The Ascent of Walt

As you can imagine, I have enormous respect for Walt Disney and consider the man an American icon. If you’ve taken the time to read any of the biographies written about the Old Maestro you already know what a remarkable individual he was. I had the rare opportunity to come to the Walt Disney Studio when Walt still ruled over his kingdom. Over time, I was granted the opportunity to work with the boss and even attended private meetings on occasion. What’s even more remarkable, I was allowed to do this while still a know nothing kid.

Walt Disney was tough task master and he demanded nothing less than our best. He had the remarkable ability to focus like a laser and nothing escaped his watchful eye. His intuition when it came to story telling was amazing and I’ll confess he was rarely wrong when pin pointing a problem. Disney was a gifted story editor who made every sequence in a film that much better. Though I’ve often portrayed the boss as dour and grumpy, I’ll admit I was just having fun. Walt displayed a healthy sense of humor and enjoyed a joke as much as anyone.

I have no doubt the Old Maestro would smile if he saw himself portrayed in this series of cartoon drawings. Actually, most of us could probably sum up our lives in a few cartoon sketches as well. There’s something about cartoon drawings that are clear, concise and to the point. My sketches begin with a brash, young Walt Disney eager to prove himself as an artist and filmmaker. The second sketch portrays a totally confident Walt at the top of his game. Having added a few pounds, the fifties Walt was already world famous and no longer needed to prove himself. Though older, he still had the drive and enthusiasm of a young man. I knew the sixties Walt, and I often portrayed him as the grumpy boss. It was all in fun, of course. Disney still managed to retain his youthful enthusiasm even though his health was failing.

This time of year should always be the most joyous, yet it remains less so for me. November and December continues to be remembered as a time of loss. The loss of friends, family members and my old boss, Walt Disney. Perhaps I’m using this cartoon sketch to lighten things up and enjoy a chuckle and a fun look at a remarkable life.

Simple Stuff

In the animation age of high definition digitally rendered images I find something truly refreshing about these simple hand drawn, hand inked and painted cartoon cels. These are a few animation cels I salvaged from my days of doing animated television commercials back in the seventies. Having been booted out of the Mouse House, I continued my cartoon career animating a series of television commercials for various studios. The artwork in the photograph represents some of the commercial work I did at a Studio City production house called FilmFair.

As you can imagine, there’s something truly refreshing about getting out of the big studio environment where hundreds of artists are involved in the making of a film. The animation team in a commercial house tends to be lean and mean. There were rarely no more than a dozen artists involved with each film we produced. The team usually included a layout and background artist and a couple of animators and their assistants. The acetate cels were hand inked and painted by three or four talented women who turned the job around in a matter of weeks. Before we knew it, our finished animated commercial was being screened in full color in the studio theater. Each commercial was in production a month or less and there was something about a film being turned around so quickly. Years could go by in a huge production facility like Walt Disney Studios before seeing a completed product.

I confess I miss the old days when animation was cartoon making. When the zany animated images on screen were simple sketches. Sure, we didn’t have all the golly, gee whiz visual effects of CGI. And, we lacked the ability to put anything awesome on screen except simple cartoony drawings. Yet, there’s something special about the simplicity of cartoon drawings that can never be replaced by the mundane, mechanical tools we use today.

A few hand inked and painted cartoon cels. This was the way we created cartoons in the old days.

A few hand inked and painted cartoon cels. This was the way we created cartoons in the old days.

A Possible Biography

Perhaps it's simply an indulgence or a fanciful idea that will come to nothing. In any case, I've decided to begin writing a biography. Whether the book will ever be published is anybody guess. In any case, I've been wondering how I would pitch the book so I'll share my thoughts with you.

A book of this sort may seem a little odd. After all, the author is hardly rich or famous. His life is not unusual except for the amazing people he’s known and worked with. Plus, he’s lived through some pretty turbulent times and even recorded some of the events on film. His animation career spans from Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men to Pixar Animation Studios’ famous Brain Trust. His personal films were diverse, covering subjects from science, history, Juvenal Justice and America’s institution of slavery.

