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AnimatorsArtist Rights

Jennifer Yuh Nelson Was The First – And Last – Woman To Solo-Direct A Major Hollywood Animated Film

It took until 2011, just six years ago, for Hollywood to allow a woman to solo direct an animated feature. That woman was Jennifer Yuh Nelson and the film was Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2.

Time interviewed Yuh Nelson as part of a special project called “Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World” to learn about how she got the job.

In the piece, she gave much of the credit to Kung Fu Panda producer Melissa Cobb, who found a sly way of convincing Yuh Nelson to take the job. Says Yuh Nelson:

“My producer for the first Kung Fu Panda movie, Melissa Cobb, is an amazing woman. She’s supersmart and helps push everyone—male, female, anyone—to do their best. There was an animated opening sequence that had to be hand-drawn and outsourced. The directors were very busy, so Melissa said, ‘Jen, why don’t you direct it as a sequence director?’ I had a great time, the scene turned out fun, and people had a wonderful time seeing it. When the second movie came around and the director position was open, she said, ‘Jen, you should direct it.’

And I’m like, ‘No, no. I’m too quiet, I’m too introverted.’ And she said, ‘You can do it. You have done it. That whole thing with the opening sequence was a test, and you passed.’ I thought, Oh, my gosh, you were testing me to see if I could do it! She said, ‘No, no. I knew you needed evidence before you could believe you could do it. I always knew that you could.’ That vixen! She’s sneaky. When you talk about glass ceilings, she put me in a catapult and threw me at it.

So far, Yuh Nelson’s industry first has also been an industry last. No woman has solo-directed an animated feature since 2011. In fact, 91 out of 92 major U.S. animated releases in the decade so far (2010 through 2017) have had at least one male director.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson should be celebrated. The Hollywood feature animation industry, on the other hand, should be ashamed.

  • Delta

    Not having enough women directors is not just on behalf of the studio. In your own post, you demonstrated an attitude I’ve seen extremely prevalent among young artists:

    “And I’m like, ‘No, no. I’m too quiet, I’m too introverted.’”

    It kind of comes with the artist territory: Artists are often shy people. It’s also why a lot of directors or showrunners aren’t that fantastic at drawing but are still at the top of their crew: because they’re fantastic at leading.

    Very rarely do you get a team where the head director is the most skilled artist. People at the top of the game end up being outgoing and talkative while the more artistically skilled people will huddle by their cintiqs and draw for 15 hours straight. They’ll pump out amazing boards, sequences, illustrations, animations, but then doubt themselves when it comes to having to give other people besides themselves instructions.

    I’m willing to bet a lot of women had the opportunity to do something much more and ended up passing it up because of their own shy personality. Hopefully we’ll get more people who read Yuh’s story and become inspired to change themselves or get more situations where a confident producer pushes the quiet people to the front of the stage to show their stuff.

  • Andres Molina

    There’s an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball, called, “The Worst” and it features a sequence where Nicole Watterson gets screwed over while seeing her male counterparts get promotions, while inserting a brilliantly timed Wolf of Wall Street reference. Here is the link to the video I saw for this scene.
    Its overall a pretty funny scene, but the message the sequence tells is practically right on point. Its very true, women are being sidelined in favor of men getting favored. Now thats now to say we shouldn’t demonized the male filmmakers. because blaming them would be very unfair. The issue should be that women should be able to get equal opportunity for directing. Now I also don’t think I would blame Hollywood, but simply blame the country, or even, blame the world. Sexism after all has been an issue that existed everywhere for centuries, if not, millenniums, not just Hollywood. Anyway, about Kung Fu Panda 2, its pretty amazing to have a female direct a film, in a slate of mostly male filmmakers. Now my ideology, all these male directors deserve respect, we just need to encourage and push for more equality among genders. Now personally, for me, its all about finding a director who can lead, and more importantly, has a voice with a good story to tell, regardless of gender. But either way, the goal should be for males and females to have equal opportunity.

