Sexism in VFX: Q+A with Kylee Wall Pena

Sexism in VFX: Q+A with Kylee Wall Pena
Kylee Pena (second from left) on a gender-diversity panel in 2014 courtesy of Kylee Pena

I recently chatted with the amazing editor Kylee Wall Pena for our episode on women in the visual effects (VFX) and post-production industries. Kylee's an outspoken advocate for women and diversity in the film industry, and she lent us some great perspective.

Caroline: Introduce yourself! How'd you wind up in your job?

Courtesy of Kylee Pena

Kylee: I'm a workflow supervisor at a company that manages workflow and dailies for TV and film. What that means is that a TV show or a movie will hire us to manage everything that happens from the camera, through the editing, and then through to the finishing, which includes VFX and color and everything that has to do with delivery. Every show is different and involves different people and needs, so I'm there to keep a handle on everything, test things before the show starts and facilitate communication.

"Dailies" is an old film term and it is a pretty big component of the job from day to day - when they shoot stuff on set, it comes to us on hard drives usually, and we manage that media and also create lower resolution media that's all synced up with audio and organized. This usually happens overnight, then the editors can come in the following morning and start working right away. Later on, this low resolution media will be replaced with the original media from the camera. Keeping it lower quality allows them to deal with a lot of media and get it more quickly.

I got this job through networking in Atlanta when I lived there. Every job I've gotten was from a connection; I've never just applied and entered the interview process that way. Most of the jobs in the entertainment industry are like that. Before this job, I was an editor for six years, after I finished college. After those six years spent editing corporate and then news/documentary and reality programming, I wanted to go into scripted television, and the timing was right to leave my editing job. So I got a job with the company I'm at now as a production assistant and then worked my way up to a technician and then supervisor.

C: What's going on in the post-production industry that's creating such upheaval - companies getting shuttered, jobs sent overseas - when it seems like every movie NEEDS VFX?

K: The VFX industry has a variety of problems but I think the main issue has been that there isn't enough highly paid work in the US to support big VFX companies. They can't compete with foreign tax subsidies, or small shops that can charge less because of the lower overhead to operate. If you're a one-man shop, you don't have to pay for the things a large company pays for, but you might be just as able to finish the work satisfactorily as the big corporation. You're more flexible, and your profit margins don't have to be so high to keep going. So the disappearing profit margins have wrecked a lot of the old mainstay VFX houses. And I think that's happening in ways for a lot of companies, in the entertainment industry and beyond. But I think a big part of that is these companies haven't evolved and figured out new ways to run their businesses to compete with other organizations.

A big issue is that there's this concept in the VFX world that you make a fixed bid on a job, and if you go over that bid, you're responsible for the overrun. Like you might tell a studio or production company that you can do all the effects for their movie for $10,000, but then it ends up needing $15,000 worth of work and there's not necessarily any negotiation upward. That really sucks. So a formerly large VFX company like Rhythm and Hues, who won the Oscar for VFX for Life of Pi the same year they filed for bankruptcy and laid off all the artists that worked on the film, has to bid on these jobs at a fixed price that is way lower than what they should charge to keep their doors open, and then they're constantly losing money on the job.

There are deeper aspects of this that people who are in deep with VFX and actually stood with the union to protest would offer, but that's my overview of the situation.

C: What aspects of the post-production industry prove difficult for parents and families?

K: A major challenge for parents and families in the post-production industry is the unpredictability of the days and the required long hours. For freelance editors, a standard day is 10 hours. If you work on set, it's 12. Unions have done a lot to guarantee fair wages and overtime, but there are lots of non-union jobs, and they take advantage of people. People who work on set have a standard TWELVE-hour day, five or six days a week! It's just the way the culture has been built, in part because they want to squeeze every last bit of work out of you in as few days as possible, partially because creativity often benefits from a marathon session.

