Whose line is it anyway?

If you watched an animated film just eight years ago, it’s likely that fewer than one-third of the characters you saw and heard on screen were female. 

Jessica Heidt ’89 made that startling revelation in “Inside Pixar,” a documentary series that gives an inside look at the people and culture of Pixar Animation Studios. Heidt, a script supervisor at the animation giant, is featured in episode four (“Who gets all the lines?”) of the ten-part series currently streaming on Disney+.

Heidt manages Pixar scripts through all stages of production. While reviewing the screenplay for “Cars 3” in 2013, she became acutely aware of something.

“I was doing all of these recording sessions, and everything felt very heavily male,” Heidt remembered. “And I started to think, can I quantify this?” 

So she started tracking lines in the script to see if her instinct was right. 

It was.

It turns out there was a significant gender imbalance in the film. Heidt’s data revealed that 90% of lines spoken in “Cars 3” were by male characters. She created a robust database to share her findings with the movie’s director, writer, producer, head of story … anyone she thought had the power to change it.

The reaction from her colleagues was generally very positive. While many of the major characters in “Cars 3” were inherited from the earlier Cars films, Heidt said that team members were motivated to revisit the script and change the gender of some new characters after reviewing her data. 

Next, Heidt took a look at gender balance in all of Pixar’s films and calculated that about 75% of lines spoken were by male characters. 

Soon after, she was approached by a colleague in Pixar’s tools department, and the two partnered to develop an internal software program that counts film characters and lines by gender. Their next-level, gender-counting program was greenlit by studio executives and has been integrated into the process of making movies at Pixar ever since. 

Heidt, who was recently promoted to associate production manager, believes that gender balance has “absolutely gotten better since we started doing this work.” She cited the recent Academy Award-winning Pixar film, “Soul,” as having “almost a 50-50 split.”  

While recognizing that tracking scripts line-by-line can appear prescriptive, Heidt underscored the importance of gender balance in film and Pixar’s dedication to that endeavor.

Representation matters. Because I think it’s important, even if it’s a fish or a toy or a car, that people are able to see themselves or something they believe represents themselves on screen.”

“It’s important to let female characters be powerful and funny and all of the things that we are traditionally used to seeing in leading male characters. We’re also trying to be expressive of non-binary as well, and allow space for that.”

She added, “It’s important to be able to let everyone know that they are worth seeing and that they should have a voice. And that we care enough in this global company to say, ‘Yeah, what you have to say is important.’”

After Jessica Heidt ’89 documented significant gender imbalance in “Cars 3,” her colleagues at Pixar changed the gender of several characters, including Cruz Ramirez, pictured here to the right of returning character Lightning McQueen.

(Photo provided by Pixar Animation Studios.)