What would you give to spend an evening with a Disney Legend – an animator, a story artist who was hand-picked by Walt Disney himself, a creative mastermind and self-dubbed ‘troublemaker’? Floyd Norman is all of these. He was also the first African-American artist to work at Walt Disney Productions.
We gathered at nine in the evening during Comic-Con to celebrate the amazing story of Floyd Norman’s career. His many adventures are featured in the new documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, co-directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey (opens August 26, 2016). Fiore and Sharkey were the acclaimed team behind the Drew Struzan documentary (Drew: The Man Behind the Poster,2013).
(This article was originally published on August 18, 2016 after San Diego Comic-Con, on LaughingPlace.com. )
Distinguished Panel Members – Contributors in the Documentary
The panel member list read like a list of “Who’s Who” in entertainment.
Front Row: Adrienne Norman, Leo Sullivan, Leonard Maltin, Gary Trousdale, Don Hahn, Jane Baer
Back Row: Floyd Norman, Nirali Somaia, Ryan Shore, Erik Sharkey, Michael Fiore, Ken Mitchroney
Floyd Norman – as himself.
Adrienne Norman – Art director at Disney. Senior artist, digital paint for Disney Publishing group. Photographer. Disney consumer products. Married to Floyd Norman.
Leo Sullivan – Layout artist, collaborator and partner with Floyd Norman in their independent production studio, Vignette Films, in addition to other animation credits (Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures).
Leonard Maltin – legendary film critic and historian, reviewed films for 30 years on Entertainment Tonight, creative force behind the Walt Disney Treasures series. Teaches in the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California.
Gary Trousdale – Disney film animator, storyboard artist, and director (Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Shrek the Halls, Madagascar)
Don Hahn – “Mega Producer” of some the most successful animated features (Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire). Currently working on the live action Beauty and the Beast film.
Jane Baer – one of the first female animators at Disney (Mickey’s Christmas Carol, The Black Cauldron, Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Worked with Floyd as an inbetweener on Sleeping Beauty when he arrived at Disney in 1956.
Ken Mitchroney – character designer and story artist at Pixar (Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.). Credits also include Shrek 2, The Lego Movie. “These two are characters together” when getting together with Floyd Norman.
Ryan Shore – Emmy and Grammy-award nominated composer (Sesame Street, the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards) created the musical score. The co-directors wanted a jazz score, with an “improv” feel that reflected Norman’s creativity.
Nirali Somaia – animator from Australia, was recruited to animate a gag storyboard Floyd Norman’s sketches. These 10 second shorts are featured in the film.
“Now this is turning into a photo op”
Floyd Norman, the ‘Forrest Gump’ of Animation
Disney Legend. Layout artist. Animator. Disney story artist. Entrepreneur. Writer. Pixar story artist. Musician. Self-dubbed “Troublemaker.” Floyd Norman’s credits read like a ‘Forrest Gump’ list of achievements.
Floyd Norman (b. June 22, 1935) grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Santa Barbara. Early in life, he was surrounded by poets, screenwriters, actors, and musicians – creatives who helped shape his life.
In 1956, he was hired at Disney Animation as an inbetweener artist on Sleeping Beauty, where he met animator Jane Baer.
“All these Disney masters were our bosses.” Floyd recalled working with Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, and other legendary animators. “Those old guys were tough…they made us better artists.”
“If you can’t draw better than this, learn how to draw better than this,” he was told. What amazing training that must have been! Norman’s credits also included One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone.
Floyd Norman was known early on for his cartoon gag sketches. These cartoons entertained fellow animators, and were shared in cubicles around the Disney Studios. Dynamics changed when the Xerox machine was invented in the 1960’s, said Norman. Then, his “cartoon gags were all over the studio.”
Walt Disney took notice, especially since “a lot of the cartoons were about him,” says Floyd. Walt moved him to the Story department overnight. Called by the “old man himself,” Norman reminisces.
There, Floyd worked directly with Walt on the Story team of The Jungle Book.
Floyd was introduced to Leo Sullivan, who was interviewing for a job at Disney. Sullivan remembers his Disney Studios tour: “I got this black guy I want you to meet.” Leo thought, “I don’t just want to meet a black guy, I want a job.” The two became good friends.
Walt Disney passed away suddenly in 1966. The news was quite unexpected, even for those working close to him at the Studios. Floyd Norman and Leo Sullivan decided it was a good time to move on, starting their own production company: Vignette Films, Inc. They produced segments for Sesame Street and Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert, as well as Navy refueling training films. They also made some of the first films documenting black history.
Norman returned to Disney studios in the 1970s to work on Robin Hood
“We discovered Gary Trousdale,” said Norman. Right out of CalArts, Trousdale was hired at Disney in 1985 as an effects animator on The Black Cauldron. Trousdale, working with Don Hahn, went on to direct the groundbreaking film, Beauty and the Beast, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Upon seeing the movie, Norman thought, “this film was worthy of the old Disney classics.”
