We Interviewed Floyd Norman - Golden Age Character Animator

Posted at Apr 17th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Floyd Norman - Walt Disney Golden Age Character Animator Floyd began his career at the Walt Disney Animation Studios many years ago, and have worked on more animated feature films and television shows than he can remember. What's really cool however, are the awesome people Floyd knew and worked with throughout his career at Walt Disney's magic factory.

Floyd worked with Walt's famous "Nine Old Men" as well as the top story men who created the Disney animated classics. It was for Floyd an amazing mentoring opportunity as well as a master class in Disney animation.

Floyd's first animated feature film was Walt's masterpiece, "Sleeping Beauty" which wrapped in 1958 and ushered in the Old Maestro's final decade. In 1966 he was blessed with the opportunity to work on the animated film, "The Jungle Book".

Floyd capped off his animation career in 1999 with the Pixar production of "Monster's Inc." and reluctantly "retired" from animation in the year 2001. However, he has never retired from cartoon making. Since that time Floyd worked on several feature and television productions for various studios and I continue doing so even today.

Floyd Norman - Walt Disney Character Animator

Thank you very much Floyd Norman this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from Santa Barbara, California. It’s beautiful community where art is celebrated. This was an asset while growing up. I lived in a city rich with culture and a love of the arts.

What do you love to do when you’re not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?

Music has always been high on my list of interests. I studied violin as a child but found it a bit too serious for my taste.

I took clarinet and saxophone lessons and learned how to play the flute. Learning to read music proved to be an asset once I began a career in film.

How do you summaries the growing up part and how does it involves animation?

I can’t write a biography here, but let’s just say I was surrounded by many talented people in my community. For instance, my music teacher was the brother of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck.

Film composers conducted the Santa Barbara symphony and screenwriters lived in nearby Montecito.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite film?

Like most kids I drew a lot. The big difference with me is… I never stopped drawing. Sometimes to the consternation of my high school teachers who thought I was neglecting my studies.

Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it?

There were no schools teaching animation back in the fifties. I became a self-taught animation student out of necessity.

I scoured the libraries and bookstores for anything on the subject. Books on animation were rare and only a handful were even available.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

I began to study film-making during my middle school years. One day, I realized that film and drawing appeared to merge in the odd medium of animation. However, there was precious little information on the subject.

I became fascinated with animation and knew that I would one day venture to Hollywood and the Walt Disney Studio.

Did you have a natural talent or you always had the skill do draw and animate?

I was always drawing so I suppose I had natural talent. I never gave it much thought. The interest in the fascinating new medium intrigued me and that drove me forward.

What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?

I made my first animated film while still in Middle School. My parents bought me a 16mm motion picture camera that could shoot single frames.

I began to animate and paint backgrounds for my film. My grandmother took an interest in my quirky new hobby and encouraged me to continue. She even helped me build my first animation camera stand.

Tell us about Walt Disney Animation Studios, how did you end up animating for them? What steps did you take to get there? And what was it like back then?

After graduating from Santa Barbara High School, I put together a little portfolio and drove south to the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank for an interview. Of course, I was just a kid and in no way ready to work as an animation professional.

The Disney Studio personnel department gave me good, solid advice. They told me to go to school and learn how to become an artist.

What was your talent like when you first began to work at Disney? Did you have to push yourself to learn new ways to animate?

First of all, nobody begins their career as an animator. Those skills have to be developed and honed over a period of years. Gaining the title, "animator" was not easily acquired. It could take eight to ten years to earn the title "animator." We young kids were animation assistants and would remain so for a number of years.

Did you find yourself staying up late at the studios, learning new methods, tricks, tips…etc?

Those artists who were serious about a career in animation did work late hours and weekends too in order to learn their craft. It was difficult work and not for the faint of heart.

Animation, especially Disney animation requires hard work and discipline. There are no short cuts in becoming a Disney animator.

Floyd Norman - Animating Fauna from Sleeping Beauty by Walt Disney Studios "Floyd Norman, Young animator, working on Fauna from Disney's 'Sleeping Beauty'."

Did you find yourself checking out other animator’s works? Comparing them to your own? Maybe learning new stuff from them?

Naturally, a major advantage of working at the Walt Disney Studio was having access to all of the fantastic animators working there.

You could study the work of the Disney veterans and learn from them. You could call it a Master Class in Animation. Every day was a learning experience.

Who was the first animator you have teamed up with? And what was your first professional real frame art you did at Disney?

