Disney animator Floyd Norman, the perfect subject for a happy documentary

Jun 7, 2020

Credit Animated Life, LLC

It’s June, and Floyd Norman is about to celebrate his 85th birthday.

For most, a birthday is a time of self-reflection, but for Norman, he need only “press play” to review his life story. That is because his career as an animator is the subject of the 2016 documentary “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” codirected by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey.

The Front Row Network’s Beyond the Mouse Podcast interviewed him about the documentary, as well as his life, career and what is in store after turning 85.

Like most animators Norman has brought joy to children’s lives without them realizing it. In 1956, Norman became the first African American artist at the Walt Disney Animation Studios when he began work on “Sleeping Beauty.” Since then he has collaborated on numerous Disney Studios films including “The Sword and the Stone,” “The Jungle Book,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and several Pixar films such as “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.” In 2007, he was named a Disney Legend. 

Norman was in his early 20s when he began his career at the Walt Disney Company. He saw himself as just an artist trying to prove himself. According to Norman, when it came to the animators, Walt Disney only cared about one thing “were you good or were you not good?”

“Disney standards were high,” said Norman. “Disney had a reputation to maintain. They were the premier animation studio, and Walt Disney would settle for nothing but the best.”

Unlike in today’s movie credits in which studio jobs roll on the screen endlessly, few jobs were available at the animation studio. Norman started in an entry-level position known as an “inbetweener,” which meant he was given the time-consuming process of illustrating the drawings in between two other drawings. In other words, Norman’s series of gradually changing drawings allowed Princess Aurora's fairy godmothers to magically flutter across the screen.

“It’s tedious. It’s meticulous. It’s boring in some case, but it’s a very necessary job,” said Norman.

After about a decade of bringing life to characters, Norman moved to the story department to work with Walt Disney on “The Jungle Book.” This was somewhat intimidating for Norman because Disney was, as Norman described, a “living legend.”

“I’m going to be honest,” explained Norman. “He was a tough boss. Walt was very demanding. He wanted only the best, and he only accepted your best.”

Despite the high expectations, Norman has nothing but praises for Disney, whom he respectfully refers to as “the old man,” saying he was one of the best men he has ever known.

“He was the fairest boss I ever worked for – the most respectful man I ever worked for,” said Norman. “No matter who you were, no matter what you were, he treated all people with respect.”

Animators who worked with Walt Disney sometimes found it difficult to understand his creative direction because Disney could only articulate what he did not want, but not what he wanted. However, Norman was able to crack the code, having immersed himself in Disney animation as a child. “I’m no genius, but I knew what he wanted,” said Norman.

What Walt Disney wanted was a film that made you laugh and smile, but also made you cry explained Norman. “When a film has all those qualities, that’s a film Walt Disney is going to like.”

While Norman considers the Disney Studios his home, he also animated many Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s for Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc. and left the Walt Disney Company to co-found Vignette Films, Inc. with his business partner and fellow artist Leo Sullivan.

Together they filmed the 1965 Watts riots on two 60mm Bolex cameras, one of which Norman purchased from Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew. The footage appeared on NBC’s national coverage of the events and helped shed light on the civil rights movement. Norman and Sullivan later went on to film a series of education films about African American history.

“I don’t consider myself any kind of a hero,” said Norman. “We were just filmmakers using our talents, and hopefully something good could come out of all of that.”

With such a dynamic career, Norman’s life seems like the perfect subject for a documentary, but when first approached about the project his response was “Are you nuts?”

“My life has been way too happy to be a documentary,” said Norman. “A lot of good things have happened to me.” However, after some reassurance, Norman was all in, trusting directors Fiore and Sharkey with every detail of his life.

Watching the film, you realize Norman’s life was not exactly perfect, but overall, the well-crafted documentary highlights a humble man with a long, fulfilling career. According to Norman, you will not walk out of the theater in tears, but you might just walk out with a smile.

Today Norman can be found on the Disney property mentoring other artists and collaborating on Disney animation projects. At nearly 85 years of age, he has no intention of stopping. For Norman it is more than a job – it is an honor. “What greater gift can you give than a little joy and happiness?” said Norman. “You can’t ask for a better job. You really can’t.”

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