Animator Floyd Norman

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The Disney legend reviews his long and varied career as an animator, including his work on The Jungle Book.

Floyd Norman began his cartooning career while still in high school and, after art college, became the first Black to be hired by the Disney studio as an animator. He worked his way up to the story department, where he contributed to several films, including The Jungle Book—the last film Walt Disney personally supervised. Norman co-founded the AfroKids animation studio and Vignette Films (one of the first companies to produce films on African American history) and helped develop animation computer software. He also worked on Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. He's published several books inspired by his lifetime of industry experiences and continues to share his wisdom with the current crop of animators.


Tavis: Floyd Norman made history when he was hired by Walt Disney back in 1956 to work in that studio’s famed animation department. He became the studio’s first African American animator, going on to contribute to such outstanding movies as “The Jungle Book,” which is just out in a new diamond edition Blu-ray release, as well as “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmatians.”

Norman continues to provide storyboards and advice to the current crop of animators. His artistry can be seen in “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.,” and he has his own blog.

He also has an autobiography out now titled “Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, and Stories from a Disney Legend.” Let’s take a look at a clip from “The Jungle Book.”

[Film clip from “The Jungle Book”]

Tavis: Mr. Norman, an honor to have you on this program, sir.

Floyd Norman: Happy to be here.

Tavis: There’s so much to talk to you about, let me jump right in. I want to get this out of the way first, because there’s been so much written, and always will be, I suspect, given his immense contribution, so much written about Walt Disney.

Most of it complimentary; some of it not.

Norman: Right.

Tavis: As an African American, you had a unique perspective. For all of the commentary about Mr. Disney as a racist, as an anti-Semite, his gender bias, you were up close and personal with him. What did you make of Walt Disney, the man?

Norman: Walt Disney the man was one of the greatest bosses I’ve ever worked for. I’ve spent years having to counter all of these accusations. Walt Disney was a great leader and a very fair man who treated men and women equally well.

Now it’s true he was a man of his time, and things weren’t always exactly as they should have been back in the 1930s and ’40s, but Walt was a man who also learned, and in time, he began to provide opportunities for women.

Things began to change. Walt was a conservative, but surprisingly enough, also a real progressive.

Tavis: We’ll come in a moment to the story of how you came to work with Walt Disney, but during your time there, during your time of being one of his animators, as the only African American in the building, did you ever feel maltreated?

Norman: Oh, not a bit. One of the things that was interesting about my coming to the Disney studio back in 1956 was I never gave any thought to color. I was simply another young artist looking to get a job in this fascinating business.

So I never thought of myself as the first African American, or the first anything, for that matter. I was simply another artist trying to get my foot in the door.

Tavis: But you’ve been referred to, of course, in writing, as “The Lone Negro.” (Laughter)

Norman: Yes. Yes, I have, and that caused a good deal of amusement for a lot of my coworkers as well.

Tavis: In what way?

Norman: Well, it was just because I was the only Black face at the Disney studio back in the 1950s. There was a writer who was working there, and he referred to me in his book as “The Lone Negro.

Now that sounded to me like some kind of an African American Western hero. (Laughter) But we all –

Tavis: “The Lone Negro.” That could have been a movie, huh? (Laughter)

Norman: It could have. It really could have been. But no, no, it was great. I had a fantastic time working at Disney, and though I was, in a sense, the lone Negro, that certainly wasn’t because other people of color couldn’t apply for a job.

Tavis: Speaking of applying for a job, it’s one thing to apply for a job; it’s another thing to get it.

Norman: Right.

Tavis: As a person of color, as a Black man. That was true then and sadly is still true today. It’s one thing to be a Black man applying for a job, another thing to get one.

I’m going to come to, again, how you wound up inside of Disney in a moment, but take me back prior to Disney, because you had a life and a talent obviously long before Walt Disney discovered it.

How did you get into this world of animation and cartoon? What were you doing before Disney “discovered” you?