It’s difficult to choose one. Freddy Hellmich who animated on "Sleeping Beauty", was a huge influence on me as was Art Stevens. Both taught me a great deal about animation and they became my mentors.

You worked a long time at Walt Disney Animation Studios, what were you working on mainly? Which characters at which movies?

I began working on The Mickey Mouse Club and moved on to Disneyland. These were television shows and a good way for a young artist to learn the ropes.

Eventually, I moved on to short cartoons and then the Feature. The feature length cartoon was the creme de la creme of animation. You had to work at a certain level even to qualify to work on the feature.

What a typical day looked like for you when you worked at Disney? What do you remember the most out of Disney Studios?

A typical day at Disney is probably too much to explain in a few words. Actually, that’s why I wrote my book, Animated Life to give a sense of what it was like to work for Disney back in the fifties.

In any case, the Walt Disney Studio was an amazing community of creativity and it was a joy to work there.

What part of your job did you like best and why? What made it so awesome in your eyes?

I love the entire animation process. That is, every aspect of animation is fascinating to me. Plus, it’s all filmmaking and telling stories on the big screen. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This is what makes this amazing job awesome in my eyes.

Why did you decide to leave Walt Disney Animation Studios and move to create your own studio Vignette Films, Inc.?

My partners and I launched a production company called, Vignette Films, Inc. in the late sixties. We were not unusual. Many of our Disney colleagues had also departed the studio to launch their own enterprise. Animation was going through a transition and it was a good time to begin new ventures.

AfroKids for that matter was not a studio. It was a brand. It was an Internet website created by my partner, Leo Sullivan. People often confuse the brand with the name of our company. Our company name was, Vignette Films, Inc. Not "Afrokids."

What projects did Vignette Films, Inc. made and still makes till today? What are you most proud of to create from that animation studio?

Vignette Films, Inc. was founded to create and produce educational media for the school systems around the country.

We eventually expanded into corporate training films and projects for the United States Government. Our subjects were wide ranging from motion pictures on Black History to films on the subject of Juvenal Justice.

Using live-action and animation we taught Navy pilots how to refuel their aircraft in mid air. We produced films on every subject imaginable. From underground fracturing for oil production to learning the metric system.

It was a long way from cartoon animation and light hearted entertainment.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of during Disney and after?

It’s difficult to choose favorites. Every decade had it’s own special projects. I enjoyed them all and it was a delight to help create the magic at Disney.

Once leaving the studio, I enjoy the challenges of a different kind of filmmaking outside of Disney. Everything from teaching to commercials. It was all good.

What’s your animation workflow looked like while animating at Disney?

Of course, the animation workflow has changed over the years. What was once a hand made product is greatly influence by Digital Workflow today. However, the basic process of, Story, Production and Post Production remain the same.

We begin with a script and story development. Once approved, the film moves into production. That means, recording, layout and design and animation. My own personal workflow was simply animating a scene, or when I moved into story - I would then be writing the scene.

Which cool methods and ‘tricks of the trade’ did you use the most when you animated?

There are no "tricks" in animating. Simply, good drawing, skill and imagination. You create a performance and bring it to life with pencil and paper. Of course, I’m speaking of hand drawn traditional animation.

In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work?

Every artist looks for imperfections in their work. That’s what makes us become better artists.

Tell us a little about the tools that you used, what were your preferences back then?

The animator’s tools are simply pencil and paper. That’s what makes this medium so amazing. The tools are so very simple.

Of course, today we have new digital tools that give the animator almost limitless capability. The computer has totally changed the rules of the game.

Eventually, it all comes down to the artist’s imagination and the tools really don’t matter. I often use a Wacom Cintiq Tablet as well as pencil and paper.

What are you thoughts of the general ‘work instability’ that a lot of animators talk about nowadays?

The animation business has always been "unstable." It was that way fifty years ago and it will probably be the same fifty years from now.

We’re in the entertainment business. A business that is continually in flux. I often tell people if they want a simple, stable job become an insurance salesman. If you love this crazy business, you’ll have to take the good with the bad.

What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s), of all time and why?

I choose Walt Disney’s "Pinocchio" because it is an animated masterpiece. Nothing like it will ever be again.

Pixar’s "Toy Story" changed the rules of the game for animation. It was a motion picture that totally changed the animation business forever.

What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation?