There's also a culture of not wanting to go against the grain because they'll hire someone else. If you put up a fight and demand an eight-hour day, they probably won't hire you for a job because there are a dozen other people that'll fill that role. Or if you are working a gig and you want to leave at a certain time, many people look at you as not being a team player even if you are getting your work done and doing it better. And a lot of people might have heard the phrase "fix it in post" - that's not a joke, a lot of stuff runs downhill, and people in post end up having to fix stuff at the last minute, which can really mess up your day or week or weekend. It is expected that you will do whatever it takes to make a deadline.

And being a parent or not also can change how people think of you in post production. Knowing the culture of late nights and long days, the people who hire staff may avoid people with children. This is particularly true of women. Men with children are often not thought of as a flight risk because it's assumed they have a woman around to take care of the kids. But I've talked to high-level female editors who have cut some of the biggest films of the last 10 years, and they've told me they've been asked in interviews if they have children! That's SO illegal, but it happens a lot. And we have to go with it sometimes to get ahead. At the same time, I know of some female editors who work with good companies and requested certain work hours in order to be home with children, and those companies comply because they know the value of good, happy editors.

I think people outside the entertainment industry will see some patterns reflected here that happen in all jobs - women are judged harsher for having children, and large companies are requiring more and more from people with no regard for their childcare needs.

Kylee and two of her coworkers
Courtesy of Kylee Pena

C: I've read about a bro-y culture in tech in general, but in post-production and VFX environments in particular. Does this culture have an effect on workers and ultimately what viewers see on screen?

K: In post production there is generally less of an outright BRO culture. It's more an institutional sexism and gender bias that is pervasive in post - a lot of people that think they aren't sexist and don't see or acknowledge the barriers keeping women away. That's almost harder to deal with than outright sexism in many ways, since it's not so blatant as someone smacking your ass or cat-calling you. It's more like the little voice in your head that assumes a woman is a receptionist instead of an executive producer when you walk in the door of a media company.

This sexist culture has a major effect on workers, and then on what viewers see on screen. According to research from San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, there's something like 18 to 20 percent of post jobs filled by women, on average. Coincidentally, I once read an article written by Geena Davis that suggested that the number of women we typically see on screen, in a crowd of extras for example, is usually about 18 percent. This has become the normal amount for women in these places. If you have more than 18 percent, the perception is that women are dominating the scene or the room. San Diego State also releases annual research about the number of women in front of and behind the camera, with abysmally low numbers going back 20 years, despite the perception that things are getting better - again, we're talking about it more, so people think it's been solved. The reality is that male speaking characters far outnumber female speaking characters. Male characters' jobs are almost always defined, but women may not even be named characters - if their jobs are disclosed on screen, it's something typically "female." All these things persist stereotypes about women.

And it comes from the people making the show. The Directors Guild of America recently released a diversity report that looked at 4,000 episodes of television across 220 series on network and cable television. Only 16 percent of these episodes were directed by women. And 27 of the series had ZERO female directors all season. Just 19 of the series listed hired women or minorities to direct 40 percent or more of the episodes. Going back to San Diego State University's research, on broadcast programs with no women executive producers, females accounted for 37 percent of major characters. On programs with at least one woman executive producer, females comprised 43 percent of major characters. On broadcast programs with no women executive producers, women accounted for 6 percent of writers. On programs with at least one woman executive producer, women comprised 32 percent of writers.

There's a pattern here - women hire women, and they put women on screen to inspire other women. But for women to get to the point where they can hire, they have to make it through a tricky pipeline - that's why diversity efforts are so important. Another interesting anecdote: The showrunner for The Shield found that the female writers weren't speaking up anymore in the writer's room. He found out that the reason was because they were constantly being interrupted by the men. When they spoke up, they were seen as being too emotional or aggressive. So the showrunner banned interruptions in the writers room.

Kylee (center left) and Megan McGough (center right), the production manager for the PBS series FRONTLINE, put together a meet-up for women and minority members at the 2014 National Association of Broadcasters.
Courtesy of Kylee Pena

C: Are the factors keeping women out unique to VFX/post-production, or is it the same ol' story that we hear about STEM jobs in general?

