Our Disney Legend: Floyd Norman

The word legendary is sometimes overused, but Floyd Norman is an actual Disney Legend which is, in effect, the Walt Disney Company’s Hall of Fame. His journey with Walt Disney began in 1956 when its namesake was still running the company and includes work on iconic films like “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmatians.”

The collective creative force that is Cetati Studios includes several big guns in the world of animation. In a company chock-full of big guns, Floyd Norman is a cannon.

The word legendary is sometimes overused, but Norman is an actual Disney Legend which is, in effect, the Walt Disney Company’s Hall of Fame. His journey with Walt Disney began in 1957 when its namesake was still running the company. Among the numerous iconic Disney films Norman worked on are “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Sword in the Stone,” “The Jungle Book,” “Mary Poppins,” and “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.”

He also worked on several beloved television cartoons for Hanna-Barbera Studios from the late 60’s to the 80’s including “Josie and the Pussycats,” “Scooby’s Laff-A Lympics,” “Super Friends,” and “Smurfs.” Norman made the jump from old-school hand-drawn analog creations to state-of-the-art digital ones at Pixar Animation Studios where he added his talents to “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.”

Truthfully, reading an exhaustive list of every single one of Floyd Norman’s projects in the disciplines of film, animation, comic book writing and more, would be, well, exhausting (a link to his Internet Movie Database link is below—you have been warned). In 2013 Norman published an autobiographical book entitled “Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, Techniques and Stories from an Animation Legend.” Then in 2016 an acclaimed documentary inspired by his book, “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life,” was released.

Norman downplays his stature as a pioneering African-American animator as he saw himself as “just a guy who loved to draw working at my dream job. I hardly call just going to work every day ‘pioneering.’” Nonetheless, among the numerous awards he has received, Norman was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1979.

Joining Cetati Studios’ team was a natural fit for Norman.

“I guess the thing many of us have in common is Pixar Animation Studios. I first went up to Pixar in the late nineties to help develop “Toy Story 2” and was around for “Monsters Inc.” “While there I connected with guys I knew from southern California like Ken Mitchroney and Davey Crockett Feiten and Steve Boyett. When (CEO and former Pixar employee) Brian (Lovrin) put Cetati together, he called up the people he knew.”

Norman was not best friends with math back in his school days, but that has not hindered him from channeling his talents and experience in the world of animation and film into creating educational materials.

“I was terrible. I had no aptitude for mathematics. But as a wacky cartoonist and storyteller, I have done a lot of educational stuff. I started my own company back in the 60’s to produce educational materials. So I’m not really an academic, but I sort of imitate one at times. Animation can be a great tool when you’re trying to teach principles that are somewhat abstract. At Walt Disney Studios we did educational stuff and I worked on the first few seasons of “Sesame Street” which was all about combining education and entertainment. So I’m quite comfortable bringing those two disciplines together.”

Norman enjoys every aspect of the creative process. Whether it be writing, designing, producing, post-production–he loves it all. At heart, he is a storyteller.

“At Cetati what I have been doing is storyboarding. People who do what I do are basically screenwriters, only we work visually. Words are important, but mainly it’s the visuals that convey the ideas and the concepts that tell the story. Using animated cartoons you immediately have the child’s attention and can teach them along the way. “

While Norman’s job description is storyteller, it wasn’t exactly something that he chose.

“I didn’t even know I was a storyteller, to be quite honest. I loved to draw. I loved to create cartoon characters and I loved to animate. That’s what I really wanted to do. Well, in 1966 something very unusual happened to me. The old man himself, Walt Disney, decided I was a writer. It really came out of nowhere. I didn’t know a damn thing about story writing, but Walt thought I did and when Walt decided that you should do something, there was only one answer and that was “yes sir.” That is literally when I became a writer. It wasn’t just me, it happened to a number of people who had their careers move in totally different directions because Walt Disney decided they were in the wrong job.”

In his book, Norman repeatedly uses a loving euphemism for Walt Disney, “the old Maestro.”

“Much like a symphony conductor, Walt was able to bring talents together. Writers, artists, singers, dancers, carpenters, technicians—he would bring all those disciplines and more together and make it work. It was his vision, his idea and he commanded everybody and made us work together like a maestro. Just picture Walt on the podium, baton in hand, conducting this vast orchestra of a multitude of talented men and women all with particular skills, but all playing together to create something beautiful.”

The landmark 1959 Disney film “Sleeping Beauty” had approximately 600 people involved in its production, but over the years technological innovations have revolutionized the animation industry.

“The main difference is that the production pipeline has been totally transformed by digital technology. Back in the olden days everything was done by hand. The animation, the inking, the painting, the photography, the optical effects—everything was hands on. Now, of course, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the writing. Films still require a writer.”

Norman is still going strong at 84 years old and is working for Disney. There is more than a bit of irony to that because, as is outlined in his book and in the documentary, Disney showed him the door almost 20 years ago.

“It was a down period in my life. I got retired and I didn’t want to retire. That I stood up to Disney resonates with a lot of people. I said ‘I’m going to continue to work whether you like it or not!’ My message is you decide when you want to quit. This is your life and your career and that decision should not be made by a corporation. That was 20 years ago when my career supposedly ended when I was 65, but in truth it was only beginning.”

Norman now enjoys the freedom to pick and choose what projects he would like to tackle. Currently he is juggling work on animation for “Sesame Street” and a couple of Disney projects in early development. His work on Cetati Studios’ groundbreaking approach to teach kids the language of math via animation is satisfying on numerous levels.

“It’s great to be a part of this project, work with people I’ve collaborated with before and share this project with them.”

For much more information on Floyd Norman, please visit his blog or his IMDb page.