By JIM VOREL - H&R Staff Writer
LINCOLN — When Brenda Chapman was called to the stage at the 2012 Academy Awards in February to accept an Oscar for Pixar’s Scottish adventure “Brave,” she became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
It was the zenith of her career to date, but in another sense hardly new territory for Chapman, who was also the first woman to direct an animated feature film by a major studio with 1998’s “The Prince of Egypt.” The former storyboard artist has proven herself a trailblazer, but few in Hollywood have likely heard of her home, the small town of Beason, population 189. The small burg lies on Illinois 10, directly between Lincoln and Clinton.
“It was a very Norman Rockwell sort of small town, where people took meticulous care of their yards and went to church every Sunday,” recalled the Oscar-winner. “I still keep in touch with a lot of people I knew in elementary school from there. Back then, I just drew all the time, always drawing. When I was in high school I saw ‘The Secret of NIMH,’ and said that someday my name would be on a movie like that.”
Chapman attended Lincoln High School and then Lincoln College, where she took “every art class I could possibly take” before graduating with an Associate of Arts degree. She returned to Lincoln College on Saturday, May 4, to accept an honorary degree in honor of her numerous accomplishments in the field of animation in the years since. After getting her bachelor’s degree at the California Institute of Arts, she got her start as a storyboard artist for Disney in the late 1980s.
“I began as a cleanup artist on ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ and then went back to storyboards for ‘The Rescuers Down Under,’ ” Chapman said. “I really enjoyed storyboarding more than animation because it’s more about solving the puzzle of the story and figuring out the characters. We have to explore who these characters are, what they do and what kinds of personalities they have.”
In fact, Chapman referred to storyboarding as being like a “mini-director,” overseeing one major part of an animated film’s construction. She eventually grew interested in moving on to full-on direction, which entails still more duties. In directing an animated film, someone like Chapman isn’t working with just actors but animators, artists, storyboarders and vocal talent, all in the same day.
This desire eventually brought Chapman to Pixar, where she created the initial concept for “Brave” and shepherded it through early development for more than six years. As such, it was a great shock and disappointment at the time when she was removed from the project partway through and replaced by director Mark Andrews due to creative differences with the studio.
“I had created the foundation of the characters, the story, the look of the film and brought in the composer,” she said. “So I was certainly concerned at the time when I was taken off the project. The production continued and they tried some other things, but ultimately they ended up using most of my original concepts.”
Indeed, enough of Chapman’s original vision remained that she still feels very proud of the final product today, particularly after its success at the Academy Awards. There, she accepted the Oscar alongside Andrews as “co-director.”
“I felt incredibly vindicated,” she admitted. “I was mostly concerned about the mother-daughter relationship, and the final film reflects that very well, although the men come off a bit more as doofuses than I originally imagined. For me though, the biggest thing about Oscar night was having my daughter there with me and being able to tell her what she meant to me.”
With the win, Chapman became one of the most historically significant women in Western animation. Most of it, though, she attributes to coincidence, simply the result of a young and hungry animator trying to work on the best projects she could at the time. Today, however, she has come to take the idea of being a role model much more seriously.
“I was just trying to have a career of my own; I never remotely thought that I was being some kind of trailblazer,” she said. “But now, seeing how many more women are going into animation, I realize that women like myself followed their dream and helped give inspiration to others. Now I take it pretty seriously.”
For Chapman, that means she wants to continue working on movies like “Brave,” especially ones featuring female protagonists. Most recently, she’s returned to DreamWorks Studios, and is currently working on developing several yet-to-be-announced projects.
“My films in the future will continue to have strong female heroes,” she said. “I still love fairy tales and making movies, and I still love a strong female character that everyone wants to watch, boys and girls alike.”