Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Women of Animation: Catherine and Sarah Satrun, Part 3

Well, I can't go any further with this interview without showing Catherine and Sarah's full animation demo reel which showcases the wide range of their character animation experience.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't point readers to Catherine and Sarah's individual YouTube accounts where you can view some of their older works, including student films. The Satrun Sisters have done us a great service by uploading and displaying many of their experimental works, like Catherine's film Clouds and Sarah's film Red. These are films where we can see them working with experimental techniques and physical media, work that feeds the experimental spirit that influences their more recent computer animation work like Mearra.

I'd also like to point out that this part of the interview took a very unique turn. Both Catherine and Sarah made some very poignant statements on what it's like being a woman working in the animation industry as well as how it's slowly changing--for them and the industry. They've shared with us a couple stories about some struggles that they have experienced within the industry over the past twelve years and what they've learned from such experiences.

Our final visit with the Satrun Sisters begins thusly:

CW: Given that the industry is now so heavily integrated with computer technology, how important do the two of you think it is (if at all) for students of animation to learn classical techniques and non-computer animation styles?

SS: Well, personally, we're of the viewpoint that it's good to have that traditional foundation. I know a lot of students just jump right into the computers, on the computer side...

CS: When students just learn the software, then their work is often stiff because they're only learning the program and they don't have a foundation in art. You really need a foundation learning the basics like the drawing--especially figure drawing--and stop-motion, paint-on-glass animation all of that "alternative animation" that's really freeing.

SS: Yeah, it helps you think differently, and also, personally, when we did the alternative strategies of animation, when we did that class where we learned paint animation, sand animation, scratch on film, all of those techniques, that was more freeing and it loosened us up. It was more about the arts. It was just that mindset that suddenly frees your mind for experimentation and just thinking outside the box and thinking differently. So you can take those skills--what you learned from that, even if you just briefly touch on that little thing--people who do CG and motion graphics, they can take what they learned from that to think differently and approach a project in a different way that they may not have thought about earlier and to maybe try different visual styles too that can be inspired from it.

CS: Also then with just drawing in general that helps... y'know, even if you're in computers you want to still be able to sketch out your storyboards and designs to present them to others and to communicate ideas and just to have better art and design skills. Color and composition are also really important to learn because you need to know how to make the animation appealing to look at, even if it's just text and logos.

Three Mermaids and Mermaid
(From the interviewer's private collection)

CW: It terms of women working in the field of animation, what do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?

SS: Personally, things have probably changed over the years, but when we went to school, definitely in college and into our careers too we definitely found out that there were very few women. Per animation class, there was maybe one to three of us total for animation. And if there were three it felt like a lot. And even still currently in the industry from our personal experience there's very, very few women and then even--Catherine on one of your freelance jobs...

CS: Yeah, maybe around eight years ago or so. A freelance job at one company, there was no other female animators and I was just brought in for one week. So it was really weird because I had to work extra hard to prove myself. The only other women working there were more high maintenance types who took lunch orders and checked in on people. I didn't like the atmosphere of that job at all. Glad it was only for a week! A lot of time you witness that it's a guys world in a lot of companies. But I think that things are changing.

SS: And you have to work extra hard to prove yourself.

CS: And I've heard that offhanded from other friends who've worked outside of Chicago in other bigger studios that they say that the women there can't make any mistakes--They have to work extra hard to show that they can do the job, so that's still happening, unfortunately. So that's what we've heard. On our first day, on one of our jobs, a guy was explaining animation to us. He was explaining it!

SS: He was flipping through the pages going "this is an-i-ma-tion".

CW: Did he even know who the two of you were or what you were there for?

CS: Yeah, yeah, yeah! We were being introduced like we were starting, kind of thing, so... but he was still talking down to us. And then we come across a lot of attitudes of like 'oh you can't do it' or 'I'm not going to help you out' and 'you can't do it as well.

SS: I don't know if this is true, but we recently heard in animation departments it's about half women and half men. I think now it's changed a lot. But we also work from home a ton more, now that things are all digital. We're outside of the studios, so we're not experiencing anything first-hand anymore.

