As a child, Sunita Balsara dreamed of becoming an aerospace engineer. When she got to Grade 9, however, she realized mathematics was not her friend.
“I was lucky enough to have an animation class in high school, though. I was kind of obsessed with it,” she says in a Zoom interview. She was that kid who always doodled on the page in class and went “way overboard” for the short film she needed to submit for her final assignment. “My teacher was like, ‘You know you can do this for a job.’ It didn’t sound real. I thought she was making that up.”
Her Mississauga high school teacher helped Balsara to convince her parents to let her enroll in Sheridan College’s bachelor of arts program, which led to a position with Nelvana Studios, working on shows such as Bubble Guppies, Thomas & Friends and Corn & Peg. She also published twice in indie comic anthologies.
Although appreciative of the creative possibilities at work, Balsara often found herself feeling stuck. So when an e-mail popped in her inbox, offering an opportunity to apply for the third batch of the ACE program, she decided to apply.
The immersive Animation Career Excel-erator (ACE) initiative is aimed at mid-level animation professionals across Canada, who identify as women and non-binary. It provides mentorship and training opportunities for participants over a period of two years, as they create their own short film and earn a key creative credit.
At its inception in 2018, the program offered five roles and was limited to participants based in British Columbia. When Netflix came on board for the third batch, which commenced in early 2022, the program expanded Canada-wide and added two more roles.
Balsara and other members of the third cohort are set to present their resulting short film Ostinato, which will have its world premiere at the Spark Animation Festival this weekend in Vancouver.
ACE came about when founder and executive producer Rose-Ann Tisserand noticed women weren’t rising up the ranks to take on key creative roles in the industry, despite more women attending animation schools than men.
“What happens to them? Why do they go away? The goal was to build a complete risk-free, bulletproof program to find women and give them the skills to succeed,” says Tisserand, also the executive producer and co-founder of Vancouver-based Flying Kraken Creative Studios.
“We asked them to show up and be ready – for taking risks and being vulnerable because that’s what we really need in order for them to succeed. We know women don’t apply for jobs as much as men unless they feel more qualified than they need to be.”
Taking risks involved being confident enough to claim ownership of a project, while being vulnerable meant owning up to instances of being overwhelmed – whether it was as admission of not knowing a particular industry jargon or the need to tend to sick children.
The program taught her to speak about herself, says Balsara. At the start, when all the shortlisted candidates introduced themselves, she was struck by how everyone described themselves as dabblers – even though almost all the participants were well-established writers. In fact, Balsara wasn’t expecting to get picked for the program, instead aiming to attend the series of workshops it offered.
“When Rose-Ann called me and told me – ‘You’ve been selected’ – I genuinely thought she had the wrong number,” says Balsara, laughing.
Her ideas are partially inspired by her experience growing up and not seeing herself reflected in animated works – although Balsara is quick to add that stories are much more inclusive today. She starts with an emotion and then develops a plot, which usually focuses on a woman of colour struggling with a particular issue.
Her pitch for the ACE program was inspired by the experience of the pandemic and the cultural conversations around a new normal. When her mentors encouraged her to make her idea more personal rather than metaphorical, Balsara delved into her experiences dealing with tinnitus.
“It runs in my family, so I kind of know that it’s coming for me,” she says. And so the film became about “my relationship to change in the context of disability. … How am I going to adapt? There is this idealized version of the past self – a real denial of how we can’t go back. Sometimes we just have to accept the change and let go of that old version of yourself. Or the world.”
It’s important to hear women’s stories told in their own way, says Tisserand. To that end, the ACE Canada program will continue in 2024. Applications will open at this year’s Spark Animation Festival, and the shortlisted candidates will be announced in March, 2024, on International Women’s Day.
“We just want to make sure these women don’t get lost,” she says.
Special to The Globe and Mail