A Storyteller’s Animated Journey
The animated film industry is notoriously challenging, requiring the efforts of dozens of artists and technicians, often laboring unseen, to make it all work. Lynne Southerland’74 is one such person, and she has spent the last few decades making her mark in a variety of studios in Los Angeles. Along the way, she has made a point of helping others break into this competitive field, especially people who have been historically underrepresented in animation.
Southerland’s love of storytelling started early. Growing up in Philadelphia, she used to sneak to the top of the stairwell to spy on her parents while they entertained guests. Along with the sounds of laughter, music, and ice dropping into glasses, she could hear her father’s voice as he held court, telling stories. “I loved hearing him talk whether it was simply us or from the staircase late on a Saturday night when I should have been asleep,” she says. Looking back, she remembers her dad as “something of a beacon.”
She also gained inspiration from the silver screen. An avid movie fan, she would spend the weekends binge-watching whatever was on TV.
Southerland discovered Beloit through her friend’s mother, who happened to be her guidance counselor. From the start, she was drawn to the college’s unique structure, which was in the midst of the Beloit Plan era. “I loved the idea of looking at the four-year chunk [of college] in a different configuration,” she recalls. “It’s more than about education … it’s about where we’ll be birthed into the next part of our lives.”
Beloit was also where she got to further explore her passion for film. She took an independent study course with Professor Art Robson, who taught Classics and film studies. Robson led Southerland and a fellow student through screenings and discussions of various films. Southerland also expanded her cinematic knowledge through a weekly ritual with Meg Hargrave’74, her roommate. Every Sunday night, they would cobble together a meal—sometimes an entire cheesecake—and head to Beloit’s student union in the Smith Building to watch movies. This was where she was introduced to such artists as Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, and where she experienced the magic of seeing her favorite film, The Wizard of Oz, in color for the first time. The experience “really helped to open up my sense of the possibilities of what a movie could be,” Southerland recalls.
She also made many strong friendships at Beloit. Hargrave lived on the same floor as Southerland in Aldrich Hall, before becoming her roommate. “I just remember her being so friendly and easygoing … She just seemed so sure of herself,” Hargrave says of Southerland. Although they were only at Beloit together for a year, the two of them had many adventures, and they’ve stayed in touch. Southerland is godmother to Hargrave’s oldest daughter. “Something about our experience together has just kind of kept that bond up,” Hargrave explains.
Another friend, Sidney Thomas’74, gravitated to Southerland right away because of a shared interest in the arts. “She was a good resource for acquainting me with film and literature and other things I hadn’t really been exposed to,” he recalls. They attended such Beloit staples as Folk ‘n’ Blues and took trips to Madison for concerts. “Lynne just had a presence … but she was also very humble, very kind,” Thomas recalls.
In true Beloit fashion, Southerland pursued multiple passions. Just before the deadline for declaring her major, she flipped through the course catalog and landed on the comparative literature page. “I started reading it, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s me!’” Looking back, it was the perfect launch pad. “If you’re reading literature, you’re reading storytelling,” she says. “I allowed myself to follow the breadcrumbs.”
On to L.A.
After post-graduation stints in nearby Janesville, and her hometown of Philadelphia, Southerland decided to fully commit to the creative life. She moved to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a film editor and took a job working for a travel agency, while looking for ways to break in to the film industry. Opportunity struck during a trip to Cuba with her employer, where she met a group of documentarians. She worked for them free of charge, while learning about the nuances of film.
Southerland spent the early 1980s working on a variety of projects and trying to join the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild, which had a reputation of being closed off. Her first major paid position was with Bill Burrud Productions, noted for such programs as Animal World. Southerland had grown up watching this show, so working with them was a dream come true. As it turns out, she was also blazing a trail by taking this post—she was the first black woman to work for the company. “It speaks to how narrow the industry was,” Southerland recalls. “I was breaking open one little door.”
The company was also where she met a mentor who finally got her into the Editor’s Guild. Southerland worked on live-action films such as The Naked Gun, and Sister Act 2. While she was working on Throw Momma from the Train, a chance meeting with two animators at a friend’s party got her involved in the field of animation. She edited a low-budget, live-action horror film for them, and shortly after, they asked her to come work with them on an animated movie for Paramount Pictures. She suggested approaching the animated film with live-action editorial techniques. This innovative impulse, along with her overall drive, earned Southerland an associate producer credit. Bébé’s Kids came out in 1992, one of the first animated cinematic releases to feature an all-black cast. In an even greater step forward for the industry, the editorial team she worked on was composed entirely of African-American women.
