The Women of ‘Star Wars’


Jyn Erso is not a princess or a Jedi. She is, however, the second female character with a lead role in a “Star Wars” movie in the last two years. It’s a statistic that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, when Princess Leia reigned alone in a galaxy of men and her dialogue was less than half that of the golden droid C-3PO in “A New Hope.” But even with the advent of back-to-back female protagonists, the women onscreen are only now catching up with those working behind the scenes at Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects studio founded by George Lucas.

Take Rachel Rose, who has spent the last decade as an engineer at the studio. As a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa, Ms. Rose had never programmed a computer. She was surprised to find that in her introductory computer science courses, her classmates were all men and had been coding for years. Ms. Rose soon caught up with them, and by the time she graduated with her doctorate in computer science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she had become accustomed not only to software design and computer graphics, but also to being the only woman in the room.

So she was stunned when she began work at the studio and found herself surrounded by women, particularly in leadership, “It made me feel less out of place,” she said. After her development of virtual production and camerawork for the 2016 Jyn Erso adventure “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Ms. Rose was recently promoted to supervisor of research and development. She is part of a quiet revolution now taking place at the company, where women account for 60 percent of studio leadership, and have created memorable effects for many blockbuster franchises, including “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “The Avengers,” “Star Trek” and “Jurassic Park.” Women also account for half of the company’s entry-level ranks.

The entertainment industry is not usually so welcoming. In 2016, women represented 19 percent of all of behind-the-scenes employment in American films, according to the Center for Women in Television and Film. It is a percentage that has remained unchanged for 20 years. Although the visual effects department typically hires the largest number of employees in big-budget films, the number of women working in the field is exceptionally low. Women made up just 5 percent of all visual effects supervisors on the 250 top-grossing films in 2014 (the last year for which figures are available), and many teams employed no women artists whatsoever.

“The first step is for people in leadership to say this is not acceptable,” said Lynwen Brennan, the general manager of Lucasfilm, and the president and general manager of Industrial Light & Magic. (While Industrial Light & Magic was started to generate special effects for “Star Wars,” the visual effects studio is now the largest in the motion picture industry, working not only with Lucasfilm but also with studios across the globe.)

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