Norman: (Laughter) Well, maybe I discovered Disney.

Tavis: That’s what I was about to say – that’s why I put it in air quotes.

Norman: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: It was a joke. But go ahead, yeah.

Norman: My mom took me to see “Dumbo” when I was a little kid.

Tavis: Still my favorite Disney character after all these years.

Norman: It’s a wonderful film. I was so entranced by this magical film. I watched it at an evening performance, which was unusual, because I was a kid like five or six years old.

But I saw this film and I was just fascinated by these moving drawings on screen. I told my mom that when I grow up, that’s what I want to do. I want to be an animator and I want to go work for Walt Disney.

So after high school, I made my way down to the Disney studio, naïve as a young kid, and they gave me some good advice: They told me to go to school. I can pass that same advice on to kids today.

You simply can’t walk up to the door and knock on it and expect to get a job if you’re not ready, and I certainly wasn’t ready. They told me, “Kid, go to school,” and I did. Some years later, I actually did get the job.

Tavis: You went to school where?

Norman: I went to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, a very good school and a prestigious school. I was a lucky kid to be able to attend Art Center and kind of like learn the basics.

If I wanted to be an artist, I had to first learn how to be an artist, get a foundation in design, drawing, perspective, and all the disciplines, and then apply for a job.

Tavis: Prior to going to Art Center, I assume that you were noodling and drawing prior to that. Was it your mom, your parents were providing you the paper and pens?

I’m trying to get a sense of how your gift was expressing itself before you got to Art Center.

Norman: I think my gift expressed itself in every way possible. When I was a little child, my mother said I used to draw on the walls.

Tavis: Ooh.

Norman: Yeah. I made quite a mess.

Tavis: You’d get a beating for that in my house.

Norman: Oh my, oh my. I would draw in the pages of my grandparents’ books. Any surface that wasn’t covered, I would take a pen or a crayon, probably, as a little kid, I’d take a crayon and start drawing and sketching anyplace I could.

Tavis: Do you recall, and maybe more than recall; you may have copies of them in your own personal collection. What were some of your earliest renderings, some of those early drawings? What were you sketching, what was coming out of your creative imagination back then?

Norman: I don’t think I was all that different from most kids who start sketching pictures in kindergarten and grade school. I drew the same things that most boys drew – airplanes and cars and fire engines.

Then later on I discovered comic books, and I began to create my own comic stories. I was a comic writer, even when I was five or six years old. I would just make up stories because I thought it was fun.

Tavis: How much – and this question is going to sound naïve, but let me ask it because I think you’ll take my point. How much does being a successful animator have to do with imagination?

I ask that because it’s one thing to be given an assignment by person X, Y, or Z, and you go to work on the assignment. It’s another thing to be an imaginative person. I’m trying to get a sense of how imaginative you were as a child.

Norman: I think I was blessed with a rich imagination. I remember when I was a kid in school, in Santa Barbara, we used to have storytellers come. I don’t even know if they do that anymore.

But we would have men and women, and they would come and they would sit us kids down in a circle and tell us a story. I was always entranced by these incredible stories these people would spin, and I would go home and I would imagine the adventures, and I could visualize them. I could see them in full color.

Tavis: In 3D.

Norman: Yeah, in 3D, you bet, you bet. They were real to me, and I never lost that rich, vivid imagination, and that served me well when I became an animation storyteller.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me get a bit more personal, because I think imagination is a wonderful thing, and yet I’m concerned about the fact that so many of our children, Black and Brown children in this country today, lack a vivid imagination beyond what they can see.

Or put another way, what they cannot see beyond their own immediate surroundings. Give me some sense of your upbringing and how it was that your imagination was fast at work while I suspect there were many others who were confined by their conditions, by their circumstances and surroundings, and couldn’t imagine much beyond what they could see every day.

