When I was 5 years old, I saw Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in the theater during its 1979 re-release. I was blown away by the experience. I loved the rich colors, the incredible art, the music, the story… although I could have done without the big kissing part. And even though the fight at the end scared me, I went home and pretended to be Prince Phillip, charging through the thorny brambles and slashing at Maleficent in dragon form with my imaginary sword. I drew pictures from that and many other cartoons, as best I could. I loved to draw and even dreamed of becoming an animator for a time. But I moved on to other interests and had to settle for being a lifelong animation fan.
When Floyd Norman was 6 years old, he saw Dumbo when it was first released in 1941. Like me and so many others, he was captivated by the experience of his first Disney animated film. But Floyd knew right away that he wanted to be an animator, and he never wavered from that commitment. He took his love of drawing and comics and cartoons and turned it into a remarkable career that began in high school and continues to this day. A career that led him to his dream job at Walt Disney Animation Studios. His first job on a feature film was as an assistant “inbetweener” animator on Sleeping Beauty.
Floyd Norman grew up in Santa Barbara, California and had a wonderful childhood in a city immersed in the arts. From the time he could hold a crayon, he loved to draw on anything and everything, including the walls of his house. His grandmother helped get him enrolled in art classes at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and he soaked up every minute of it. He got his first job as an artist while still a teenager, working for Bill Woggins on the Katy Keene comic books, an Archie spinoff. He soon applied for a job at Disney and, although he didn’t get the job, they told him to give it another shot after he’d had some more training. So he studied at the ArtCenter, went for another Disney interview, and was hired by the Mouse House in 1956.
When Floyd joined Disney, the animation studio was riding high after the enormous success of Lady and the Tramp. The legendary Nine Old Men, Disney’s team of elite animators, were still working at the studio. Floyd had the opportunity (and immense challenge) of learning from some of these master artists. He even survived an assignment on The Sword In The Stone as an assistant animator to Milt Kahl, the finest draftsman and most demanding “Old Man” at Disney. After the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty, Disney nearly got out of the animation business entirely. Floyd made it through a huge layoff that reduced the number of artists from 500 to fewer than 100.
Floyd’s gifts extended far beyond the animation desk, and others within Disney began to take notice of his sense of humor and gift for storytelling. He began leaving cartoon gags hanging on the walls, poking good (if sometimes pointed) fun at the other animators, filmmakers, and the studio itself. Instead of getting him into trouble, it led to a new job. For The Jungle Book, Floyd was assigned to the story team. As he tells it, this was a momentous and nerve-wracking opportunity:
The Disney story department could be filled with peril. In many ways it was a jungle up there. On my many visits to the upstairs story rooms I often watched as nervous story artists feverishly prepared a pitch for the Old Maestro. Ash trays were filled with smoldering cigarette butts and apprehensive artists made a fair number of visits to the Pago Pago or Aphonse’s. These were nearby “watering holes” where old story guys sought solace in a glass of booze. Then, there was the eventful day when the boss finally arrived to check out what the guys had done.
The team of 6 story artists had to completely rework the story for The Jungle Book in just a year. This didn’t mean sitting down at a typewriter and knocking out a screenplay. It meant drawing detailed storyboards in an iterative, collaborative fashion over months and months. And it meant being in the room with Walt Disney himself to brainstorm, present story concepts, and improvise ideas on the fly. It was a trial by fire for Floyd, but he excelled at the work and enjoyed it. He was especially good at coming up with creative sight gags and comedic bits. Consider the sequence where Kaa sings “Trust in Me” to Mowgli while contorting his body into stairsteps and other ridiculous shapes as he attempts to hypnotize the boy. That’s vintage Floyd Norman.
After Walt Disney died in 1966, Floyd decided to move on. He and 3 partners started a company called Vignette Films, which produced everything from educational films to the original Soul Train opening animation. Like many animators and filmmakers, he took gigs wherever he could find them. He went back to Disney for a time to work on Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Robin Hood. During the TV animation boom of the 70’s and 80’s, he worked on tons of cartoons ranging from Scooby-Doo to The Smurfs. He event spent 6 years writing 6 Mickey Mouse comic strips a week for Disney Publishing.
In 1997, Floyd began working for Pixar in the story department for Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. Unlike some of his old-school colleagues, Floyd was excited by the possibilities of computer animation and dove into this new world with enthusiasm and ease. He saw, in Pixar, the same tenacious and creative spirit that had existed in the early days of Disney.
It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Floyd had started out as a lowly inbetweener and cleanup animator, scrambling to produce 8 pristine hand-drawn pages a day in the 50’s. He had worked his way into the story room with Walt Disney himself. And now he was applying over 40 years worth of experience to a completely new medium with talented newcomers like Pete Docter (director of Monster’s, Inc.), who turned out to be the son of one of Floyd’s high school classmates. He was having a blast working for Pixar and Disney, and he was at the height of his creative powers.
Then he turned 65, and Disney let him go. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get back in. It seemed that he had hit an invisible wall due to his age, and they were forcing him out for good.
Floyd was devastated. Despite ups and downs at the studio over the years, he had been fiercely loyal to Disney. He had long described it as “the best job in the world” and had sworn he would never retire. Now, he felt completely abandoned and adrift.
After a year of depression and frustration, Floyd decided that, while Disney might be done with him, he wasn’t done with them. His wife, Adrienne Brown-Norman, still worked as an artist for Disney Publishing, so Floyd started accompanying her to work. He went in every workday for 15 years. He drew sketches, mentored young artists, gave tips on projects, and shared Disney war stories. His wife called it “Floydering” as a riff on loitering. And, not surprisingly, he was greeted with affection and appreciation wherever he went on the Disney campus.
In 2014, Floyd’s persistence paid off and he was rehired by Disney. He’s now 81 years old and is as happy as ever to be working for the company that gave him his start. And he’s not retiring any time soon.
80 is still just a number. A very big number by the way, but still just a number. What keeps me going is, I love the work I do. I’ve always had a passion for this crazy business… I’m looking forward to 90.
Floyd Norman has built one of the most varied and astounding careers in show business. And his work has brought joy to millions of people without most of them knowing his name. In 2007, he was named a Disney Legend for his extraordinary contributions to the company he loves. He’s warm and humble, but he’s also a self-described “troublemaker” who has been both candid and outspoken about the animation industry. He maintains a terrific blog, which contains a mix of Disney history and commentary on current filmmaking and animation. Today, the animator who started out with pencil and a pegboard is now equally comfortable with a computer drawing tablet and mouse. That’s an incredible testament to his talent and versatility.
There’s one other thing I should mention about Floyd. I saved it for the end almost as an afterthought, because I think he would say it’s the least interesting thing about him. Floyd was the first African-American animator hired at Disney. So on top of everything else he accomplished, he was a trailblazer for other black artists who dreamed of working for major studios. And, while he encountered some racist attitudes early on among some of the other animators, he chooses to focus on the fact that one of the Nine Old Men, Ward Kimball, stood up for him and demanded that he be treated fairly.
In 2016, Floyd’s story was featured in the film Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. I hope you’ll check it out. It’s a great documentary about a truly fascinating artist and storyteller. One who deserves to be better known and appreciated.
Floyd Norman is a mighty fine person.
(Photos from Floyd Norman’s blog used with his permission)