Southerland later started producing animated projects such as 1995’s Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, which retold classic stories in multicultural contexts. It was a bold approach in the 1990s, and netted its share of celebrity appearances. “If you think of a person of color who was happening then, they probably did a voice for us,” Southerland recalls. In addition to being her first producing role, the project represented a shift toward more child-friendly material. Southerland found that she loved the opportunity to change the landscape of children’s entertainment. “I like and feel proud of working on things that expand the imagination of children and make people laugh, and for the most part have a kind of innocence about them,” she adds. After the series ended, she did some editorial work for DreamWorks in its early days.
Then Disney came calling. The studio was moving into an era of direct-to-DVD sequels, and Southerland played a role in several of them. Her first project for the studio was producing An Extremely Goofy Movie in 2000, and soon after, she co-directed Mulan II, the follow-up to the 1998 hit. Southerland relished the opportunity to build on the world of the original film and its strong female protagonist. As her first directorial position, it also exercised her creative muscles. “Directing really challenges you to be flexible of mind,” she says.
After Disney, Southerland moved on to Mattel to help develop shows for two of their toy lines: Enchantimals and Monster High. As a showrunner, Southerland was able to expand on those worlds while placing female characters—and their close friendships—at the center. She particularly enjoyed working on Monster High because of the opportunity to create more complex teenage characters, and eventually developed the idea for Adventures of the Ghoul Squad, a miniseries in which the main friends—all children of famous monsters—travel the world to help others and solve mysteries.
“I didn’t have to figure out who these characters were … there was a whole history that I could expand on,” she says. In contrast, Enchantimals, which was created to promote a new line of human-animal hybrid toys and their animal friends, offered a different but welcomed opportunity for creative expansion: “The more you play with it, the more it grows.”
Southerland’s work is powered by a belief in making human connections. Maude Lewis first worked with Southerland in the Disneytoon Studios and was immediately struck by her professional and personal generosity. “In this huge machine, it’s very hard to find people who focus on people,” she says, recalling the monthly lunches and mentoring sessions that Southerland would conduct with women of color on the staff. “She was really welcoming, a good teacher, and very patient.”
For Jesyca Durchin, a former colleague at Mattel, Southerland’s broad range of experience was evident early on. “Lynne brought a lot of seniority and experience to her role, and it was easy to see how passionate she was,” she recalls. Durchin praises Southerland’s awareness of a global audience, and her ability to make broadly accessible content. The stories she’s worked on have their roots in cultures all over the world, and that perspective has carried over into more recent projects. Durchin explains that you really had to think globally for shows like Enchantimals, which was produced in 16 languages. Durchin says that she was very adept at using broader humor, rather than puns and other linguistic signposts, to tell the story. “Lynne has an editor’s eye,” she says.
These days, Southerland focuses more on the written word. She keeps a basket near her desk full of scribbled paper notes that might, one day, lead to her next story. So far, she’s published several short stories for children, and has two manuscripts in the works. Outta Toon follows the adventures of a biracial middle schooler who discovers that he is half human, half cartoon. In The All At Once Time, a YA novel, stems from her fascination with Aboriginal culture. The story features two young female protagonists, born 8,000 years apart, who are linked both by the land they live on and by the tragic loss of their mothers.
As with all of her work, the manuscripts center on diverse stories that place young people front and center. Although she did not initially seek a career in children’s media, Southerland relishes the chance to encourage valuable conversations through storytelling. When it comes to family fare, “I always feel like you shouldn’t play down to kids… it’s OK to push beyond what’s familiar to them,” she says.
Much the same could be said about diversity in the working world of animation. As one of the pioneers bridging the gap between the limited options of early media and the current progressive trends, Southerland is keenly aware of the shifts. Citing the entertainment landscape now—with media giants such as Netflix increasingly focused on underrepresented demographics, and culturally diverse characters at the helm of many major animated films—she says, “I feel like we are in a pretty amazing place right now.”
Kiernyn Orne-Adams is a reader, writer, and roamer, currently based in Tacoma, Wash. She enjoys uncovering new stories, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and mercilessly abusing her library card privileges.