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Joanna Quinn Says Disney Animator’s Comments Are “Complete Rubbish,” Animating Women with Emotions is Easy [UPDATED]

Last week we reported on the controversy sparked by Frozen’s head of animation Lino DiSalvo following his comments about the difficulties of showing emotion on Disney’s female characters due to the fact that they have to be kept ‘pretty.’ Besides the Internet reaction, DiSalvo’s comments generated mainstream media attention, including articles in Slate, NY Mag and the UK’s Independent.

In the Independent, Joanna Quinn, one of the most respected British animators and filmmakers, labeled DiSalvo’s comments “complete rubbish.” Quinn, who has won four BAFTAs, two Emmys, and two Oscar nominations, knows a thing or two about animating women. For years, she has animated impeccable and robust performances featuring all types of characters, but especially women. Quinn went on to say:

“It’s not at all hard to draw women showing emotions. The only challenge is the notion of beauty. It’s really hard to inject lots of emotion because you’re always trying to keep them [as] this sort of shiny, lovely character. I am looking for strong female characters that are not always gorgeous.”

The Disney Company has responded to DiSalvo’s comments as well. A company spokesperson issued a statement to

“Animation is an intricate and complex art form. These comments were recklessly taken out of context. As part of a roundtable discussion, the animator was describing some technical aspects of CG animation and not making a general comment on animating females versus males or other characters.”

Three days after DiSalvo’s comments blew up online, Dan Sarto, publisher of Animation World Network, published a laudatory article about the animators of Frozen. In the piece, entitled “The Animation of Disney’s Frozen: Striving to Capture the Performance”, Sarto avoided any mention of the controversy, but featured DiSalvo’s thoughts prominently. DiSalvo talked about his approach to character animation with AWN:

“In Tangled, we broke a wall down. Acting-wise, having Glen [Keane] there to push you to find the truth in what you’re caricaturing, we all learned that on the film. I started Frozen with that knowledge. I learned that all on Tangled. But now, it’s a finely sharpened tool instead of a blunt instrument. When Idina Menzel [the voice of Elsa] came in and we showed her two sequences in particular, she paid us the ultimate compliment. She said, ‘What you guys are doing here, some of the great actors, I don’t see it in their performance.’ She noticed little furrowed brows, wrinkles, eye tension, pulsation in the lips, the breathing.”

[UPDATE—Mon 11:50pm ET] Time magazine has published this piece about the discussion that has started after DiSalvo’s comments. They spoke with Brave director Brenda Chapman, who told the publication: “My immediate reaction was that I was absolutely appalled that anyone would say that.”

Filmmaker and USC professor Christine Panushka told Time that while believable humans are always a challenge to animate, it’s odd to suggest that a woman character would be more difficult than a man because “in terms of skeletons and muscles and how we move, they’re the same.”

[UPDATE #2] Brenda Chapman wrote in the comments section of this Indiewire post that Time misquoted her and took her comments out of context. Chapman said:

I couldn’t agree with your article more! As was DiSalvo’s quote, my comments were taken out of context, as well. It’s very disheartening, the lack of integrity that goes into some reporting. The article in question was a jumble of out of context thoughts and quotes and in the end, didn’t really come to a point.

I would very much like to set the record straight in regards to my reaction to DiSalvo’s quote. If she had continued on with my own quote of my initial reaction of being “appalled”, it would have gone against the type of article she wanted to write. I continued on to say that then I put his quote in the context of what he was really discussing, which were the characters specifically in FROZEN. And it made perfect sense. The two characters, I believe, are sisters (what I gleaned from the trailer) – maybe even twins – I don’t know because I have not yet seen it. Of course, if they look so much alike, it would be difficult to give them individual expressions and make them feel like different people. I was actually trying to defend the poor guy! His only mistake was to use the word “pretty” instead of “appealing”… which I have no doubt was his meaning behind it. As with the TIME article, my words have been taken out of context way too often – so I did recognize it in DiSalvo’s.

My other comments were about the industry in general needing more variety in female characters – both physically and character personality – and NOT at Frozen, which I am very much looking forward to seeing.

  • uland

    Isn’t Di Salvos point more along the lines of; these characters are pretty, it’s hard to animate complex performances while keeping them on-model? That sounds accurate.
    The argument against using beautiful princesses as characters is a completely different one.