Norman: Oh, you’re so, that is so true. I was a very lucky kid, because I grew up affluent Santa Barbara, California. My experience as a child was probably so different from people I met later who grew up, say, in the rural South, where many doors were closed to them.

I grew up as a kid being able to attend concerts, go to art museums. Santa Barbara was a rich cultural community, and I had access to everything. I think that shaped me as an artist.

So I was very blessed in having parents and grandparents who exposed me to theater and art and encouraged me, not discouraged me, as many others were, but encouraged me to pursue my dream and to pursue an art career, wherever that might lead me. We didn’t think that there were any restrictions, at least when I was growing up.

Tavis: Two quick follow-ups: Number one, what kind of discouragement, to your point now, were you hearing, and who were you hearing it from?

Norman: Sadly, I heard it from older African Americans, many of them having grown up in the South. So what I told them as an eager young kid, I was going to go work for Walt Disney, and they said, “Oh, oh, kid, oh, I’m sorry – Walt Disney doesn’t hire Black people.” Now of course they had no idea, but –

Tavis: But he hadn’t at that point.

Norman: Well –

Tavis: Not in animation.

Norman: Not, well – (laughter) but that didn’t mean that he didn’t hire minorities, because there were people, Latino, Asian, working at the Disney studios. Simply no people of color had applied for a job.

It wasn’t because there were no jobs available for them. They simply hadn’t applied. So when I showed up the issue of color was totally transparent. They just wanted to hire an artist who had talent and ability. The artist’s color really meant nothing.

Tavis: See, I get this, and you may not have gotten it as a child but I know you get it now, and that is that for so many of these older African Americans, they didn’t see what they told you as discouragement, they saw it as protecting you.

Norman: Right.

Tavis: They saw it as the truth, not wanting you to get your dreams so far-fetched and run into this brick wall called racism, called discrimination, called prejudice. So their advice was get a job at the post office, go do this, go do that.

Norman: Exactly.

Tavis: So isn’t that interesting, though? Because of what they had endured, they didn’t see, again, what they were saying as discouragement, but as encouragement to do something else.

Norman: Very true, and I came to understand that as I grew older, that they were not really throwing cold water on my dream; they were trying to prevent me from being hurt.

Tavis: Right.

Norman: So they had the best of intentions, but of course they didn’t realize that the world, even at that time, the world was changing.

Tavis: Right, right. I’m just curious, how did this African American family of yours end up in affluent Santa Barbara? (Laughter) Why were you not in Watts or – how’d these Negroes get to Santa Barbara?

Norman: Very true. My Aunt Esther –

Tavis: You had an Aunt Esther too?

Norman: I had an Aunt Esther, yes.

Tavis: What? (Laughter) All right, go ahead, yeah.

Norman: My family, they all grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, and my Aunt Esther was working for a wealthy family who would summer in Santa Barbara, California.

Tavis: Ah.

Norman: So that’s how it happened. So Esther came to Santa Barbara, looked around and saw the beautiful mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and said, “I found paradise.”

Tavis: Good bye, Natchez.

Norman: That’s right. (Laughter) She spread the word, and my family packed up and headed for Santa Barbara, California.

Tavis: Saying, “Natchez can’t match this.”

Norman: That’s right.

Tavis: “So we’re going to stay in Santa Barbara.” (Laughter) Okay, let me fast-forward now, because you’ve gone to the Art Center, because the folk at Disney when you knocked on the door said, “Kid, go to school.”

Norman: Right.

Tavis: You took their advice, you went to school, you went back and knocked on the door again, metaphorically speaking.

Norman: Right.

Tavis: How did you get inside of Disney? How did Walt Disney tap you?

Norman: Well, luckily they kept my name on file from that first time I had applied for a job. Well the Disney studio found itself, in the 1950s, just going through growth – not just growing, almost exploding.

They were making short cartoons, they were making feature-length cartoons, they were building a theme park in Anaheim, and they had just gone into television with two TV shows.

