He might not have considered himself a trailblazer in the film industry when he first took a job as an animator at Walt Disney in the 1950s, thus becoming one of the first African Americans hired to work at the studio, but no matter how you look at it, Floyd Norman has paved the way for many of his successors over the last five decades.
In celebration of the recent release of the Diamond Edition of the 1967 Disney film “The Jungle Book,” a film Norman helped animate, the now 79-year-old artist took some time with me to talk about working at Disney studios and why he never gave a second thought about being one of the very few African American animators employed there. He also talked about collaborating with Bill Cosby on the cartoon special “Fat Albert” and commented on accusations that have sprung up again about his former boss Walt Disney being a racist.
“The Jungle Book” Diamond Edition is currently available everywhere.
Did you have a sense you were doing something groundbreaking in the animation industry when you were hired by Disney or was it just a job you loved doing?
When I first came to Disney [Studios], I never thought of myself as a member of any particular group. I came here as an artist applying for a job. I never saw myself as a trailblazer or breaking ground. I was just another kid looking for a job.
You were born two years before Disney released its first feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” What Disney films from your childhood do you remember making the biggest impression on you?
I think the first film my mother ever took me to was Walt Disney’s “Dumbo.” I saw it at the Fox Theater in Santa Barbara. That film was probably the one that stayed with me for the longest time. I remember seeing the opening sequence with the storks carrying the baby circus animals. I remember one of the storks was voiced by Sterling Holloway. It was weird because years later, I got to work with Sterling Holloway on “The Jungle Book.” (Holloway voiced Kaa, the snake, in “The Jungle Book”).
When you revisit something like “The Jungle Book” again, does it feel the same as the first time you saw it back in 1967?
Not really. I watched the film in 1967 and didn’t watch it again until 20 years later. Then I saw the film fairly recently. As more and more time passes, it’s almost as though somebody else made this film and I’m just another viewer. I have to sometimes remind myself that I worked on the movie. It’s been so long ago. It’s funny how you look at things. It’s strange that so many years have gone by.
Your first job as an animator was working on the “Archie” comic book series. I saw that the first African American character in that specific series wasn’t created until 1971. His name was Chuck Clayton. This was around the same time the show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” debut on TV. Were you conscious during this time that the animation landscape was changing with more characters of color being created?
When I was creating cartoon characters, I never gave any thought to their color. They were just another cartoon character. In the 1960, I did work with Bill Cosby in developing characters for “Fat Albert.” That was the one time when we were focused on characters of color. But ordinarily I really didn’t think about that. When I was working on “Archie,” I was just working on a comic book. They were just funny and interesting characters.
But I’m assuming it had to be a little different working with Bill Cosby on “Fat Albert” and having a sense that creating a cartoon like that was something completely different than anything done before. I mean, specifically creating African American characters was the focus, right?
Yes, but I was only thinking in terms of a cartoonist and an entertainer. I really didn’t think about it in social terms like we were breaking new ground or doing anything special. We were just creating entertainment. That’s how I’ve felt about all of my jobs. At Disney, it was the same way. I know people over the years have wondered why we haven’t had more characters of color, but that’s been changing in recent years. Things do change over time.
Looking back over your career as an animator, what do you miss the most about the way things were done? Do you think we’ve lost some of the magic in animation with technology taking over as much as it has in the last 20 years?
Well, there’s no doubt technology has impacted animation in a very real way, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think what we’re doing today is quite remarkable. I recently saw the Disney film “Frozen,” which is stunning visually. Now, of course, things have changed since the early days when we made everything by hand. Back then it was artists drawing with pencils on paper. So, in a sense, the work felt more intimate. Maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that today with the use of technology, but I still think our films resonate with audiences. I think the Disney magic is still there. I think the heart and the warmth is still present in the films. Although we’re using new tools and new techniques, I think the magic still comes across.
Are you a doodler?
(Laughs) I do that all the time. I think all cartoonists are natural doodlers. Sometimes our doodles end up as a motion picture. We’re continually testing and trying new ideas with new characters and new situations. That’s something that any animation creator is always doing. It’s part of our DNA.
This is a bit of a touchy subject, but over the last few weeks a lot has come out about Walt Disney himself and whether or not he was racist. Actress Meryl Streep made mention of it at an awards show recently as did Disney’s grandniece. What was the environment like at Disney Studios back in the 50s when it came to race and the animators that worked there?
I never gave it much thought because it was never a problem. I think a problem has been created where none existed. We were a bunch of artists. We were writers, artists, dancers, actors. Our main thing was the art. Everybody got along just fine. The issue of color or race never came up. We were just trying to create entertainment. We’ve addressed these accusations time and time again, but they continue to resurface, unfortunately. Walt Disney was certainly one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for. He was a man who treated everyone equally and fairly. I can’t think of a better boss that any artist could have had. So, I refute any of those accusations. I worked for Walt and was with him in many story meetings over a 10 year period. He was a man that I can speak highly of. He was a great boss, leader and inspiration.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of Neal Gabler’s 2009 biography on Walt Disney. It’s called “The Triumph of the American Imagination.”
Yes, I have.
Well, in the book, Gabler says Disney was not racist but he was “racially insensitive like most white Americans of his generation.” Does that, maybe, fit a bit better when looking back? Could that be the reason people think he was racist?
Well, I think that’s Neal opinion. (Laughs) Every author is entitled to their opinion. But that was not the Walt Disney I experienced. I did not work for a man who I thought was racially insensitive at all. I worked for a man who was extremely demanding. He was a tough boss, but he was tough on everybody. It didn’t matter who you were. Walt was a tough guy. But that’s why he got the best work out of his staff. Racially insensitive? I would say no such thing existed. Certainly I didn’t see it.
Did you get a chance to see “Saving Mr. Banks” with Tom Hanks playing Disney? What did you think?
This was the first film where I can recall Walt being such a central character. I felt Mr. Hanks did a terrific job of portraying the Walt Disney I knew. I was lucky enough to be on the set with Tom Hanks as the film was being shot last year and to be able to pass on a few pointers to a really great actor, who really didn’t need my coaching. But at least I was able to provide some insight on what it was like working with the old maestro – his manner and how he behaved and his optimism and enthusiasm. I was happy to be there with Tom and to pass that along to him. I loved the film. I think it’s a great film. I think Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson gave fantastic performances. I was delighted when I saw the finished film.
I’ve probably been living under a rock, but I recently learned about the similarities in scenes from “The Jungle Book” and “Robin Hood.” There are videos on YouTube that show how some scenes from “Robin Hood” are lifted straight out of “The Jungle Book” and other Disney films. Can you speak about that a bit? How did that happen?
(Laughs) I know what you’re talking about. I think there are a lot of Disney fans out there who know that as well. Our director [on “Robin Hood’], Wolfgang Reitherman, for some reason, loved to go back into the archives and find animation that had been done before and recycle it. This was just a quirk of our director.
So, was it simply to pay homage to past Disney films? Did he love “The Jungle Book” so much that he wanted it to be a part of his film?
That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it in that way before. Some people say it was to save money, but it wasn’t. In many cases, finding those old scenes and trying to modify them would’ve cost more money. It would’ve been cheaper to animate it from scratch. I don’t know exactly why he wanted to do it. It wasn’t about cost savings. It was just the director’s taste. Yeah, we heard a fair amount of complaints about the reuse of material, but it’s just what our directed wanted to do.