Why Are There So Few Women Working In Visual Effects?
After getting her start in engineering, Erin Ramos wasn't all that surprised when she began working in visual effects and again found that she didn't have many female coworkers.
"I was almost, quote-unquote, just 'used to it,'" Ramos says. "And, as time went on, I was like, Wait a minute, we’ve got to fix this."
Ramos is currently head of effects animation at Disney Animation Studios. Her credits include "Encanto" and "The Incredible Hulk" and she's now been working in visual effects (or VFX) for almost 20 years.
"I've seen a lot of change in the industry in the last few years," Ramos says. "But we're still falling way far behind in visual effects."
It's easy to see as an outsider too. Just look at the credits of almost any visual effects-heavy film, or at the Academy Award nominees.
In the entire history of the Oscars, only four women have ever been nominated for visual effects. Two of them won: VFX artist Suzanne Benson for the 1986 film, “Aliens"; and VFX Supervisor Sara Bennett for 2015’s “Ex Machina.” (The Academy Award nominees for 2022 will be announced on February 8; the 10 films in the running for VFX awards were released on December 21)
A recent report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the non-profit advocacy organization Women in Animation examined the 400 top-grossing films from 2016-19 and found virtually no change over time — women received a scant 20.8% of the VFX credits in 2016 and just 22.6% in 2019.
Looking at the top job in visual effects, VFX supervisors, the report found that only 2.9% of them are women, and .5% are women of color.
The #CG market is expected to grow to $154 Billion by 2023 @ANIMATIONWorld! But, unless something changes fast, women won't be at the table. According to our research, a staggering 96.5% of leadership roles in CG/3D are held by men. @wia_animation #VFX pic.twitter.com/k55liKeXNP— Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (@Inclusionists) November 8, 2021
One leadership role within visual effects where women are close to achieving gender parity is VFX producer. Visual effects producers work closely with the VFX supervisor, the on-set crew and post-production teams. They also make sure work is delivered on budget and on time. From 2016 to 2019, women made up nearly 47% of VFX producers.
But, there are problems there too. As Erika Burton, president of global VFX production at the visual effects company DNEG, explains it: "We have failed to recognize the contributions of the visual effects producers, that they are on the same level, they are the partner with the visual effects supervisor. And that's not showing in any way — with pay, with titling, with credits, inclusion in the academy."
Currently, visual effects producers can’t join the visual effects branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is one of the most male-heavy branches in the academy. Burton herself is a member, but the only way she was able to join was as a "member-at-large."
"I'm not tied to anything specifically," Burton says. "Not tied to either animation or to visual effects, which I've spent 30 years in."
As chair of the Animation and VFX Gender Parity Task Force for the academy, Jinko Gotoh is working to change the eligibility requirements for the VFX branch, and to make VFX producers eligible for Oscars: "They're completely ignored, they don't qualify. So that is one of the things that we're trying to fix. We've got to get the academy to recognize that VFX producers are the VFX supervisor's partner."
Only 22.6% of women have been credited in #VFX roles. The lack of presence of women in #VFX is disappointing but can be improved in the several ways, as outlined in our report with @wia_animation https://t.co/LGymubAinU pic.twitter.com/WCYjp1WXBa— Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (@Inclusionists) November 8, 2021
But beyond the academy, the barriers for women in the industry more broadly remain.
"The hours are crazy," Erin Ramos says. "The studios ask for so much more of us in less time. And I've worked jobs in the past, at different companies, where I'm [working] 60 days straight without a day off."
Being out on location for months at a time, work days that can run as long as 18 hours, and the instability of contract work are issues that affect both men and women, and especially parents and caregivers. But as DNEG’s Erika Burton puts it: "Ultimately, I think as a society, the burden falls to the women. And that's what the problem is."
What might change that culture, at least within the world of visual effects? The women I spoke with said more male allies, for one. And a recognition that there’s room in the industry for everybody.
He said, 'So you're trying to get me displaced?'
A couple years ago, Jinko Gotoh gave a talk about the importance of having women represented in visual effects. "A fellow came up afterwards and said, 'I have a question for you.' He said, 'So you're trying to get me displaced?' And I said, 'No, no, no, you don't understand.'"
She asked the man if he had a daughter, and he said he did.
"I said, 'What would you tell your daughter if she said I want to do this? Are you going to tell her that you're going to displace me?' I mean, come on you guys. There's plenty of work."
If the rise of effects-heavy movies continues, which seems likely, the jobs will be there. The question still is: who’ll get a seat at the table?