  • Ant G

    This is why public speakers often become overtly politically-correct or don’t bother with interviews in general. The media waits for that one paraphrase that can be taken out of context so a whole commotion starts out of it. The negative effect in this is victims like DiSalvo become the lapdog of this experiment, but the good in it is it brings up such discussions that, considering the attention its been getting, people have wanted to bring up instead of continually sweeping the issue under the rug. In this case, I would say its the established stigma of animating women as consistently “pretty” that is rubbish, not DiSalvo’s comments themselves that were merely acknowledging this trend in mainstream animation.

    PS: Idina Menzel’s praise may be a polite exaggeration, unless she’s ready to back up that Frozen contains better acting performances than the “great actors” by naming who exactly she’s referring to. And then once the movie comes out we can analyze the merit in that claim by comparing these actors with the characters. Until then it’s just empty praise by a person who’s just promoting a movie she’s worked on.

    I know it was just a passive comment made, but as an artist I hate when people exaggerate in their compliment, it’s not constructive at all.

  • Katy

    If i were sitting in the same room with Joanna Quinn RIGHT NOW, I’d only have one thing to say to her about her thoughts on this……YOU GO GIRL!!! :D

  • I kinda wish this all occurred during the Wreck-It Ralph press tour. Sarah Silverman would’ve mined COMEDY GOLD out of this tangled mess of CG rigging and PC pontificating.

  • Sounds like they are digging themselves into an even deeper hole.

  • thawed head of animation

    It’s a sensitive subject, hopefully this outburst of ‘taking things out of context’ has at least given the studio some idea of the magnitude of expectations under which the design and animation of their heroines fall.

    In the end, it could be looked back on as a day when the internet tried to talk louder than money. How much more of a fit does anyone need to throw till Disney starts giving us something other than princesses and Rapunzel clones…? We’ll see.

    • Fbt

      Maybe When iger finally leaves his throne …

    • IJK

      You mean Ariel clones right? Because that same re-used design mainly started with her.

  • otterhead

    Some people really, really want to take offense at things, and are eager to take anything they want out of context if it allows them to do so.

  • poppy

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

  • Henry Cohn

    Disney and Joanna Quinn are two completely different genres. Where Joanna Quinn wants a caricatured fat drunk woman strapping a camcorder on a dog’s back, Disney wants a royal heroine from the border of Classic Beauty Land and Uncanny Valley. In fact, one might make the argument that comparing two completely different types of female character in their animatability only reinforces sexism.
    All I have to say is that I’m disappointed that an article with a thumbnail picture of a Joanna Quinn still was about a stupid catfight about sexism rather than- oh, I don’t know- an announcement of a new film

    • Everlasting Concubine

      That’s a really unfair assessment of Quinn’s work. While you are correct that the scope of her work is far different, she’s hardly all about “caricatured fat drunk women.”

      Her protagonist do tend to be middle aged women with the bodies that middle aged women have, which is something that never, ever, ever happens in popular culture.

      Quinn is one of the very finest animators in the world, and her greatest strength is the range and subtlety of expression she is able to convey in ALL her characters.

      I concur that DiSalvo’s statement seems more (to me) as an damning indictment of his employer’s beauty standards and the limitations they impose.

      Reading Quinn’s statement and Disalvo’s, I honestly don’t think they are at cross purposes. They are really saying the same thing – the demand of the house style, that female protagonists be a certain kind of “pretty,” would, in fact, make animating them much more challenging than animating men. The powers that be are handing you a faceful of botox. Heaven forefend they must widen an eye, furrow a brow, or grit a tooth – how are you going to sell eleventy gajillion dolls if your prettypretty Princess Fluffy Buttruffles isn’t eversoperfect?

      And that IS rubbish,and it bothers me, not because I am some overly sensitive PC straw feminist, but because expressive faces are honestly more beautiful, and are better for conveying a story.

    • Chris

      The fact that they work in different genres does nothing to explain the inane requirement for a character to be pretty 100 percent of the time, to the detriment of emotions that might affect this.
      Quinn is spot on with her comment.

  • Anon

    More industry professionals speak up about this controversy.

    • Scott550

      Oh BROTHER! This is a manufactured “controversy,” The “animators” aren’t the final call on the “look” of the cg characters. But to keep them appealing (anorexic or NOT), and to impart character–and consistency–to them is extremely difficult. Anyone who heard or read the original comments who has half a brain would have understood that.

      I didn’t hear many people complain when Helen Parr, who sported a 2 inch waste and a pair of double d’s kicked ass.

      • G Melissa Graziano-Humphrey

        But Helen also had big ol’ birthing hips. And a personality.

        • optimist

          …because her character was that of a middle aged mom. How old are the characters in Frozen supposed to be? As for personality-you’ve seen frozen? You’re implying the “pretty” Disney characters have none?

