DRAWN TO IT
IN MORE THAN 50 YEARS AS AN ANIMATOR, FLOYD NORMAN HAS GONE FROM PEN AND PAPER TO COMPUTERS. BUT THE STORY, HE SAYS, IS STILL THE KEY
From Sleeping Beauty to Toy Story 2, Floyd Norman has made his mark.
children growing up in the 1940s, watching cartoons meant a trip to the cinema. Sitting in the flickering light a young Floyd Norman remembers being entranced as the colourful drawings burst into life. The possibilities seemed to be limited only by creativity and imagination. “I fell in love with animation,” says Norman, now 75. “It just fascinated me that anything you could imagine, you could draw. For me it was more than just enjoying a good cartoon, I realised this was something I wanted to do with my life.”
Norman made his own dream come true, joining Disney in 1956 as a 19-year-old, and going on to work for Hanna-Barbera and Pixar as well. From hand-painting to computer graphics, and Sleeping Beauty to Scooby
Doo and Buzz Lightyear, he’s just about seen it all. Back in the 1950s, he was the first African American to work at the “house of mouse”, although he never felt like he was breaking down barriers. “I just saw myself as another eager young kid wanting to break into the business.” Norman began his career on Sleeping Beauty as the lowest of the low – an “in-betweener”. That’s the painstaking and time-consuming job of drawing all the intermediate stages between the key poses created by the actual animator. “It’s kind of tedious, it’s not always a good deal of fun and it’s certainly not animating,” he says. “But that’s where you learn your craft.”
Norman was lucky to join when he did – when the budgets were big and the staff numbers were extravagant. Sleeping Beauty was almost a decade in production and cost $6 million – twice the cost of Disney’s other features. Its underperformance at the box office contributed to Disney’s first annual loss.
Something had to change, and 500 or so Disney animation staff were given their marching orders between Sleeping Beauty (1959) and 101 Dalmatians (1961). Norman survived but the small staff and budget meant the processes needed to be radically reshaped. “We had to find a way to make a film that was simpler and more cost effective, so we adopted an art style that would basically save on money,” Norman says. The opulent and detailed style of Sleeping Beauty was ditched for a much simpler and basic style influenced by the cartoons of St Trinian’s creator Ronald Searle. Much of the hand painting and inking was replaced by Xerox machines. Backgrounds were also simplified. While Disney wasn’t too pleased with the “sketchy” look the cutbacks produced, it helped keep the company afloat – and the story was after all the key to a good film.
Both Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians are heading back into the so-called “Disney vault” today. That means the DVD copies currently on shelves are the last that will be available until the film is re-released in seven years’ time. Disney came up with the “vault” concept in the 1940s and it works a treat – Sleeping Beauty’s regular re-releases in theatres has seen its lifetime inflationadjusted box office gross reach $478.22 million.
Norman says Walt Disney was an “almost fatherly figure” to the staff. A 1950s kind of firm-but-fair father. “We had a great deal of respect for him even though he was a tough boss and could be a hard taskmaster,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that meant he was an unkind man. I felt him to be very kind, generous and understanding, but a man who would scold you if you weren’t delivering your best.”
Norman was promoted to story artist (essentially a cross between a screenwriter and animator) after longtime story artist Bill Peet fell out with Walt over The
Jungle Book. “Peet walked off the film,” Norman says. “That meant Walt had to pull a new story team together and I was part of that team. Walt was someone who kept an eye on everyone and he knew who could do what and for some reason he thought I had a flair for story.”
It was to be the last Disney film overseen by Walt – he died a year before its release. Norman left shortly
afterwards and founded his own studio, AfroKids, which produced the Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert for NBC (not to be confused with the series that screened in Australia). In the mid-1970s he joined Hanna-Barbera, working on TV cartoons such as The Smurfs and Scooby
Doo. The cost-cutting on Disney’s 101 Dalmatians was nothing compared to life at Hanna-Barbera. Norman wrote a book of cartoons about the experience, called
TV budgets were tiny. To give some idea, when William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were knocking out Tom and Jerry theatrical shorts for MGM in the 1950s they had a budget of $35,000 per seven-minute film. When they started working in TV the same length cartoon had a budget of $3000. That meant very simple character design, re-using bits of footage (especially backgrounds) and only animating a part of a character at a time, like the mouth or an arm. It was famously described by Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers as “illustrated radio”. “We simply didn’t have the time or money,” says Norman. “If you’re working for TV you really have to trim your costs. But I had always enjoyed their characters – they were a lot simpler and a good deal more fun”.
Norman returned to Disney in the 1980s, working on comics and children’s books for 10 years before returning as a story artist on feature films including
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan and The Tigger Movie. He regrets turning down an offer to join the fledgling Pixar in the early 1990s. “At the time they had not made one film yet and I wasn’t about to take a gamble so I passed,” he says. “Once I saw the film