Recently, one of our authors and renowned Disney Animator, Floyd Norman, was interviewed by HLN TV. In this interview, he speaks of his in career in animation, working on animated features like Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book. Despite the changing face of animation, Norman explains that, at its core, animation is still the same – it is about telling stories. Watch the full interview here:
For more tips, tricks, and advice from the Disney legend himself, be sure to check out his new book The Animated Life! Here is an excerpt from the book –
Chapter 7: Taking my Best Shot
“Learning to Be an Animator”
We all remember our first car, our first job, and certainly our first date. Like everyone else, I’ve got a “first” as well. However, mine is going to be a little different. I’m speaking of my first animated scene in a Disney cartoon and how that scene ushered me into the highly coveted position of “animator” at the Mouse House. We’ll get to that scene in a bit, but first a little Disney history.
Let’s go back to the 1960s and the completion of the feature film 101 Dalmatians. Disney’s animation department had already suffered a severe downsizing after Sleeping Beauty, but now the Animation Department was informed that it would have to tighten its belt even more. That meant even longtime Disney animators would be given their walking papers. A painful situation to be sure, but some animators took the bad news in stride. One such was animator Don Lusk. Don, a 20-year veteran, showed a sense of humor when informed he was being terminated. Standing before his boss, Don replied, “But I was under the impression this job was supposed to be steady.”
I confess that I felt guilty seeing many Disney veterans leaving the company. Lowly assistants like myself were spared the ax because we earned considerably less money and could be put to work assisting other artists. Luckily, I found myself a position on a new animated short entitled “The Saga of Windwagon Smith.” Somehow, despite of all the cutbacks, I had managed to survive. Yet I had to put my dream of being a Disney animator on hold. Clearly, Disney had no need of new animators as they had already sent a number of talented veterans out the door.
“The Saga of Windwagon Smith” was a delightful folksy short, much like many of the Disney cartoons I saw as a kid. Rex Allen’s easygoing drawl provided the film’s narration. With all the recent cutbacks at the Mouse House, our crew was small, but not lacking in talent. Our director was C. August Nichols, a veteran who had animated on Pinocchio. Nick used to joke about animating his favorite character in the film: the evil “coachman” who took the kids off to Pleasure Island where they would eventually be sold as livestock. “He was a mean guy,” laughed Nick. “A real fun character to animate.”
For layout and production design, we had the talented Ernie Nordli. Walt Peregoy was the color stylist and, if I recall correctly, painted all the backgrounds himself. Finally, Jack Boyd did the effects animation, and the two character animators were Art Stevens and Julius Svendsen. Chuck Williams and I worked as assistants. Our crew was small but more than efficient enough to crank out a Disney cartoon on a budget.
The film tells the story of a former sea captain who “sails” his modified covered wagon across the prairie, much like a schooner crossing the ocean. The film was animated in the stylized technique effectively used by Nick and Ward Kimball in such former films as “Melody” and “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom.” Art and Sven had both worked for Ward Kimball on his Tomorrowland space films as well, where they perfected this animation technique. Though the animation was a little more limited than the average Disney film, it was never short on imagination. The movement was stylized, but even then it was how and when the characters moved that gave the animation its punch. I had always admired the animation abilities of Art and Sven. I had been watching their animation since I was a kid in art school. Now, as luck would have it, I would be assisting my heroes. One morning, I inquired about a particular scene and received an unexpected reply from Art Stevens. “Go ahead and animate it yourself,” he said. “You know what to do.” I was somewhat taken aback. I had never dared to even request any animation assignments—here was an opportunity being handed to me. Though somewhat intimidated, I went right to work.
An animation crew is basically a group of individual artists who all have to draw as through the film were created by one hand. Of course, as in all Disney films, the artists are bound to disagree on how things should be done. For instance, the animators continually grumbled about the “foregrounds” Walt Peregoy was painting for the film. They felt like their animation were being upstaged by Walt’s vibrant color palette. It brought back memories of Sleeping Beauty , and the very same criticism of color stylist Eyvind Earle. Meanwhile, we continued to churn out the footage, and my dream of becoming an animator seemed closer than ever. Oddly enough, my cartoon future would soon be changing, but I didn’t know it at the time. In a few years, I would be trading my animation disk for a pencil and sketchpad.
“The Saga of Windwagon Smith” turned out to be a pretty good little film. Nothing to write home about, I suppose, but many people have told me how much they enjoyed this little bit of Americana. In many ways, it felt like the end of another era at the Mouse House. Many gifted animators had already moved on, and now even our director, Nick Nichols, would be saying goodbye to Disney, where he had worked since the 1940s. Nick would begin a whole new career as a director at Hanna-Barbera, where he would put in a least another 20 years before his career would come to an end at—of all places—Walt Disney Studios.
I remember “The Saga of Windwagon Smith” because one of my favorite animators gave me the opportunity to be more than a clean-up artist. My dream of being a Disney animator seemed just a little bit closer because of my experience on the movie. Yet even with our tiny crew, there were still no screen credits for Chuck or myself. Animation assistants were not to be deemed worthy of credit until another decade had passed. No matter. I was delighted to have worked on a special Disney cartoon with a very special crew.
Finally, what was that first scene this tyro animator placed on his pegs back in the 1960s? If you remember the cartoon, Windwagon Smith has just roared into town, scaring the hell out of everyone, including an old codger sitting on a porch with his rifle. The frightened geezer jumps up and fires his rifle, and ka-blam! So you see, I got my first shot at Disney animation by having a cartoon character take—you guessed it—his best shot.
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