K: There are unique aspects to post production that require its own initiatives to get women in the pipeline - it's an odd cross section of creativity and engineering, and it's got very specific challenges from day to day. That said, the most basic aspects of gender bias that keep women out of these fields can be applied to pretty much any industry where women are a minority. There's an institutional sexism that keeps women out - men (and women) make assumptions about what women want: they don't want to work these hours because they want to have kids, they don't like dealing with computers, they aren't interested in this stuff. The idea a lot of people get is that if women wanted to do it, they would, but that's false. If you look at enrollment in media programs like USC or NYU film schools, or the media program at Savannah College of Art and Design (which is a large college for more media, less film type education), the numbers are 50-50 male-female. Women are interested, and there is a bias against hiring them that is often so internalized, you don't even realize you're doing it.

For example, women are often judged more harshly than men. Their resumes might get a closer look. If they speak up, they're seen as aggressive - while an outspoken man is seen as authoritative. There's a delicate tight rope walk women have to do, balancing between being a door mat and being aggressive. Women aren't usually looked at for promotions because it's assumed they're happy where they are or they don't want the additional work since they'll likely care for children, so they have to constantly remind people they want to keep moving. Being a minority, you're under higher scrutiny to succeed - if you fail, it's "the woman sucks," so you represent your whole gender. That's a lot of work on top of the already difficult post-production industry, where things are constantly changing and the demand on your work is through the roof. Add on the fact that society still dictates that women are caretakers and take on more of the household work even if they have a partner that works - something that the women internalize just as much as men - and you can see how the women who do get hired might not make it up the pipeline.

It's hard to make it to the table for an interview because of the bias. It's hard to stay in the pipeline because of a bias. It's an upward battle for women, even if they have no desire to have kids anytime soon. But it's hard to make anyone acknowledge their own casual sexism because it doesn't feel tangible. But I found that once people do begin to realize these patterns are happening, they recognize it and can correct it. And a major solution to this is to just force your company, if you're in such a position, to seek out female candidates. Look at them all closely, and commit to hiring many of them.

A lot of articles and panels about women in film talk about how women can change to fit in better with this world, and some of the advice is good if it means getting yourself back to acting like yourself at work. It means not laughing at a man's joke if it's not funny. Or not apologizing when it's not your fault. But only if that's how you WANT to act. So much of this advice places the blame on women, when the truth of the matter is that women have to be hired, and that is difficult in fields dominated by men - men hire people that they know and people that look like them. To hire a woman is to go against the grain right now - and it needs to be normal.

C: What are some good ways to attract and keep more women in VFX/post-production?

K: Merely having a diverse staff, a mix of minorities and genders, is a great way to attract women in the post production industry. A diverse staff works better together and creates better work. And it becomes self-correcting in that the gender or racial bias that persists falls to the wayside when so many of the people you work with have their own experiences to share. By changing your culture to be inherently more accepting and interesting, you create a more friendly environment with fewer institutionalized barriers. Of course you can also add other support systems - flexible work hours, health care, child care - but in post production that would be a major endeavor. So I stick to the basics: Hire women. Hire minorities. Lots of them. Consider correcting the numbers your own moral imperative, and the rest will work itself out.

C: Why should we (and our general population of lady listeners) care about getting more women into the industry and about the conditions of that industry?

K: As you can see from my cited research, women behind the scenes means more women in stories ON screen. It means more female characters that are interesting and flawed and real, and have all kinds of jobs. Female characters that may choose to have children or not, get married or not. They might make huge mistakes or have huge successes. They might talk about things that people have had a hard time talking about. And that will normalize the conversation when it comes to "women's" topics. It creates role models for young women in all kinds of fields. How many young women have told Gillian Anderson they went into science because of her character on The X-Files? Lots and lots. Television and film is not life or death (although many studios or executives might tell you otherwise), but it has a HUGE impact on how young women (and men) see themselves. While we work on diversity within our own post-production teams, that will trickle outward into the media we create, and that will help correct the gender bias that hurts women in all kinds of industries.

To hear more from Kylee, check out her personal blog and her work for Creative Cow.