At 82 years old, Floyd Norman still draws crowds, from his live chat/sketching events at Comic-Con to this week's computer graphics conference, SIGGRAPH.
"I have no plans to retire," he chuckled, surveying the SIGGRAPH audience, many of whom are just starting their careers.
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An alumni of the California ArtCenter College of Design, Norman was the first African-American animator at Disney in the mid-1950s, where he worked with Walt Disney on classics like Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and Mary Poppins.
But although he's an official Disney Legend, with his handprints immortalized on the Burbank lot, Norman is not a Disney lifer. At Hanna-Barbera, he drew Scooby Doo. And between Disney productions, he co-founded Vignette Films Inc., which produced educational films for television focusing on black history, animations for the US Navy, and the famous, trippy 70s-era yellow train opening credits to Soul Train. Working on Toy Story 2, he even encountered Steve Jobs.
"In many ways Steve Jobs and Walt Disney [were similar]—both very demanding, opinionated, and there was only one way to do things—their way," Norman said.
It wasn't all sixties animated grooviness, though. At one point, the three partners at Vignette Films were evicted from their offices. Undaunted, they slipped into a booth at their local coffee shop, gave out the number of the pay phone, and scrambled for it when it rang, just in case it was a client.
In the midst of the 1965 Watts riots, meanwhile, Norman and his team grabbed a 16mm Bolex film camera and headed into the fray, capturing incredible footage. Thirty years later, he was honored for his groundbreaking work by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Norman has seen the shift from pencils to pixels. But he's no Luddite. At SIGGRAPH, he talked about his love of tech, and reminisced about adding a Macintosh to his office at Disney in the 1980s.
"[Some executives] said, 'What can you do with that?!' That's when I thought, 'You're not going to have your job for long.' Although there were two young guys—Steve Burke and Michael Lynton—they got it. And they did alright," he laughed. (Burke is now CEO of NBCUniversal and Lynton is chairman of Snap, Inc.)
Norman is now back at Disney (yes, at 82), where the "kids across the hallway" are fiddling with VR headsets.
"There's a bunch of young men and women developing VR and they'll often come across to share a doughnut and a cup of coffee," Norman said. "Yeah, the tech is cool, but ultimately, if you're not serving the audience with the story, it's not going to take off. Walt Disney always said: 'Don't watch the movie, watch the audience'—that's how you learn to tell stories."
If you're curious to learn more about Floyd Norman, check out the documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. Directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey, it won Best Documentary at last year's San Diego Comic-Con and is available on Blu-ray, iTunes, and Netflix. Norman's SIGGRAPH chat is below; the keynote introduction starts at the 1:05:35 mark.