The Santa Barbara International Film Festival recently held their annual Women’s Panel to highlight the achievements of women in the film industry on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 2-3:30 p.m. The event featured six panelists — all whom are nominated at next month’s Oscars ceremony. The panelists included director Anne Alvergue, whose film “The Martha Mitchell Effect” is nominated for Best Documentary Short Film; costume designer Ruth Carter who is nominated for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”; producer Hannah Minghella, who is nominated for “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” for Best Animated Short Film; director Domee Shi, who is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film for “Turning Red”; sound editor Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, who is nominated for Best Sound Editing for “Avatar: The Way of Water”; and costume designer Mary Zophres, who is nominated for “Babylon.”
Pixar’s first-ever female director, Shi, animated the film “Turning Red,” which received international success. She is already an Academy Award winner for her animated short film “Bao.” When discussing the process of making her film, Shi stated that she made the “Turning Red” in order to increase representation for those who need it.
“I wanted to make ‘Turning Red’ for the 13-year-old me searching for herself in the media but couldn’t see herself,” she shared.
When asked about her thoughts on female representation in animation and film making as a whole, Shi responded by noting her current role and feeling positive about the future.
“Change is slow, but it’s happening,” Shi stated. “Now that the doors are open, I feel responsible to keep them open.” When discussing her relationship with her mentor Pete Docter at Pixar, Shi again expressed a similar sentiment. “Seeing someone at that caliber be so excited about your weirdness and ideas … I want to be that for someone else.”
Producer Minghella also detailed her experiences in the realm of animation and discussed her short animated film, “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” and its goal to promote mental health and wellbeing.
When asked what the purpose of her short film is, Minghella answered by stating that the film’s goal is to “[encourage] people to be vulnerable and see their tears as a strength rather than a weakness … To feel encouraged and find strength in your friends.”
Costume designer Carter previously won an Academy Award for her work on the first “Black Panther” film, making her the first Black person to ever win the award for Best Costume Design. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2021. She touched upon her experiences as a woman who has worked in costume design in film for 35 years and shared her thoughts on how the film industry has progressed, as well as the stigma that female filmmakers still face.
“As a woman working, we were always very conscious of being very few … I think we all felt these chains that bind, if you would, in the industry very early and there’s less of them now, but I don’t think it has progressed as rapidly or as vigorously as it could have.” Carter stated. “I think there’s still a stigma that directors are male, and they’re not. Our stories are being told more and more.”
Carter further talked about her process for designing the costumes for both Black Panther movies; she said the most difficult part of their design is combining traditional, tribal styles with more modern clothing designs.
“I think that to infuse the tribal techniques of Africa into a modern film and then bring in technology and not make it look forced is challenging. To make things feel rooted in tribal customs but not sitting back in time is a challenge. To make things feel modern yet honoring their forebears is also an honor.”
In particular, Carter highlighted the uniforms of the Dora Milaje, an elite group of female warriors who are essential to the world and story of the Black Panther. “[The uniforms] honored the female form by having elements that redirected the eye towards a standard of beauty that wasn’t in your face … so there’s bead work, there’s tribal influences on that costume and it was challenging to pull that together,” she stated.
When asked about her favorite part about her job, Carter shared that it is “the transformation in the fitting room between the actor that enters the room and the character that they become.” Fellow costume designer Zophres, who is nominated for her work on “Babylon,” agrees. “It gives me goosebumps every time,” Zophres shared. “It feels like you’re going on a journey with a fellow artist.”
“We wanted the opposite of a 1920s film …. It was the hardest movie I’ve ever done.” Zophres further discussed the difficulty in creating a wardrobe for a massive cast. One scene in the film had over 1,000 actors, and Zophres claimed that not a single bit of computer-generated imagery was used to create or alter their clothing.
Zophres also discussed her hope that more female directors start to make films. “I wish there were more female ones — I’d love to work with a female director,” she shared.
Director Alvergue, who is nominated for Best Short Documentary Film for “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” described her film as “a case study in gaslighting.” “You can’t not look at her,” Alvergue added when discussing her documentary’s protagonist Martha Mitchell, wife of former President Richard Nixon’s cabinet member John N. Mitchell, who is famed for her response to the Watergate scandal. “We discovered Martha as this hidden figure of history, and she had been silenced. We discovered this larger tale of gaslighting,” Alvergue explained.
Sound editor Yates Whittle is nominated for Best Sound Editing for her work on the film “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which was an international success and is also nominated for Best Picture. She was also a sound editor for the films “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Titanic” and the first “Avatar” film. Three films that she has worked on are in the top-five-highest-grossing movies of all time.
“Sound design is usually by men — not always — it’s kind of like this weird division,” Yates Whittle shared.
When discussing the importance that sound editing plays in the Avatar franchise, Yates Whittle attributed the relationship that it shares with animation to the film’s success and connections that it forms with its audience. “You forget that they’re blue, that they’re not human, because of sound and animation and working together,” she stated.
“I will do [sound editing] for as long as I can because I love the people and every job is completely different.”