CS: We haven't personally had issues with that in a long time.

CW: Given how the industry is still changing, yet in the past wasn't the most welcoming place for women, if your daughters said that they wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give them?

SS: Honestly, it would be "just work hard" is the biggest thing. You've got to really work for what you want...

CS: Work hard, be passionate about it. Just dedicate yourself to it and make it happen...

SS: Be well rounded. Have other skillsets... as a backup [laughs]...

CS: Have your specialty skill, like your niche, but have other skills that offset it. So if your [specialty] skill is character animation make sure you have strong skills on the preproduction side of it too...

SS: Storyboarding, motion graphics. Any other skills you can acquire.

CS: You pick up these other job skills as you go through, so just being more well rounded especially in college before you get out. Make sure you have enough skills to survive in this industry and build up your confidence too, because having confidence is very difficult for a lot of people.


CW: What do you think is the most important thing that authority figures (parents/teachers/professors) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

CS: What I just mentioned about the confidence. I think parents and teachers can really help their daughters and students to have that confidence to stand up for themselves and if that's what their passion is then go for it and don't listen to people who say you can't do it.

SS: And then speaking to that I would say like--it was a lot of times through schooling from authority figures, say you're interested in art, everyone's like "oh?" And they kind of scoff at it like: "oh, what can you do with that?" Or, "can you really have a career or job with that?" And even now people are "oh can you really actually do that?" No one thinks that it's possible.

Someone recently scoffed at it when we told them what we do. I don't remember the scenario but, it was weird. I think confidence is really important and telling people if you put your mind to it, you can do it. You just need more examples of women in industry as role models, pointing out people who are making it, that would be a big difference and good confidence boost to show you what you can achieve.

CS: The role model thing is very important. You need women role models. And giving them education, a solid foundation. As soon as they can, take some drawing classes. For example, we took a drawing class at the park district when we were in grade school. All it was, was just copying drawings, but that still improved our skills.

SS: At a young age, even copying drawings helped us learn to measure with our eyes to draw what we saw. That was really beneficial, having that encouragement when we were that young to be like 'oh look they are interested in art lets enroll them in some extra classes' and then we did that for a while. And that was very beneficial. So I would suggest doing that, extra classes...

CS: I would suggest to take any extra classes you could find anywhere. And then as they get older, like in high school and stuff, you can see if there are summer classes. We did a summer high school workshop at Columbia College.

SS: We were able to do the high school workshop right between, like right after we graduated and before we started our Junior College. But because we hadn't started college yet, we were able to do the high school workshop and then that helped, that was fantastic because we got to...

CS: It was our first animation class...

SS: Yeah, it was our first animation class. And then we wanted to say "yeah we love it and it's not just a hobby to us. We realized, "We can do this."

CS: It's a passion and it's a career field that you actually want to go in to. Test it out before enrolling into the entire curriculum.

SS: Yeah.

CW: I always tell students to get a stack of 3x5 notecards and just draw. Make a 30 second film. Or even a ten-second film. And usually that'll weed out a lot of kids. Just doing something as simple as a ball bouncing, it's like "well it takes this much work... I don't know if I want to do this."

CS: Exactly, it's not for everyone and you gotta know, you gotta figure it out early on before you go through the whole program.

SS: Especially in animation. I feel like there's a lot of people who are more fans of it than, like, dedicated artists. So, you have to have a very strong work ethic otherwise you won't succeed.

CS: Those people who have a very strong work ethic who are passionate about it, they make it further than other people who it might more just be a fan or a hobby.

SS: Parents need to see where their child falls in that. They need to encourage them, not just in art, but in all of your school subjects. You've gotta work hard and show that drive to do as best as you can. I think that is very important, that's down to the core of how hard of a worker you are. You have to have a strong work ethic to get through life.

Bedtime Fox

Thanks again to Sarah and Catherine for taking the time to share their experiences and history with us.

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  • Portrait photo, artwork, and animations copyright Catherine and Sarah Satrun, used with permission.
  • Interview edited for length and clarity.