Floyd Norman spent his fifty plus year career as a filmmaker and story teller. He detailed his years at the Disney Studio in his last book, Animated Life. However, those Disney years are only part of his fascinating story. His story moves from the Korean Conflict to the Civil Rights Movement. From hand drawn animation to the digital revolution, Floyd continued to lend his skills to the world of film and print. He taught kids the alphabet on Sesame Street and instructed Navy pilots in the delicate task of refueling their aircraft while still in flight. In his rich filmmaking career it’s not an exaggeration to say he’s done damn near everything.

Floyd Norman grew up in the culturally rich community of Santa Barbara in the fifties. His music teacher was the brother of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck and he took art lessons at Santa Barbara’s Museum of Art. Before graduating from high school, Floyd had already secured a job as an assistant to Archie Comics cartoonist, Bill Woggon, and he sketched the fifties icon, Katy Keene the Fashion Queen. However, Floyd Norman was only beginning his career. His next step would be Art Center College of Design before moving on to a position at the Walt Disney Studios where he would work with the Old Maestro himself.

Yet, these were still baby steps for the writer-artist. He would eventually serve in the military, launch his own production company and work with a series of entertainment icons including, Steve Allen, Oscar Brown, Jr., Smokey Robinson, Rod Serling, Bill Cosby and many others. He would take his camera crew into the burning streets of Watts in 1965, and travel through pre-Civil Rights Alabama documenting the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. While at Pixar Animation Studios, he connected with another famous person. Because of his chats with tech icon, Steve Jobs, Floyd often joked, “No one could ask for better tech support than having your questions answered by the Apple CEO himself.”

Like most kids born in America’s nineteen thirties depression, Floyd never knew he was poor. Life held enormous opportunity and the future seemed limitless. He dreamed of a magical life while watching Walt Disney cartoons in a Santa Barbara movie theater and knew he was destined to one day create that magic as well. Unlike most biographies, this book is not a dark story of overcoming, or a climb out of poverty or deprivation. It’s a story of creativity and limitless possibilities when one is determined to live life to the fullest.

The credit for this photograph goes to my talented wife, Adrienne. 

The credit for this photograph goes to my talented wife, Adrienne. 

Making Mistakes

Here’s an idea that was eventually abandoned. I shared my Disney career in “Animated Life” and my goal was to pass on my fifty plus years of experience at the Walt Disney Studios. Since my book was somewhat educational, reviewing high points of each chapter might be a good idea. Each chapter would conclude with this yellow legal pad highlighting the key points discussed.

I created a number of book pages featuring notes, sketches and photographs. The goal was to come up with something graphic and interesting. Even though it was a cool idea I became concerned this technique might interrupt the narrative. Even as a first time author I wanted to create a book that would be a page turner. I finally moved the “teaching” part of the book to the final pages where I provided a series of tips, techniques and insights for the young animation students.

I still look back on the process of writing this book with fond memories. I began by working at home but soon realized writing a book about the Walt Disney Studios required a Disney vibe. I found an empty office in 1201 Flower Street in Glendale and moved in. For a year, I edited non-stop with the help of my editorial director, Katy Spencer and technical editor, Tom Sito. By the end of the year I had a manuscript ready to deliver to my publisher and the satisfaction of knowing I had proved my high school English teachers wrong. How many of you smug instructors have written and published a book?

Snap!

Anyway, that’s the reason for this rather odd looking page. It was a nifty idea eventually abandoned for hopefully a much better idea. That’s the way it goes when you’re the author of a book. In many ways it’s like making an animated motion picture. Good ideas routinely scrapped for a better one. And, as always, making mistakes is the way we learn.

The review page in my book, Animated Life. It was an idea eventually abandoned.

The review page in my book, Animated Life. It was an idea eventually abandoned.