We had the opportunity to speak with Brenda Chapman, an animator, director, and most of all, a storyteller. She was the first woman to direct an animated feature film with a major Hollywood studio, and she has worked with major studios such as Disney Pictures and Dreamworks Animation and Pixar, where she wrote and directed Brave.
In this interview, Brenda tells us the story of her journey as a creative and her thoughts on being a woman in the male-dominated industry.
Brenda with husband Kevin Lima and their daughter at the LA Film Festival premiere of Brave
You started your journey with drawing. How, and when, did that change into storytelling?
That changed while I was at CalArts. I went to CalArts thinking I wanted to draw – I drew since I was a little kid – and I wanted to draw in my career. I thought I would be like everyone else who went to CalArts wanting to be an animator… that’s what you always hear about, being an animator.
But while I was there, Joe Ranft was teaching the freshmen while I was a third year. He was teaching them storytelling and he was also a mutual friend of my boyfriend (now husband). He came by to say Hi, as I was tediously trying to animate a scene for my film. He saw my storyboards pinned up next to my desk and said, “Have you ever thought about going into storytelling?”
The light bulb went off and I realized that was the part I really enjoyed! For the three years I had been at CalArts, I loved coming up with the story. The animation was so tedious and I didn’t enjoy it. So that was it. That’s why I got into storytelling.
“My stories come from my family and my friends.
It’s just part of who I am.
If the memory sticks with you,
then there’s just something about it.”
Where do you find inspiration when you’re looking for a story or illustration ideas? How do you get started?
Well, it usually comes from personal experience. Just something in my life that touched me, or a strong memory, or a strong emotional connection — and I go from there.
Brave, for example, came from my relationship with my daughter. I started it when she was about four and a half, or five years old. She was such a strong-willed creature. I didn’t have that kind of relationship with my mother.
I was the youngest of five and I saw that arguing never worked out, so I was the peacekeeper. And my daughter was always challenging everything I said. So I built the story of Brave on that. I love her so much and I was trying to figure out what the best thing to do was. The whole story came from that. That, and my love of Scotland and fairy tales.
My stories come from my family and my friends. It’s just part of who I am. If the memory sticks with you, then there’s just something about it.
Brave (2012, dir. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman)
What was your most challenging and most rewarding project?
They were all challenging and rewarding for different reasons. But Brave was definitely, on every level, the most rewarding and the most challenging. Being able to create my own story and put so much of myself in it, and talking about the things I love — that meant a lot to me.
But then Prince of Egypt was about figuring out how to create a story that people could relate to. It was also my first directing gig, so it was about trying to learn how to do that on the job. I felt my crew really taught me a lot. I was very fortunate with the crew I had; they were willing to guide me through what I needed to know. So by the end of the film, I knew what I was doing.
“It’s all challenging, and yet it’s always rewarding at the end.
People realize what you can bring to the table […]
you have to be resilient, and you have to have perseverance,
but you don’t have to become masculine.”
A slightly different question — what was the most challenging project as a woman?
It was Brave. I didn’t realize what a bubble I worked in when I was at Disney and Dreamworks. I worked under Jeffrey Katzenberg [at Dreamworks], and as much as he can drive you crazy — he’ll get too involved in the creative end of things and he’s all about business, but he also loves to dabble under the story and character design — he surrounded himself around women leaders, both creative and managerial, and there was no sexist bone in his body.
Being a woman didn’t make much of a difference in the beginning, but I realize now after all these years that you do have a slightly different perspective when the majority of the people you’re working with are male. As much as we want to blend ourselves all together, we do bring a different perspective. It’s not necessarily a lesser one but it’s different. It has worth in it and it has value in it.
For example, I had a story in The Lion King, that was the B-project, and we all worked really hard. I brought a lot of myself to that project. That was the most [number of] women that Disney had on a project and they brought a lot to the project. There is a real sense of individualism that comes out. When it comes out of a woman with experiences that she has had, it will have its own thing.
When I think about Jennifer Yuh — the first time I came across her was on Sinbad — and the movie was okay but her work on it was spectacular! If they could’ve made the story look like Jennifer’s storyboards, oh my God! And she also brought a lot of herself into Kung Fu Panda, the second one, and it’s brilliant! It’s beautiful! She does action, she does the whole nine yards, not just the girly stuff (laughs).
It’s all challenging and yet it’s always rewarding at the end. People realize what you can bring to the table. We do have to do more; we have to prove ourselves, that seems to be the fact of life right now. But the thing is — you have to be resilient and you have to have perseverance, but you don’t have to become masculine.
The Prince of Egypt (1998, Dreamworks Animation) and The Lion King (1994, Walt Disney Pictures)
How do you think the film industry has changed (in terms of women’s role) since you’ve started?
There are definitely more of us. I was the only woman in story for quite a while and I was the only woman director for quite a while in the studio system. But now there are so many more.
When I went to CalArts to learn animation, I was 1 out of 4 or 5 women in a class of 30. It was a small class but when the classes got bigger, the ratio didn’t change. It was still a handful of women compared to men. But now, my understanding is that there are over 50% women. So that’s very encouraging. I think the interest is there and the exposure is greater not only because of the Internet, but also because there are more of us out there, encouraging others to join us.
So I’m hoping it’s better and I look at what Geena Davis is doing with the Genna Davis Institute.
Looking at the statistics, it’s still a little bit disturbing with how there are so few female characters that are leads or that have names. It’s a bit discouraging for this generation; it seems like we should be further along. But at the same time, this year alone, there are so many films out there with strong female characters, so I have hope.
The Little Mermaid (1989); Fantasia (2000)
You have many projects you’re doing outside of directing. What excites you the most about your work now?
I love story, and I love solving the puzzle of story. So I have several different stories, in several different stages, in several different venues… in a sense. I am consulting at Lucasfilm right now and it’s a lot of fun. It’s going to be a good project.
I’m also going to start developing some projects with Dreamworks and the possibility of directing again. I’m still trying to finish my children’s book but I’m also writing a book.
It’s just different, writing a book compared to writing a film. They’re very different, and yet the same principles apply to storytelling. It’s really fascinating! So I’m just enjoying it all. Whatever I end up doing, it’s always going to be fine. As long as I can tell stories, I’ll be happy.
How would you define success in your life? Later on in life, how would you determine if you’ve reached success?
I think it would be based on the difference I’ve made. It would be if I could make someone’s life a little better. If people remember me in a way that I’ve helped them, or if I have contributed to other people’s successes. That’s it. That’s what I would like to look back on and be proud of.
I love working on films and what’s nice about those is that some of those films really meant a lot to kids and really inspired them. But it’s really about touching people’s lives in a positive way, including my family’s.
Young Emma and Old Emma, from Brenda’s children’s book, A Birthday
Thanks Brenda for talking with us, and helping us inspire the 99designs’ community.
Though Brenda works in the film and animation industry, there are lessons to be learned for all creatives. We hope her story can be an inspiration for you.
To see what Brenda is up to now, check out her website and blog here!