Change is good, as long as you are inspired.
At least, that’s what Ramsey Ann Naito ’92, an Academy Award-nominated producer and advocate of women in the animation industry, believes. The child of a painter mother and sculptor father, Naito spent her Baltimore childhood and young adult life as an artist. She loved to draw, creating her own coloring books instead of buying them from the store. And she loved to sculpt, welding her own materials by age 10.
“I identified with sculpture because I was a feminist,” Naito said. “I wanted to build things and I wanted to be the woman against nature and create architectural experiences for people.”
So it made sense that after graduating from the Baltimore School for the Arts she would attend MICA to pursue a degree in sculpture. She even received a master’s degree in fine arts from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where she spent most of her time building sculpture installations with sound.
But in 1996, despite never taking an animation course, she became a production assistant for the adult, animated television show Duckman.
“I was surprised to find an office job where there were 40 to 300 artists employed to draw and paint all day,” she said. “The experience was so creative, not like anything I ever experienced before, and I just got sucked in.”
As a result, her inspiration — and life — changed.
Naito is now one of the animation film industry’s leading female producers. Between 2000 and 2004, she helped produce Nickelodeon films like Rugrats in Paris, The Wild Thornberrys, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and The Sponge Bob SquarePants Movie. And in 2014, she joined Director Tom McGrath and produced The Boss Baby, an animated film starring Alec Baldwin that earned her an Oscar nomination for best animated feature film.
In March 2017, the California resident told the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: “I have the best job in the world because I get to go to work every day and be with artists who are always thinking creatively. They have so many different points of view about what they are creating. On The Boss Baby we had over 400 artists working on the film. It’s a very powerful and inspiring work setting.”
Throughout her education and career, women have played a predominant role, Naito said.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with women and for women and had strong female mentors that have always been there for me and been real role models,” she said.
Among those role models at MICA: Annet Couwenberg, a visual artist, MICA faculty member and former chair of the Fiber Department.
“She introduced to me a much wider range of materials to be used in art,” Naito said. “Fibers really stood out as a strong artistic division.”
But to Couwenberg, it was Naito who stood out.
“She was eager, she wanted to know more, and she was definitely trying to incorporate other ways of thinking,” Couwenberg said. “She had a certain amount of perseverance, intellectual ability, self-reliance, motivation and especially self-discipline.”
In fiber, Naito gravitated toward the concept of how people move in space — and how it relates to installation and special relationships, Couwenberg said. And that concept stayed with her, even as she entered the production world.
Couwenberg recalled a conversation she had with Naito early on in her professional career.
“She said, ‘Production is really thinking like an artist, it’s thinking in space, it’s thinking about relationships between objects,’” Couwenberg said. “I think those methods and techniques have really helped her to enter the field in a different way.”
In recent years, Naito has become a strong advocate for hiring more women in the animated film industry — especially in technical and creative roles. Before becoming a producer, she considered becoming a sound designer. Colleagues persuaded her to pursue administrative roles instead.
“As I reflect, I think women are often encouraged to go into more administration roles versus creative ones which is very old fashioned,” she said. “And because of this you’ll find a shortage of women in creative leadership. While I am very happy with my position as a producer, I recognize the advice given to me very much effected my trajectory.”
While the industry has made progress, there’s still more work to be done, she said. According to Naito, 70 percent of students attending animation schools are women, but only 20 percent of them receive jobs in creative roles after graduation. That’s why she joined forces with Women in Animation, an organization dedicated to advancing women in the field of animation.
“We still have disparaging rates for women and men,” she said. “And we don’t have an equal rights amendment for protecting women. So until we have an equal rights amendment protecting women, we have to keep our eyeballs open and aware and make sure that change continues to happen.”
Looking back on her time at MICA, Naito said she’s thankful for the school’s supportive, collaborative atmosphere.
“At MICA, you made art work all the time,” Naito said. “And it was really celebrated to be creative and to be collaborative and to be thinking, breathing and making. Look, I came into MICA not having dissimilar feelings about living and making art and being an individual. But going to a school like MICA and being part of a community where everyone was feeling that way was really exciting.”
And as for current students who are weighing their career options, “you can change your mind,” Naito said. After all, it worked for her.
“You might start your journey on one road that takes you on another, and that doesn’t mean that you failed or that you made a mistake,” she said. “It’s all just one journey. For me, I started off with a very artsy life and went to art school all my life. And then I became an animation producer. Because of my life and experience in art, it made me successful in this thing I never thought I was going to do. One thing might take you somewhere else, and that should be celebrated, as long as you’re always inspired.”
Next up for Naito: The third SpongeBob Square Pants movie.