      • Ninja_Toes

        She did pull quite a few “ugly faces” though if I remember rightly.
        And while I tend to agree that this argument shouldn’t be launched at the animators themselves, it’s undeniably awful that the studio insists that the female characters remain “pretty” at all times. The Disney animators shouldn’t be afraid to campaign against it, even if they have to turn around to business as usual afterwards.
        How else will things change?

        • Power_Animator

          For Disney Little Mermaid was the first to break this mold Disney had of its female characters…Art like everything on this planet is progressive so, it’ll change in due time.

  • ApeGreatness

    What DiSalvo said wasn’t a misogynistic stab at women, or a proclamation of how they *should* be portrayed in animation — it was more of an attack (intentional or unintentional) on how Disney wants their women to be portrayed. DiSalvo was saying that it’s difficult to show emotion in specifically *Disney* female characters because of the restraints the Disney formula imposes on them. If anything, DiSalvo was accusing his employer of sexism and misogyny than being sexist or misogynistic himself.

  • Rodan Thompson

    It probably is not as easy as it once was….now that all the seasoned talent has either been laid off of walked away from WDA. Sad but true..perhaps that is what he meant. Surprising that they would ever elude to that vulnerability…perhaps they might want to correct that misstep in their recent history.

  • AR

    Does anyone remember Kida from Atlantis? She was drawn very differently and all people ever seemed to complain about how “ugly” she was.

    • HSuits

      I personally thought Kida was gorgeous.. I loved the art style for that film as a whole though, and I am Native American so her more tribal look appealed to my cultural background, so I am a little biased.

  • DarylT

    Yes because the Mona Lisa was so hideous. And Michalangelos David had a pot belly.

  • Jones

    .” It’s really hard to inject lots of emotion because you’re always trying to keep them [as] this sort of shiny, lovely character.” – which is *exactly* what DiSalvo has said! So how can she say that what he said was rubbish? Having won numerous awards does not mean you do not have to care about logic…

  • Shazbot

    I don’t think that men and women move exactly the same. Because there are skeletal differences and muscular differences. And because of those differences, I think women have more grace. But that’s just me, I suppose.

    Let’s get real here. People prefer to see pretty people. It’s been established that even babies prefer attractive people over unattractive people, all without any kind of indoctrination. It’s hard-wired. And as for Joanna Quinn…sure, her stuff has won lots of awards, but has any of it attracted the kinds and sizes of audiences Disney films do? Um, nope. This blow-up is absurd. It’s social progressiveness that, as is all too usual, tries to impose ridiculous, unrealistic standards in place of traditional ones. Not what I’d call progress, anyway.

    My issue with the princesses in “Frozen” is that there are princesses in “Frozen” – princesses that replaced the wonderful Kay and Gerda from the source material “The Snow Queen”. That’s what I find outrageous. And that’s why I’m not going to see the film. It’s not in any way an enhancement and enrichment of the original story, which is what Disney has accomplished in the past. It looks like bad Dreamworks/Disney Fairies junk. And so I have no interest in it. Too bad.

    • HSuits

      ..They didn’t /enhance/ Pocahontas. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie.
      But they actually destroyed part of my people’s history with that one. The real woman’s name was Matoaka (called Pocahontas (or “mischievous one”) by her father) and she was kidnapped from her tribe, raped, forced to bear her rapists child and marry John Rolfe. And then she and her child were paraded around Britain like circus animals in exchange for the safety of her tribe. On their voyage home she contracted a respiratory illness, and her husband left her on an island to die.

      The Disney version is now being printed in college history books as a way to gloss over the subject of the treatment of Native Americans during colonization onward, and /that/ is wrong.

  • Something Or Other

    Di Salvo was on the money with his comment and it wasn’t a statement against women suffrage, their image, or misogynistic. You’ve got a finely tuned Disney Princess and your job is to keep the pretty princess figure pretty. Done, it’s that simple. When that’s your goal then you need to be mindful of your poses and expressions. I think most animators agree here and it’s from the armchair warriors with little idea of what ‘on model’ means who are making this into a big to do. It is not easy to keep characters appealing all the time. The higher the expectation of beauty is for the character then the harder you have to work to keep them appealing. Maybe if society as a whole lowered their bar for beauty it would be easier, but I don’t think it’s Disney’s job to wage that war, especially not with ‘Frozen’.

    Get real, stop posting this inflammatory drivel and making his comment on the very real technical challenges into some grand statement on society. It’s so inflammatory and off topic I feel like Cartoon Brew is being run by Fox News.

