The alarm clock sounded and she stirred in bed. It was 4:30am and too early to get up. She felt like her head had only hit the pillow a moment ago. She couldn’t remember what day of the week it was; the days were blurring into one continuous shift. She and other women, of the Disney ink and paint departments, had been working double shifts to get the celluloid prints for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs finished in time for its premier. She reluctantly placed one foot out of bed and onto the cold surface below. She got up and raced to get ready before her mind had time to catch up, and complain about the sudden exertion. After leaving her apartment eating the last remnants of a quick breakfast, she shivered waiting for the bus. It was still early, but she fretted because anything could still happen to make her late. After hours of zigzagging on public transport, she had made it to the studio. She was just in time for the 9:00am start. Managers rhythmically walked back and forth, taking notes, of inker and painters who were not yet at their desks. Anyone late would be docked pay for every minute they were not working. She let out a sigh of relief; she had made it, again. She reached over and picked up one of her many pencils and began another very busy, but satisfactory, day.
Nearing the end of Snow White’s production in 1937, the ink and paint departments were made up of 100 hardworking and dedicated women. The last couple of months saw them sitting at their desks for an 85-hour working week. Many of them fell asleep where they sat but never complained about the long hours. Many of the inkers and painters became lifelong friends.
Both of the departments were responsible for the celluloids, or cells, for a Disney feature. The inkers would sketch the outlines of characters and environments. Once this was done, the cells were passed onto the painters who would add colour. Walt Disney was a perfectionist and some iconic characters were quite complicated. Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket alone was made up of 27 different colours. A relatively new process at the time, celluloid backgrounds could be made of up to six layers before they appeared on screen. The women had to work fast. Inkers had to be accurate and make sure no lines smudged. Painters had only moments to work as the paint dried quickly. To make the process even harder, two women were left handed and had to learn everything backwards. The paint was expensive and made in house in the studio lab. One production day would, usually, add up to approximately one minute of screen time. Each woman averaged between eight and ten cells an hour. Productivity was closely monitored and the inkers and painters refrained from talking while they worked.
Walt Disney only wanted the best and many of the inkers and painters were recruited right out of elite art schools, such as the California Institute of Technology. The average age was 25. Hiring was a rigorous process. Out of an initial group of 60, only three were employed. In fact, one of the three dropped out early on as well.
The male animators joked and laughed as they didn’t consider inking and painting artistic. The women were only expanding on earlier creative content that the men had already designed and fleshed out. In 1941, top animators made $300 a week while the average inker and painter made only $18 a week. Many of the women, such as painter June Walker Patterson, could barely pay the rent. Inkers and painters were only allowed in the animation department “with good reason”. Disney initially shyed away from having female animators.
There were a handful of women who made the transition to animation, but they were rare. The common belief was that Disney felt women would soon be leaving to get married and start families. It took ten years of study to become an animator, while only four years to become an inker or painter. Training new animators was a costly endeavour. When World War II broke out, a number of the male animators were drafted. During this period, Walt Disney gave women a chance to make the move across to the animation department. Male animators returned to their former positions when they came back from the war. The women either went back to the ink and paint departments or left Disney all together.
In May 1941, a large group of the women went on a 14-week strike to campaign for better working conditions. The event gained sympathy from other Hollywood animation studios, such as Warner Bros., with a number of them offering support. The strike resulted in an increase in pay. Some women also received screen credits, recognising their contributions to films that are now considered Disney classics.
As time went on, technology advanced. Handmade Ink and paint work began to be replaced by the photocopier and Disney downsized. Some of the women would return to animation production in the 1960s. Their families were all grown up when they went to work part time for Hanna-Barbera Productions. The studio responsible for TV cartoons such as The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo. The environment was laid back and, unlike Disney, they could take their work home. Even after all these years, they were still surrounded by good friends and felt passionate about their work.
This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on March 22nd, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)
Coloring The Kingdom (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/disney-animation-girls-201003)
Look Closer: Women in the Ink and Paint Department (http://waltdisney.org/blog/look-closer-women-disney-ink-and-paint-department)
Movie Legends Revealed | Did Disney Really Not Allow Women Animators? (http://www.cbr.com/movie-legends-revealed-did-disney-really-not-allow-women-animators/)