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Sheila Graber on 40 years in animation and learning Harmony at 65.
Depending on which side of the Pond you live on, you may already know Sheila Graber. A pioneer of the British animation industry, she was among the country's first prominent women in animation alongside Alison de Vere in the 1970s and 80s.
Born in 1940, Graber began animating at 33 while she was teaching at King George Comprehensive School in Northern England. She started experimenting with a Super 8 film camera and soon brought her moving pictures into the classroom. Graber became fascinated by motion's ability to catalyze learning — a theme that continues to this day.
She began creating short films in her spare time, which were quietly entered into international animation festivals. Paris-based agent Nicole Jouve noticed her work and called Graber asking to represent her. From there, came the "Just So Stories" in 1980 — a 10-episode series based on Rudyard Kipling's classic tales. Graber had to make a choice: continue to teach and create content as a hobby or become a full-time professional animator?
What Graber chose is clear. She went on to do character design on the "Paddington Bear" specials for the BBC, as well as continue her mission of marrying animation and education by teaching courses on the subject in Tunisia and Venezuela as well as launching some of the first university programs in the United Kingdom. Never one to stop learning, a tool Graber has brought to her craft and classroom is Toon Boom Harmony.
Today, Harmony helps Graber create interactive apps and animated Youtube videos starring her original character, Quizicat. We caught up with the British 2D animation legend to chat about her incredible career, the importance of education and what it was like being a woman in the industry in the 1980s.
Hi Sheila! How would say the animation industry is now compared to the 1970s and 80s?
SG: I only ever saw the English animation industry, but it was a cottage industry — men like Bob Godfrey and Richard Williams and little studios in SoHo. I visited Alison [de Vere] in London while she was working on her award-winning animation, "Black Dog", and she introduced me to some of the animators producing "The Snowman". I was amazed to see cels go, by motorbike, from house to house; there must have been 50 animators in the London vicinity working on it, all out of their houses. That was the English animation industry at the time.
Animation wasn't taught in universities until the 1980s. I actually helped start the teaching of animation in higher education in England. In those early years, animators like Bob Godfrey and Richard Williams would go into the universities and teach students based on their practical knowledge. Later, in 2002, I was invited to kick off the first animation course at the University of Sunderland.
Did you ever experience any discrimination in the animation industry as a woman?
SG: No, but I came from into the industry in an unusual way — I had stuff to show early on. When I started on "Paddington Bear", it was all men, from the camera to sound recording to editing. There was a girl painting backgrounds but that was it.
One of the chaps said, "We envy you!" I was shocked that he envied me. Then he said, "You've got the chance to think of it, draw it, trace it, paint it, put your own sound on — do whatever you want [on ‘Just So Stories']. You can create the whole job. We don't. We just do bits and pieces of it." That really turned me around in my thinking. Maybe if I had been the girl coming in and who made the coffee, I would have been treated differently. But I don't feel like I ever was.
Do you see a lot of young female animators in your classes now?
SG: Yes, it's balancing out. When I first started in the 1970s and 80s, women were mostly doing tracing — like at Disney. A few women were breaking through in the 70s. It was easier for me because I was divorced. Back then, if you had a family, it was very difficult to work from home. I couldn't have done "Just So Stories" if I had two little kids running around! It's great to see more of a change, especially in the last 10 years.
Are you still involved with the University of Sunderland's program?
SG: I most certainly am. I teach illustration students animation and I work on the animation program as well. I love to use Toon Boom with them; you have by far the best animation software on the planet.
When did you learn Toon Boom?
SG: It was about 2005, long before Harmony. Chris Askew, a technician at Sunderland University, recommended I try it and I thought it was great. It's similar to a light box and I felt right at home — it was like converting from a regular light box to using my Wacom as a light box. From there, I encouraged the University of Sunderland to adopt it and they did!
What're the differences between animating in digital paperless on Toon Boom and traditional paper?
SG: For functionality, [Toon Boom digital paperless animation] is so much better. It's brilliant to see your work instantly. When I was doing the "Just So Stories", I was producing 10 minutes a month and it was being broadcast as soon as I was done. It seems extraordinary to do a full 10 minutes of full animation without seeing how it moves. The fact that you can see your animation move around on Toon Boom makes it so much easier.
How do you find teaching students Toon Boom?
SG: Great! Because I am self-taught, I have to really understand it myself before I can show it to anybody else. When you teach students too, it really helps you understand what it is you're trying to do. It's one of the things I love about teaching: you learn yourself. And it's great to see what students come up with.
What's next for you, Sheila?
SG: I'm working with 97-year-old American painter, Sylvia Fein. She produced a book called "Heidi's Horse" that tracks one child's artistic development from the age of 2 to 16 and proves everyone shares the same pattern of artistic growth. In the 1980s, she asked me to animate this so I got to know and understand the information it contained very well.
I feel the message is so crucial that I'm now making an animated interactive app using my character Quizicat to help teachers and homeschoolers encourage children to draw. Drawing can be just as important as language in communicating ideas and, when the drawings are animated, they can be more powerful — particularly if you are using Toon Boom Harmony!
Which animators inspire you? Let us know in the comments below!