That meant the Disney studio needed artists, so Walt Disney said, “Find me some artists,” and I was one of the names on the list. They gave me a call and said, “Can you be here Monday morning?” I said, “I’ll be there Monday morning.”

Tavis: And the rest is history.

Norman: The rest is history.

Tavis: And you stayed how many years the first time around?

Norman: First time around I stayed 10 years. I left in 1966, sadly the same year of Walt’s passing. But they were a glorious 10 years, really, and when I left I didn’t leave because I was upset or discouraged.

I left because I wanted to do my own thing. My partner, Leo Sullivan, and I had plans to open our own studio to produce films on African American history, and that was the reason for my leaving Disney. But it was still a great 10 years.

Tavis: Describe for me those 10 years of having a chance to work alongside Mr. Disney.

Norman: Well to tell you the truth, most people did not work alongside Walt Disney, and I never expected to myself. I was downstairs, working in the animation department. Never expected to be upstairs in a meeting with Walt, because after all, Walt Disney only met with the big shots, and I was certainly not a big shot.

Well, it so happened that in 1966, Walt Disney got into an argument with one of his top story men, a man well known and well respected, Bill Peet. Bill was developing “The Jungle Book” as an animated motion picture, but Walt didn’t like his take on the film.

They got into it and Bill walked off the picture and never came back. Well, that opened the door for a new story crew, and I was one of the lucky kids recruited to join Walt Disney’s story team on “The Jungle Book.”

Consequently, that meant I would be in meetings with Walt Disney – something I never expected.

Tavis: What do you think of “The Jungle Book” all these years later?

Norman: I have to confess that I kind of have to smile when I see the response to this motion picture. Kids have come up to me and told me they came into the animation business because they saw this movie as a child.

It so inspired them that they wanted to be an animator. They wanted to work in animation. Well, I found that hard to believe, because the movie I worked on, I never thought of it as being that good, quite frankly. (Laughter)

It was my first movie. It was my first movie as a story artist, and I have to tell you, I didn’t know what I was doing. But whatever it was, the old man seemed to like it, and so we finished the movie and it went out, and people embraced it. It made them smile; it made them laugh, so I guess we did our job.

Tavis: I’m jumping ahead, but I’ll come back. Since we’re here, let me just put this out here. Since you thought that movie, your first one, wasn’t really all that good and now you see how it’s inspired people for generations now, for years, what for you has been the joy in being an animator?

I’m anxious to hear your answer, because I know what I get when I see animation at work, animation at its best. I know how it hits me. But what for you, as a creator; I’m just a consumer, but as a creator, what’s been the joy for you in being an animator? What do you take away from it? What’s it do or give to you?

Norman: Well, I look back on a career that I suppose many people might envy. I was lucky enough to realize my dream. When I was a little kid in Santa Barbara, sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s house, dreaming of maybe one day working for Walt Disney, and to have that dream come true, I think that’s pretty remarkable.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of just amazing, exceptional motion pictures. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the finest talent in the business. All this because I was at the right place at the right time.

So even though it was hard work at times, it was always magical. I have to confess I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the down times I enjoyed, because we were creating something that would make people smile and lift their hearts. Boy, you can’t think of a better job than that.

Tavis: I thought somewhere you’d get to that, to the smile and to the lifting of the hearts. Because I think – we’re talking Disney now and certainly there are other animators in the business now.

But I think animation, for children and for adults, at its best, what it really does is to affirm our humanity. So when kids get a chance to see certain characters on screen wrestling with certain issues, particularly when they have characters of color these days, it just affirms the humanity in all of us, and that works for kids and adults.

That’s why sometimes these movies come out and I go look for – I don’t have kids yet, but I go look for kids to take to them movie theater because I don’t want to walk in by myself. (Laughter)

But animation is such a beautiful thing, and again, I think at its best it really affirms our humanity.

Norman: It really does. It really does. I’ve been able to take my kids, and also been able to share this same experience with my grandkids, and that’s a wonderful thing. I think they probably think Grandpa is pretty good.