    Jennifer Yuh Nelson deserves a celebration for being the brave one, to stand out, and hope we will see more female animators be given the opportunity to direct their own films. Now one last thing, I think it’s important to find a way to promote and encourage equality in animation, using positive energy, and encouragement, without the expense of demonizing or ridiculing the industry. That’s just my own pint-sized opinion.

  • Clem Fandango

    No women directed animated features in 2016, but almost every single animated feature was produced by a woman.(who made a lot more money than the director).
    Whats there to be ashamed about? Women are the boss of every male director in feature animation in Hollywood.

    • RCooke

      I’ve always wondered that. Most big budget animated films from the mid-eighties through today are produced by women. Why haven’t they hired women directors and writers?

  • Anonymous

    I believe she also holds the record of the highest grossing film by a female director.

    • Mairead Malesco

      Until Wonder Women came along.

  • sjur

    Does anyone know how this compares to the ratio of female/male directors in TV animation, lower budget American animated features, or in features from Europe and Japan?

    I guess what I’m asking is whether this is a Hollywood problem, or also a problem in the animation business itself.

  • Elsi Pote

    All there is to say is that there is people willing to lose money and business for not putting the right people upfront.

    Shy or introverted are just labels they use to justify their own misery and run into the sunset with money in their pockets while the studio is burning up in flames.

    George Lucas, Ron Howard and Tim Button made it because they found way while having a will and they are all introverted as hell.

    It’s prepotent people that is killing this industry little by little, day by day with the my way or the highway mentality. Look them up if you don’t believe me.

  • kenalexander1

    In Japan animated movies are being directed by female directors. In fact the most successful animation studio in japan, Kyoto Animation, staffs a majority of female animators. The studio’s most successful film, A Silent Voice, (Koe no Katachi) is directed by a woman, Naoko Yamada. I’m personally more interested now in the animated films coming out of japan.

  • It makes me upset that – as far as I know – Nelson wasn’t at least tapped to direct the upcoming live-action Mulan adaptation. Given her action film-making experience and having worked with the setting of China for three movies, one would think she would be a more obvious choice. This is not to mention the long history of animation film-makers crossing over into the realm of live action. Nothing against the slated director of Mulan (2019), Niki Caro, but I can’t help but feel more excited when imagining Nelson at the helm.

    (P.S. I’m actually not even that big on the idea of Disney’s remakes of their animated films. If they’re not bringing something new to the table beyond a well-executed adaptation, it seems like a wasted opportunity at best. At worst, it seems like Disney doesn’t trust the legacy of the originals.)

  • ….but what about Janice Karman who directed The Chipmunk Adventure in 1987?!

    If I’m not mistaken, Janice directed the film by herself, as well as co-writing the film, not to mention voicing Theodore.

  • Fried

    You’re essentially asking that men with high story directing jobs either:
    1. Step down and let someone else take their job
    2. Put in effort in boosting someone else’s career

    All while insinuating that women are so quiet and meek that they NEED a man with higher power to help bolster them up, because they certainly won’t do it themselves if they have to face slight embarrassment or work hard.

    I dunno, your post seems to push a positive agenda using all the wrong methods and for all the wrong reasons.

    • rolo

      Nope! I am suggesting that men speak up in support- not shy away themselves. They need to be bold enough to not feel scared of women. Using gender as a competitive tool is lame.

      My point, if you keep reading is that we all have something to do to improve the odds for women so it can make us all better off. Women are strong not meek and quiet at all, but it is pretty clear by the numbers of women directors- that personal strengths are not gonna do it alone. By feeling personally responsible for this now, your own female children might benefit someday- how about that?

  • HN

    Just curious. So you don’t consider animated films with a female co-director as a breakthrough? Frozen comes to mind. It is co-directed by Jennifer Lee and won an Academy Award. It is also the highest grossing animated film of all time.