I began watching Japanese animation in the seventies and eighties. I enjoyed the Japanese approach to storytelling and character design.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on shows directed by Japanese directors and was fascinated by their unique approach to cartoon animation. We’ve much to learn from each other.

What was the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

My biggest sin was probably spending too much time at work. Also, the emotional connection with my work can sometimes be a problem. Getting too close to a project and losing objectivity is a constant challenge.

Though animation is an art form, it is also a business and must be approached as such. While it is natural for an artist to connect with his or her art - one must maintain some distance and be able to remain objective.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate?

I often think every scene I start is too difficult to animate. Eventually, you settle down and begin drawing and solving problems. It’s the challenge that makes animation fascinating.

Which film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?

I have never had any particular film that was more difficult than any other. Each film has its own unique challenges.

Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?

I have had too many mentors in this amazing business to name them all. The names would include a who’s who of animation.

Some were at Disney and a few were from other studios as well. They include, Ward Kimball, Vance Gerry and animator, Fred Crippen.

Apart from Walt Disney, you’ve been a part of many iconic animated cartoons such as: "Smurfs", "Snorks", "Super Friends", "Tom & Jerry Kids", "Garfield and Friends", "Scooby-Doo" and more, How did you end up working on such titles?

I’ve worked on many projects at many different studios. These were simply jobs in the animation industry and I was mainly trying to stay employed.

When did you transition from Animation to Storyboard design? What made you change direction in the business?

I made the move from animation to story development because someone made the important decision for me and it turned out to be a pretty good decision after all.

That person was, Walt Disney himself.

What are your thoughts about animated films nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?

Actually, I think animated films are easier to produce nowadays because animation has proven itself in the market place and audiences seem to embrace animation like never before.

Do you think animating a 3D film is more fun than a 2D film or the other way around? What are your thoughts?

While I have a preference for hand drawn animation, the new medium of CGI also has its merits. Either medium can be just as much fun as the other.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools like AnimationMentor, iAnimate.net? Would you teach there if you had a chance to?

Having never used the new online animation schools, I’m not in a position to comment on their effectiveness or shortcomings. Do you think such schools mass produce animators to the already ‘low demand’ from the studios themselves?

Some tend to blame schools for producing too many animation artists for a business that can only provide a limited number of new positions. However, when students want to learn, you can hardly blame the schools for wanting to provide classes in animation.

2D animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

In 1997, I moved north to Pixar Animation Studios because I saw a future in the new medium of digital animation and the marvelous new things it could do.

I’ve never believed it should be an "Either - Or" situation. Producers should choose the technique that works best for the story they’re telling.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your projects, what are you working on as for 2014?

I retired from full time employment at least ten years ago. Yet, I’ve never stopped working. I continue to storyboard on everything from feature films to television series.

I don’t look for work. I simply wait until someone calls me about something exciting they’re doing. On my own time, I write books and develop my own projects. Mainly, I like to keep busy.

If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?

Unlike most people, that dream has already been realized dozens of times. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of my heroes.

Everyone from:Walt Disney himself to the famous ‘Nine Old Men’. From Pixar’s "Brain Trust" to young unknowns just beginning a career in the animation business.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with famous actors such as Tom Hanks, and talk technology with Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs. I’ve been very lucky during my career.

If you could back in time, what would you do different in regarding to the word of animation?

If I could go back in time I would love to arrive in Hollywood in the nineteen thirties and visit the Walt Disney Studio on Hyperion Blvd. in Silverlake. This was in many ways the beginning of this amazing company and the innovation they would bring to the art of animation.

 Walt Disney Studio on Hyperion Blvd. in Silverlake

Tell us about your latest book, Animated Life. How did it came to be, and why now?

People continually ask me what was it like working at the Walt Disney Studio in the fifties. They ask about the amazing talent that influenced me as a young animation artist and they ask about working with Walt Disney in particular.

I wanted to write a book that would answers these questions. My book Animated Life is not a biography, rather an observation of one of the greatest animation companies in the world.

Who inspired you to write that book, and why would artists / animators buy it? What would they gain from the book?

I was inspired to write my book by all the young animation artists beginning a career in the business and eager to know what went on before.

I wanted to provide information from an insider’s point of view. The leadership, the artistic team and the production process.

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?

Yes, learn the fundamentals. Learn how to be an artist by studying the basics. However, maintain a wide perspective in your education.

Learn about everything else as well. Music, dance, literature and science. This knowledge will inform you and will make you a better artist.