This excerpt is from Floyd Norman‘s Animated Life. Here, Floyd challenges animators to achieve the WOW factor that some would argue is missing from contemporary animation. Animated Life is available at Amazon, BN, and wherever fine books are sold.
I’ve often been asked this goofy question: “How would you run an animation studio if you were in charge?” Questions like this come from young people who assume that I have answers. The truth is, I’m not in that position, and I don’t expect to be. However, I once ran my own business many years ago, and I learned a few things from that experience.
When you run your own business, you gain the equivalent of a Stanford business degree—and I’m not joking when I say this. Those who have taken this wild ride know what I mean, and those who have never tried it don’t. There are a few successes out there, but they are few. More often than not, businesses fail, and there are a number of reasons why.
Among them are lack of business savvy and being under-capitalized, along with producing and marketing a less-than stellar product. However, this experience taught me a few things about the road to success, and I’ll share one of them with you.
Many years ago, before studios had security guards and electronic gates, we animation artists often visited each other. In those days, animation art was not hidden away but proudly displayed on the studio walls for all to see. Every now and then, we would come across storyboards and development art that would cause everyone in our little group to say, “Wow! Look at that!” I’m talking about concepts that caused our jaws to hit the floor. I’m talking about artwork that inspired awe and inspiration. This is the movie you wanted to work on. This was the movie you had to work on. I’m talking about the “wow factor.”
Some years ago, I received a call from a producer friend of mine. He was a hard-as-nails Hollywood type who spent most of his day barking orders on the phone. “You’re in animation, right?” he began. “I want you to find me some animation artists! I want you to find the baddest dudes in town, because I want stuff that will [his words, not mine] kick ass!” This guy knew what he wanted, and was willing to pay whatever was necessary.
His message may have been coarse, but it was clear. He wanted to see some “bad-ass” development art up on the walls, and he wanted stuff that would, as he put it, blow people away. Once again, we’re talking about the wow factor.
These are the lessons I’ve learned in my many years in the business. And should the unlikely opportunity be laid at my feet, I know exactly what I would do. First of all, I would scour the studios and schools for the finest talent available, whether young or old. Veteran or novice, I would be on the lookout for the boldest and the baddest talent I could find. I would be like the obsessive computer boss who called in his finest hardware and software designers and gave them a task. This was a task that could be stated in two words: “Astound me.”
Much like the crazed computer boss, I would tell them to not look to the past for inspiration. What’s been done has been done, so move on. Don’t look to your competitors and try to duplicate what they’re doing. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is pathetic. And, most important of all, don’t listen to your public to tell you what they want to see, because by the time you finish your movie, they will have moved on and will probably want to see something else.
So, how do you achieve the wow factor? It’s very simple—and very scary, but here goes anyway. When there’s a choice of following the safe and well-trod path or the dangerous road, choose the dangerous road. When your director is the old, reliable veteran or the studio “crazy man,” choose the crazy man. When you’re faced with following or breaking the rules, break them. Sure, these choices can land you on your butt if you should fail. But what the heck. You were probably going to fail anyway. However, should you succeed—wow!
There was a guy who exemplified this kind of leadership. He didn’t look to others to see what they were doing, and he didn’t need focus groups to tell him what would work. Finally, he was willing to commit incredible resources to accomplish his goals even when his financial advisers didn’t agree. They all said he was nuts, but he proved that a creative vision was something worth fighting for. So, each time he did something bold and amazing, his audience said, “Wow!”
Not an easy job being a leader, is it? Because in order to achieve the wow factor, a leader must be creative, innovative, and—most of all— fearless. Walt Disney had those qualities, but sadly, he passed away in 1966.
Maybe I’m nuts, but I think the wow factor is still obtainable. We’ve no shortage of talented young kids eager to show their stuff. Hell, there’s no shortage of talented old veterans ready to get back in the game. All we need is a bold dynamic innovator who’s ready to lead. Any takers?
Floyd E. Norman (born c. 1936) is an American animator who worked on the Walt Disney animated features Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book along with various animated short projects at Disney in the late ’50s and early ’60s. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966 Floyd Norman left Disney Studios to co-found the AfroKids animation studio with business partner animator/director Leo Sullivan. Norman and Sullivan worked together on various projects such as the original Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert television special which aired in 1969 on NBC. (not to be confused with the later Fat Albert series made by Filmation Associates.) Floyd Norman returned to Disney at one point in the early 1970s to work on the Disney animated feature Robin Hood. More recently he has worked on motion pictures for the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, having contributed creatively as a story artist on films such as Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. for Pixar and Mulan, Dinosaur and The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Walt Disney Animation among others. He continues to work for the Walt Disney Co. as a freelance consultant on various projects. Norman had his start as an assistant to comic book artist Bill Woggon who lived in the Santa Barbara area that Norman grew up in. In the 1980s he worked as a writer in the comic strip department at Disney and was the last scripter for the Mickey Mouse comic strip before it was discontinued. Floyd Norman has also published several books of cartoons inspired by his lifetime of experiences in the animation industry : Faster! Cheaper!, Son of Faster, Cheaper!, and How The Grinch Stole Disney . He is currently a columnist for the websites JimHillMedia.com and AfroKids.com. He was named a Disney Legend in 2007. In 2008, he appeared as Guest of Honor at Anthrocon 2008  and at Comic-Con International where he was awarded an Inkpot Award.