Tavis: Yeah, Grandpa is pretty good. (Laughter) So you leave the studio and you and your partner Leo hook up, and long before – now I come along about this time now as a kid.

Not too long thereafter, before we start to see Bill Cosby with Fat Albert on Saturday mornings – I couldn’t wait to get up on Saturday morning to watch the Jackson’s, the animation of the Jacksons.

The Osmonds were cool too, but I loved the Jacksons, and I loved Fat Albert. You and Cosby and your partner got together before we ever saw that series.

Norman: Well, we did. Back in the ’60s, we heard news, scuttlebutt, I guess, that Bill Cosby was thinking about going into animation. So Leo and I grabbed an old Bill Cosby record – LPs in those days.

We transferred this LP over to film, and we made a little animated segment of Fat Albert, hoping to show it to Bill Cosby. Eventually, it took a while, but eventually Bill did see it and we did the Fat Albert special back in 1967, ’68.

It was shown on NBC, half-hour, full color animation, but it was only shown one time, sadly, because a lot of people would sure love to see it again. But at least out of that half-hour special came the Saturday morning TV series, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” that I’m sure millions enjoyed over the years.

Tavis: That’s got to make you feel good, though, that you were part of, again, another project where that show was not just entertaining people. As I said earlier about our humanity, Cosby’s Fat Albert series is entertaining, it’s inspiring, it’s empowering to kids of color all around the country.

Norman: Yes, it was, it was, and certainly a lot of fun to work on too.

Tavis: When you left Disney, to your earlier point, in 1966, what was happening – we look at the calendar and see what was happening; it was a very tumultuous period in this country’s history.

Norman: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: But what’s driving you and Leo at that moment to want to do animation for people of color?

Norman: Well it’s something we felt we had to do. We knew that we couldn’t do it inside the mainstream studios, so how do you do that? Well, we were young; we were very young and naïve, I guess, in a way, but also ambitious.

We thought, well, let’s just start our own studio and start telling our own stories. Well this was a lot more difficult than we realized, but we did have a lot of great people stop by to lend a hand, guys like Oscar Brown Jr.

Tavis: Great artist, yeah.

Norman: And Smokey Robinson helped us out, Greg Morris, before he did “Mission: Impossible.” So we had a lot of people of color who came by. Even if they couldn’t help us financially, they would give us encouragement to keep going and to follow our dream.

Tavis: Speaking of your dream, it comes full circle because all these years later now you’re consulting Disney and pitching in here and there on the stuff that you can do.

Norman: Right.

Tavis: So what are you saying to these young animators today when they want to pick your brain?

Norman: I tell them to do what I did – just follow your dream. I was fortunate enough to meet with a group of young animators in Atlanta, Georgia, late last year, and eager young men and women, talented youngsters who wanted to get into this wonderful business.

I just said, “Just go for it.” Learn the craft; do your homework. You can’t just walk in the door if you’re not prepared, but it’s a great business. I’ve enjoyed it, and it’s, to me, inspiring to see so many young kids, talented young kids, coming into this business, which is bigger than ever today. It’s a huge business.

Tavis: We are celebrating the diamond edition in Blu-ray of “The Jungle Book.” It’s out now, and there it is. You’ll want to get your copy of it; I’ve got mine. As good as ever.

Also, we are celebrating the release of “Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, and Stories from a Disney Legend.” It is the story of one Floyd Norman, who I have been honored to have on this program tonight.

I’ve really just scratched the surface in a life that, thankfully ongoing, but a life that is well lived, even today. You might want to get this and read more about his life.

Mr. Norman, an honor to have you on. You are a legend in your own – some folks are legends in their own mind. (Laughter) You’re legend in your own time.

Norman: Well thank you, sir.

Tavis: I’m honored to have you on this program.

Norman: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

Tavis: Nice to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 13, 2014 at 11:59 am