Don Hahn said of Norman: “he’s really funny…[he] understands animators and animation.” He also has a “subversive sense of humor.” He recalls Norman’s cartoons of ‘Eisner beating up Steve Jobs with bags of money.’ Floyd was beloved as a “troublemaker.”
Floyd’s story artist credits also include Mulan, Dinosaur, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
When Floyd met Adrienne
Adrienne and Floyd met on the job at Disney. Growing up, she had seen Floyd’s films on black history, and admired them. She was working at Disney Publishing as a Photoshop consultant when Floyd walked in. According to Adrienne, Floyd and the department needed a lot of help, which she was expertly provided for them.
“We just clicked,” she says. Even though there was a 21-year age difference, their synergy was undeniable. Over the years, Adrienne has been peeling back the “onion layers” of Floyd’s personality, “not that he smelled bad,” she beams.
Adrienne is one of Floyd’s strongest supporters, and a constant companion.
Floyd Norman’s Adventures at Pixar
Floyd had turned down an offer from Joe Ranft to work at a little upstart animation studio called Pixar on Toy Story. When an opportunity arose to work on Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter, Floyd made sure he said ‘yes.’
At Pixar, Floyd met Ken Mitchroney. The two were instantly conspirators together. “Let’s see if Steve Jobs is going to fire us.” One of their funny pranks on Toy Story 2 – cross-dressing Ken and Barbie. “We were our own little monsters.” Norman also worked with Mitchroney as a story artist on Monsters, Inc.
A Very Merry Un-Retirement at Age 65
Floyd Norman was involuntarily retired from Disney at 65 years old. But he didn’t take that lying down. “We can’t be forced to stop doing what we do.”
He found every excuse to show up at the Studios, like driving Adrienne to work every day. “I just simply didn’t go away,” said Norman, flashing a smile. “It’s amazing…I got a lot of jobs at Disney just by hanging around.”
When Ron Husband (early African-American Disney animator) left, Floyd took his office, renaming it the “Adrienne’s Husband” office.
Stories About Walt Disney
I am always yearning to hear more personal stories about Walt, the man, from those who knew him. I asked Mr. Norman to share a story we may not have heard about Walt Disney. He paused thoughtfully.
“Tell them about the bran muffins,” said Adrienne. “I used to eat Walt’s bran muffins,” said Floyd with a grin. Why would he do this? Simply because Walt didn’t like them.
Floyd worked daily with Walt on Story for The Jungle Book. He learned to “let Walt do the talking.” There was respect for the “old maestro,” because you never knew what he would say. Putting your work up there was a combination of “excitement and terror.” He would either “love it or hate it,” and he would let you know which.
Norman described a character designed by Milt Kahl (one of the Nine Old Men) for The Jungle Book called “Rocky the Rhino.” Walt did not like the character when it was presented on storyboard. Milt Kahl thought that maybe Walt would like Rocky better if he saw him in action. Milt animated Rocky the Rhino, and showed Walt the reels. Walt “hated it even more.”
How did it feel when Walt disapproved of Norman’s work? “Walt liked everything we did,” said Floyd with a grin.
“If he weren’t so raucous we would refer to him as Yoda” – Leonard Maltin
‘Well, [heck] yes.’ – Roy E. Disney’s vote for Floyd Norman, for induction as a Disney Legend in 2007
Making of the Documentary
Erik Sharkey originally met Floyd Norman at San Diego Comic-Con after presenting his documentary film on artist Drew Struzan (Drew: the Man Behind the Poster, 2013). Fascinated by his Floyd Norman’s life story, Sharkey called his co-director Michael Fiore, and together they set out to share his amazing tales.
It is a story of creativity. Of a man who had ideas, and was not afraid to share them. Of a prolific author of irreverent books about being a cartoonist and animator. The film highlights Norman’s role as an African-American in animation and filmmaking.
Floyd Norman became good friends with Drew Struzan after their introduction at Drew’s documentary screening. Struzan presented a pastel portrait of Norman for his birthday…it is now the movie poster and cover for this documentary.
Ryan Shore’s jazz score reflects Floyd’s creativity. Norman loves jazz, and played saxophone with Ward Kimball’s jazz band, and with Henry James during “Big Bands at Disneyland” in the 1960’s.
Other notable contributors in the documentary include Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon 1,2,3), Whoopi Goldberg (Lion King), and Richard M. Sherman (Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks, Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book).
Now at 81 years young, Floyd Norman still does freelance consulting with Disney Studios. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life opened August 26th in select theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Orlando. www.floydnormanmovie.com
See this article on LaughingPlace.com, and my author page here.