An interview with Disney legend Floyd Norman
Disney legend Floyd Norman, who worked alongside Walt Disney, visited Sydney in late-2010 and caught up with IF Magazine for a chat about the world of animation.This article first appeared in IF #135, September 2010.
While Walt Disney was a traditionalist, he would have embraced the technology if he was alive today, Disney animation legend Floyd Norman says.
“He would just have been so full of ideas and who knows what things he would want to try next,” Norman tells IF Magazine.
Norman, now in his late-70s, says Walt would’ve been just like him – embracing the technology rather than dismissing it.
“Walt was enamoured with technology but looking back on it, it was really primitive in those days – it was really just basically analog technology and now with digital, it’s just expanded. Once you accept this technology, then instead of it being something that you feel is going to encroach on your artistic sensibility you realise, ‘no, this is only going to enhance what I do and it’s actually going to open up more artistic opportunities’.”
It’s been an amazing life for Norman – the first African-American to work at the company that created such characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, he was constantly drawing as a child and loved both Disney and Warner Bros cartoons.
“I loved the idea of moving drawings,” the well-spoken and passionate Norman says. “When my mother and I went to the cinema we saw these drawings up on the screen – I knew they weren’t real but I didn’t know what they were. I thought ‘well if they’re not real, they’re pictures – they’re moving pictures – but how do you make a picture move?’ and that became the question that stayed on my mind. So as I grew older I finally found the secret – I found out how they made the pictures move and that was by drawing lots of them, thousands of them.”
It was always likely that he would grow up working for an animation company – and he still is after more than 50 years. Approaching Disney when he was 17 but discovering he was a bit young, Norman attended the Art Centre College of Design before being hired by Walt two years later.
“It was a childhood dream come true. It was truly a wonderland,” Norman says of first seeing the massive empire. “There were very few books about Disney in those days – hardly a thing, but whatever there was I dug up… So I did learn as much as possible. And I got to know the names of the well-known Disney artists and what they did and how they worked so when I finally arrived at the studio I was very well versed in who was there and what they did. It was like going into a place and meeting all of your heroes for the first time; I was totally blown away by that.”
But like everyone, Norman had to pay his dues.
“You have to work from the bottom up; even those who wanted to move onto other departments like layout or background, they all began as in-betweeners,” he says.
Norman started work on Sleeping Beauty before graduating to the story department where he worked on The Jungle Book. He also did several comics, children’s books and story board work on shows and features including The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Tigger Movie.
What sort of a man was the legendary Walt Disney?
“He was a man who liked to control things, he was very much in charge, very much hands-on,” Norman begins. “He knew everything that was going on in his studio. The old-timers tell me that he would wander the hallways at night and look at what was on the artists’ desks at night so he knew what everybody was doing at all times – nothing escaped his eye.
“Some people called Walt Disney a workaholic, that he was obsessed with his studio but I wouldn’t call him obsessive – he loved what he did and he wanted it to be the best. And he felt that if he didn’t keep an eye on things then it could slip. He was obsessive about quality; very passionate.”
Even when in hospital towards the end, Norman explains, Walt was using the ceiling as a virtual map planning exactly where everything would be at Walt Disney World, including the animal park and rides. So it obviously came as a massive blow when the legend passed away in 1966 – exactly 10 years after Norman joined the empire.
“We were in total disbelief, total shock,” Norman says of Walt’s passing after he lost his battle with lung cancer. “Walt never showed any signs of his illness and even though he was going into the hospital for surgery late in the year 1966, he was still working with us on The Jungle Book with the same kind of drive and energy as a man half his age. He was just a dynamic individual and so focused on what he was doing – not only what he was doing in the present but what he intended to do in the future. That first 10 years after his passing was extremely difficult because we kind of flounded about for 10 years trying to find our footing.”
Disney’s world again changed four decades later when the Walt Disney Company bought Pixar for more than $US7 billion.
“Pixar really had a tremendous impact on animation,” Norman says who worked on Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. “When they completed Toy Story in 1995, I don’t think anybody realised what that film was going to do – I think it surprised Pixar really.”
Norman still visits the Pixar crew to offer advice and help out any which way he can. He of course loves how animation has taken off today because “it gives more kids an opportunity to work”.
“The job market has expanded tremendously so now there are more opportunities than ever,” Norman says, who met his second wife Adrienne – a Disney children’s book illustrator – at work.
“In the old days all you could hope for was maybe a job at Disney, or maybe a job at Warner Bros, but now a young student coming out of art school or animation school or whatever, they have dozens of studios to choose from.”
Today, Norman admits, he “more often than not” draws on computer (mainly using Adobe Photoshop), as opposed to free-hand.
He has retired from full-time production but still works with the employees at Disney as a consultant and he doesn’t plan on ever leaving.
“So should they wander too far astray I’m there to remind them that’s not what Walt Disney would’ve wanted and get it back on track.”
In 2007 Norman, who recently penned his autobiography My Animated Life, was awarded the prestigious title of “Disney Legend”, for his outstanding contribution to the company. “I really didn’t see myself worthy,” the modest Norman says. “I still don’t believe it.”
Norman’s favourite project he worked on was Sleeping Beauty, his first feature film.
“That was a real privilege to work on that film because that really was an end of an era,” Norman says of the movie which took about six years to make.
“Walt Disney threw everything he could onto that film because he wanted it to be a Disney masterpiece. And in doing so, with 600 artists over a period of five to six years it just cost so much money; we knew that we could never do that again.”
Sleeping Beauty, along with 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians, has now been put back into the “Disney Vault” for seven years. When they are released from the vault, they are available for 18 months.
Floyd Norman pictured in 1957.