  • Alla Gadassik

    As Brenda Chapman’s comments elsewhere (on Tangled) reveal, and as some other commentators below have pointed out, much of the pressure comes from the studio style — its insistence on keeping female bodies slim, composed, and “pretty.” What DiSalvo’s comment implicitly notes is that it’s difficult to animate emotion if your requirements are to keep female bodies visually composed into static beauty ideals. You get less options to squash and stretch bodies. If this were allowed with female bodies, I am sure that animators in the studio system, male and female alike, would welcome the opportunity to break traditional body models. Older and villainous female characters (think Ursulla or Cruella) have a longer history of more pliable animated line and more diverse emotional range. However, unfortunately, the wooden expressions and porcelain static composure of the female heroines was better suited for subsequent merchandising. I think that the pressure to change needs to come via consumers writing to studio marketers, as well as by animators insistently and subtly pressing against the norms passed down by preceding generations — not by shaming animators for trying to articulate the kind of industrial demands and limitations placed on them.

  • ken duncan

    Male animators often bring “feminine” preconceptions to their work when dealing with female characters, making them dainty and porcelain-like. Women animators sometimes bring along a specific agenda, thinking the character should act in a way that belies the script.

    I would tend to think of the female characters as human beings with foibles; try to find the conflict and humor within the characters based on the script at hand. I would avoid a “dainty” approach and would allow them to be physical at times (as a male character is allowed), even with facial expressions. It was important to find ways of going “off model”, to be able to break from the pretty model sheet designs.

    When creating any new performance it was key to ask “what makes this person unique?” If two females are angry in the same scene, how do they differ and how would they react to the situation completely differently from each other (one may internalize it more, etc.).

    If you think of the women in your own life there are a vast array of differences in terms of shape, size, personality and the way they move. So why not bring a varied group of females to the screen? The actual motion (animation) is somewhat secondary and can only be tackled once you know the character’s inner workings; what their emotional state is at any given moment.

    There have been many “pretty” actresses who have given great performance, who have seen their characters beyond their visual “limitations”. i.e. Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Elizabeth Taylor, Jennifer Lawrence, etc. Even though your design may be pretty, your character can go “against type” which is more interesting for the audience to watch.

    The script is key though…..allow unique female/male personalities to flourish in these films.

  • goldenrabbit

    The best way to settle this is to aquire the princess model and see how hard it is to keep the inbetweens pretty.

  • Tony Mines

    Or to put it another way, Jo Quinn is in total agreement with what the Disney guy is saying, and somewhere along the line this site devolved into a British tabloid?

  • anakinbrego

    Here’s what pissing me off. What worked in
    Tangled we’ll do in Frozen! The same looking type girl, with a silly guy. The
    girl is Rapenzel but less expressiveness in her animation. So to say girls are
    harder to animate is ridiculous, look at how expressive Rapulzel was in
    Tangled! I’m noticing since the old timers have left Disney the animated
    characters are boring, with that formulaic CalArts Disney style, with the
    character Wreck it Ralph as an odd Ward Kimball knock off. You know why DiSalvo said female characters are more difficult to animate, it’s
    because he thinks he has to make them stiff to work, an experienced animator
    would know the opposite, you need to add character look at Rapunzel!! An
    inexperienced animator works in DiSalvo manner; an experienced
    animator knows it’s the other way! In DiSalvo’s defense maybe the executives
    came down hard on him to animate the girls as generic and boring and stiff and
    lifeless as possible, maybe they told the design team to do it as well. Or they
    hired the CalArts graduates that had the most generic Disney designs and animation
    reels in their portfolios? The last
    few things Disney Animation has done design wise and the animated performances
    lacking personality from Wreck it Ralph, Paperman and now Frozen, they all
    looks so generic 
CalArts graduate boring.

    • rob

      What’s pissing me off is you haven’t even seen the film, but you’re talking about the animation in it. You’re just eating up what you’re fed and spewing it back out after you’ve weaved it into your predisposition. At least you’re not alone, you’ve got the authors of those sensationalist articles to keep you company.

  • Power_Animator

    “Straight” Characters vs “Comic Relief” or “Non Straight” characters… there hasn’t been a princess who has been the a comic relief or a non straight. It would be interesting If we can get one.

  • HSuits

    I think in terms of Disney Princesses, Jasmine didn’t have too bad of a range of emotion because of her snarky attitude.
    She got to make faces like that.
    And the Aladdin franchise also got to migrate to television back when they used their movie characters for the Disney Channel, and they got to do a lot more with her.