Book Review: The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt

Queens of Animation

The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History

by Bland Lawson

In 1937, the year Walt Disney Productions released its groundbreaking feature-length animated film “Snow White,” the creative side of the studio’s production was almost exclusively the work of men. To be sure, more than a hundred women labored in the Ink and Paint Department, tracing and coloring the (male) animators’ drawings on the transparent cels that were photographed to make the animated film, but this could scarcely be deemed creative work.

Nathalia Holt’s “The Queens of Animation” is the story of the pioneering handful of women who broke into the creative side of production at Disney. Along the way, they endured belittlement and only rarely received on-screen credit for their contributions. Among them were Bianca Majolie, who joined the story department in 1935 and played a key role in research and development for “Bambi,” “Pinocchio,” and “Dumbo”; Retta Scott, the first woman promoted to a full-time animator position; and Mary Blair, who served as the concept artist for many productions and the art director for “Cinderella.”

Animation technology

Alongside the narrative of these women’s careers, Holt presents the fascinating story of the Disney studio’s rise and development. In the 1930s, it was the rough equivalent of a present-day Silicon Valley startup, innovating on the fly and occasionally with uncertain finances. The storyboard process, now standard to most film production, was developed at Disney, and the studio was an early adopter of technologies, such as the multiplane camera, which created a sense of depth in animation, and optical printing, which allowed the combination of live action with animation, as seen in films, such as “Mary Poppins.”

Indeed, occasionally the history of Disney outstrips the story of the female animators as the book progresses. But the reader is left with a strong impression of the still undervalued contributions these women made to animation history.

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