university and the workplace has been very positive. I don’t know if that can be said for all women working in this industry in Northern Ireland, but I can only hope that is is. I really want to believe that Northern Ireland will be partially responsible for the breakthrough in gender rights and equality, especially considering the amount of new and accomplished companies that are moving over to the UK and allowing people opportunities right off the bat, regardless of background or gender. One can only hope that due to this positive moment that this will work towards eradicating gender rights and push for gender equality that we most definitely deserve.