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EXCLUSIVE: Film Historian Mindy Johnson Discusses Classic Disney Animation And The Uncredited Women Who Helped Create It (INTERVIEW)

Mindy Johnson is an award-winning author, historian, filmmaker, and educator who primarily takes in pride in uncovering – and crediting – the women behind so many classic animated Disney films.

This weekend, she’ll be hosting a presentation about some of those women, while also showcasing several of the projects they contributed at New York City’s Film Forum.

In anticipation of her special presentation, Johnson sat down with The DisInsider to not only provide a preview of the show and the women who will be discussed, but to share some information about Disney shorts that most people might not be too familiar with and their historical importance.

You can read some of the conversation down below!

DEMPSEY PILLOT: I know a lot of people may not know who you are. And I know there are a lot of people who do, but for those who don’t know who you are, do you want to just give us a brief introduction what your background is in and why you’re so important?

MINDY JOHNSON: My background is in film and television production and music. I’m also a musician, and I currently teach, I write, I create, produce [and] direct a number of things. But my my work is primarily focused these days in research into the earliest women of our animated past. And my written work, my various books and other projects that are out there at this point, focus on Disney. But my research goes far beyond that these days. So pick a day and you’ll you’ll get a different answer for what I’m doing that day. But that’s half the fun of it.

DP: Absolutely, absolutely. I can relate wearing many hats myself. So Now why is Disney important to you? Or why do you find it to be such an interesting rabbit hole to dive into?

MJ: You know, I’m one of those kids that every Sunday night, my brothers and it was the Sunday Wonderful World of Disney. That sparked my imagination in ways far more than any classroom or concert experience or something. It was a weekly infusion of magic. And to me, I’m one of those, as why I explore the history of Disney a lot and our history, I’m curious about the the history we don’t know. To paraphrase, I it’s like what President Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is the history that you don’t know.” And that to me is endlessly fascinating. And where I spend a large part of my work these days, Disney has always been a part of the tapestry. It was a magic place to go to and and I find myself in the movies a lot, as much as possible, still. So there’s something there, and so it was a big part of what hooked me to study film, to [become] a graduate of the American Film Institute. I’ve lived and worked in New York and television out of Kaufman Astoria Studios and just had some great experiences there. Then made my way out to Southern California to continue studying and working in the industry.

DP: I want to touch back on what you said about history being so rich. And I think one of Disney’s most interesting – and probably ashamed – examples is Song of the South, which I’m pretty sure you’re aware of. I don’t want to go into too much detail on it, but stuff like that I didn’t know existed. And that’s a negative thing. Right? And I know that there are so many fascinating things [Disney’s done]. I think Disney’s first feature length animated quote unquote “feature length animated film” (because it is still short) was Snow White. Correct me if I’m wrong. It’s like a little over an hour long. But I I know that they dabbled in tons of animation before that. So are there any tidbits or facts that you know, the public may not be aware of, or like, projects that women were either involved in behind the scenes or in front of that, like I said, not a lot of people are aware of that you’d like to share that you’ve discovered?

MJ: Well, women – if we’re talking specifically about Disney Animation – again, my research goes way beyond. But with regard to Disney, for many years, I ran the global campaigns for the classic animated titles. So I got to go in and dive into the artwork and live in the archives and explore and work with many of the early artists behind these great classic titles. And I got to introduce new generations to this brilliant artistry – just incredible magic. And what I also in working there was learning about a lot of myths, a lot of things that are false perceptions. Stories that were just told like, “Oh, no, it was pretty girls who traced and colored,” and, “Yeah, they just pulled women off the street.” I quickly began to discover and make some really remarkable discoveries. That led me to writing and to dispel a lot of these myths. So all of my early books are really kind of unearthing stories that we never really knew. And one of the many myths that are centered around women at Disney and in animation overall, is that there were only three or four women who worked [but] there were thousands of women. In fact, the very first employee of the Walt Disney Company was a woman. Her name was Kathleen Dollard. She was the first person Walt and Roy hired, and she was brought in to do a little bit of everything from blackening in the cells, because you just worked with black ink, so that the images could be read on very, not very sensitive film at that time in the 20s and, in fact, I have it on very good authority from her family that a very young Walt Disney proposed to her. But she turned him down because she didn’t think he was going to amount to anything. So look at all this great [history]. We’ve missed out on some really rich stuff by not knowing about her and her contributions. There’s a lot of lovely books and a lot of wonderful films and projects that talk about Disney history. But they largely focus on our men – which are great. We love our men, but we’ve only known half the story. And we’ve all missed out on this incredible history of our animated past. And then you look at [my book], I got to researching and learned that holy cow, these women were everywhere. And they were doing far more than what anyone had ever written about because it was so complex, so detailed and so vital. When we look at the pencil drawings, we’re looking essentially at the blueprints, which is, of course, an original idea, but these women were the crafts! women and artisans and true master works. artists who were giving us that final colorful look at the animation that we know and love. We’ve never talked about color and how that’s achieved and how, through various techniques and technology that women were responsible for how that all came about. So we’ve missed out. So anything out there prior to my work is kind of obsolete because it’s incomplete. We haven’t heard about the entire production process. That brings us to the animation that we know and love.

You can listen to the rest of the conversation down below!

If you’re in the area on Sunday and interested in attending Mindy’s program, you can purchase tickets here.