***This article originally appeared in the 35th anniversary issue of Animation magazine (June-July ’22, n° 321)***
Karen Toliver, the current VP of Animated Films at Netflix, has had a remarkable and distinguished career in the industry, serving in various roles at Disney, Fox Animation and, most recently, Sony Pictures Animation as Vice -Executive President of Creation. She is the producer of the Oscar-winning short hair love, directed by Matthew A. Cherry. At Fox Animation, she oversaw the production of the Rio film franchise and the last three films of the Ice Age series. She also directed the Oscar-nominated film Fernando. Toliver served as production manager at Disney on films such as Brother Bear, Little chicken and To encounter the Robinsons. She was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about the importance of representation and the rise of diversity in animation:
Animation magazine: We live in a world quite different from that of 35 years ago. What do you think of how far animation has come in recent years in terms of diversity, both in content and behind the scenes?
Karen Toliver: I’m really excited about what’s happening in animation. There are daily conversations around telling diverse and authentic stories. Every executive I know has this idea in mind, and you can see it in lineups, literally in every studio in town. It’s very different from when I started – and even very different from five years ago. And as frustrated as I can be if a BIPOC artist is always busy and unavailable, I’m also thrilled to hear when a BIPOC artist is always busy and unavailable. And I’m blown away by the number of young artists who are studying animation, who are passionate and eager to start their careers. It is really encouraging.
What do you think are the most significant changes that have taken place in our industry in recent years in terms of representation?
Studio executives are not only willing to consider new, diverse artists and creative avenues, but they know it’s a necessity. The intention is there. Now the challenge is how best to support these artists as they enter the studio system, which can be difficult to navigate. Creating animated content is hard, and artists not only need the talent to create content, they need the soft skills that you can only acquire by working and gaining experience. the production itself must be ready and willing to support this learning. It’s much easier to go back to hiring people who have already done the job. But we must allow new voices to find their place in this medium, and be patient and creative to accompany them. I think it’s a combination of new and experienced talent that will get us there, and I think everyone goes through trial and error to find the right balance.
I remember telling you that when we were growing up, there were so few different role models in the animation world. Can you discuss it with us?
I’ve been in this industry for a minute, and it’s truly remarkable to think about the change in expectations my peers and I had in the industry versus how I see people entering the industry now. At the time, we all wanted to find a place at the table, and yet there were so few seats that people who had found a way in were so worried about keeping their own place – and everyone was very aware that no studio was likely to allow two of us at the same time. So there was not really a community that helped each other. It was very competitive and isolating. I know some people had mentors, but it was rare. I really didn’t have anyone who really took me under their wing. We were pretty much figuring it out for ourselves.
We’ve finally arrived at a place where people help each other get in, and the powers that be are getting used to seeing not one, but maybe even a few BIPOCs in the same room. It sounds silly and basic, but it’s true. This sense of community that I feel now is amazing. And people really feel how important it is to reach out and help others.
In 2022, most studios now have diversity and inclusion officers whose job it is to make sure all voices are heard and all people are represented… What are the pros and cons of this tendency ?
I’m grateful that it seems like all studios have made diversity and inclusion a standard practice and it’s so refreshing to have conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion front and center, and in many cases supported by large budgets. Thus, it makes effort impossible to ignore. But at the same time, it makes me sad that there needs to be a dedicated team to remind us all to do what should be obvious, inclusive and, frankly, human behavior. I’m quite an optimistic person, so hopefully one day we can tackle systemic issues of bias and normalize what should be intuitive behavior of inclusion. Although I truly love and respect everyone I have met and do not wish anyone to lose their jobs, I hope that one day we will no longer need DEI executives. I think all executives would naturally keep an eye on diversity and inclusion as part of the necessary path to creative excellence.
Are there any common pitfalls that studios large and small run into when trying to accentuate their diversity business and content?
What scares me the most is the idea that people who really want to support diversity might feel that in order to do so, they have to give up weighing and evaluating the qualifications of the candidate, just assuming that ‘he won’t be as qualified. Yes, we certainly need to overcompensate for the long history of implicit and explicit bias that has prevented marginalized candidates from being considered for positions. Because there were no level playing fields and artists were not invited to entry-level positions, finding experienced candidates can sometimes be a challenge. And it’s even harder to compensate for this lack of historical access because animation is such a specialized field.
But the worst fear any person of color or any marginalized identity has is being branded as a “diversity” hire. Nobody wants alms. This diminishes their talent and hard work. All most people want is a good shake. And we (the studio) are doing no one a favor if we don’t believe the contestants have earned their spot. We need to give all talented people the opportunity to join the community; we have to be sensitive to some of the trauma that has happened because of a lack of access and resources. But we must also maintain rigorous standards so that all talent can be evaluated for the talent and hard work they bring to their craft.
What are the most effective ways for studios to increase diversity representation and storytelling?
It’s not that hard. We need to commit to expanding our talent pool, broadening our thinking about how we define or view “skilled”, “experienced” and “talented” storytellers. We must resist the urge to fall back on the familiar. We need to ensure that our leadership teams in the room are diverse and can naturally find points of connection with talent. Rinse and repeat.
What do you hope to see happen in the animation industry over the next 10 years?
We’ve been saying this for a while, but animation really is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the range of storytelling that could be done to entertain a wider audience. We need to continue to evolve the kind of stories that are told in animation. We know animation isn’t just for kids and parents, and yet I think even we in the community aren’t as ambitious as we could be to prove it. And we fall back on what has been done in the past.
Some content has started to show us the possibilities. But hopefully in 10 years we really prove it. This means that the animated features will go hand in hand with the greatest live hits. Just as live action filmmakers have found success and satisfaction in television, I hope the lines between animation and live action blur to the point that animation is no longer marginalized and that storytellers also choose to tell stories in both mediums.
What is your best advice for people of color who would like to be part of the animation industry?
The doors are open. Run. Be prolific. Keep perfecting your art. Be hard on yourself. Don’t settle. Keep building your community. Surprise us.