The Feature

Back in 1957 the motion picture was known only as, “The Feature” and not just anybody was deemed worthy of working on it. In most cases you needed at least a year under your belt to even be considered. Most of us young trainees had cut our teeth on such simple fare as Jiminy Cricket and Donald Duck. However, being a good duck in-betweener hardly impressed anybody. In the Disney view of things you were still in the minor leagues. 

Then came the fateful day when the animation boss, Andy Engman gave you the word to report to a key assistant in D-Wing. It went without saying that coveted D-Wing was the home of Walt Disney's legendary Nine Old Men. If you were summoned to this special wing it meant you were probably being considered for “The Feature.” In those days, the wing was quiet and your footsteps seemed to echo as you made your way down the hallway. Most doors were closed, but a few remained ajar and you quickly glanced at young men and women hunched over their drawing boards. They could have been devoted monks copying biblical text. They worked in silence and with an intensity we had not experienced before. Not even at the Disney Studio. No, boys and girls, this wasn't Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. Welcome to Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” where the men are separated from the boys. A few meager in-betweens were doled out among the few of us young artists and we were told to report back later. However, we shouldn't bother returning to this particular location. We were instructed to return to 1D-2 where three lovely young women would evaluate our work. If you think we were getting off easy, think again. The "girls” as women were called back in the old days, were not about to make our lives any easier. These young women were tough. I’d say a good deal tougher than any of the men who occupied the famous wing. We stood like scared school boys as the lovely young Disney veterans looked over our drawings and began to make corrections. After being scolded soundly, we were sent on our way with a stern warning to be more dilligent. Eventually, we upped our game and in time learned how to be a feature quality Disney artist. There was even a Disney happy ending to this challenging ordeal because one of the young men eventually fell in love and married one of his “bosses.”

I thought I would share this story with you because it illustrates what was expected of young Disney artists who saw themselves as possible contributors to this Walt Disney masterpiece. You had to be good to work on “Sleeping Beauty” back in 1958. Actually, to work on this Walt Disney classic you had to be better than good. If you don't believe me, take another look at this amazing Walt Disney animation art. Gorgeous art that still astonishes me even to this day.


 Original Sleeping Beauty art. You had to be good to work on this Disney motion picture.

Original Sleeping Beauty art. You had to be good to work on this Disney motion picture.

The Real Job of a Manager

Many years ago, before management morphed into a collection of corporate wimps, bosses would sit down for a final meeting with a dismissed employee. It was often a painful transition but almost always it was an important one. In truth, it was probably beneficial for both employee and employer. Success and failure on the job could be discussed, and in many ways valuable lessons were learned by both.

Of course, this never happens today. Faceless corporations are more concerned with covering their asses than having the courage to face an employee that's being shown the door. And, I have no agenda here. Some employees need to be sacked because they clearly demonstrated their failure on the job. In other cases, competent workers have to be let go through no fault of their own. A change in company direction or a lack of financial resources may dictate such a decision. In any case, the person in charge has an obligation to face the staffer being dismissed. It was never a pleasant task, yet it was always a necessary one. It was a crucial part of doing your job as a manager. It was your responsibility as the person in charge.

I've never hidden my feelings for the nefarious department known as Human Resources. And, it's not necessary to explain why corporations feel they're necessary. That's a subject for another time. More than a few friends have told me about their “exit interview” after working for decades at a particular company. The young HR person behind the desk had no idea who the person was or what they did while employed by the company. They simply followed company policy as they sifted through the folder on their desk. The former employee was being “processed out,” and it was as cold, and simple as that. Having had the same experience, no one had to convince me that this is the way it works.

In times long past, when men were men and women were women, we faced up to our responsibilities no matter how difficult the task might have been. If you were the boss, that meant you gave the decision to hire new staffers, and should things not work out, it was your responsibility to dismiss them as well. That's what being a boss meant. It wasn't all good times and fun. it was unpleasant things as well. If you're a boss, it is your responsibility to let your employee know why they're being dismissed. if it's no fault of their own, but simply a company situation - let them know that. Let them know you were impressed by the fine job they’d done and hopefully the two of you might work together again. On the other hand if the employee failed to meet expectations - they should know that as well. You have a responsibility to let them know that. It's in their best interest, of course. If they're not aware of their failings, they'll simply repeat those same mistakes on their next job and that's not a good thing. If you're the boss, and you take your job seriously, then do the job of being a boss.

Should you think this is a tirade against private business, please think again. I've had the opportunity to run my own business and I can honestly say it was a great learning experience. More importantly, it provided the opportunity to see business from the perspective of both employer and employee. And, for that, I've always been grateful. I don't hold a degree from either the Stanford or Harvard business school, but I have learned a thing or two about business. Probably a good deal more than some of the clueless mangers I've worked for in recent years. I'd like to see managers take responsibility again and I'd like to put an end to the pointless HR exit interview and return that responsibility to the top managers where it belongs. That's why they pay them the big bucks, right? In this world of limitless litigation, I doubt we'll ever see change. We will continue to do business as usual and companies will be the worse for it.

 Some employees don't deserve to lose their jobs. However, there are plenty others that do.

Some employees don't deserve to lose their jobs. However, there are plenty others that do.

The Story Master

When I was a kid one of my earliest memories was being ushered into a darken theater where Walt Disney’s “Bambi” was being screened. The images onscreen seemed to glow magically and I was instantly swept into a wondrous world of talking animals living in a glorious watercolored forest. Even though I was a child I knew the images onscreen were not real. No matter. I was totally entranced by the magical world Walt Disney and his remarkable artists had given us.

Yesterday, I spent part of my afternoon sitting in front of a camera on set introducing scenes from the amazing Walt Disney motion picture that began its story development journey decades ago. Walt Disney was a master story teller and when he sat with his story team at the old Hyperion Studio in Los Angeles, there was a good deal of work ahead. I’m fairly well acquainted with the story development process and well aware that in scripting an animated feature film it’s easy to venture off in the wrong direction. Sometimes we get so involved in a clever bit of business we stray too far from our main storyline or we begin to neglect our lead character. Walt Disney had a laser like focus when evaluating a storyline and when things began to go off track he knew immediately when to make a change. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to view deleted sequences from the classic Disney film I saw as a child and share all this with the audience. I won’t be telling you about the material we shared just yet, but you’ll be seeing it soon enough when the new storyboarded sequences are made available.

It’s interesting for an old storytelling guy like myself to know that the same mistakes we make today were made back in the thirties as well. Like the old seasoned Disney veterans, we’ll tend to get caught up in an interesting bit of storytelling that is not crucial to the main plot. I’m sure you’ve notice sequences in today’s animated films that make you wonder, “why did they put that in there?” Or, why was that bit of business needed? It has nothing to do with the character or the main storyline. Lucky for the story team on “Bambi,” the story artists had a master story editor like Walt Disney to keep them on track. Walt Disney always believed in a lean, clean storyline and I learned this firsthand when working with The Old Maestro on “The Jungle Book” back in the sixties. Walt Disney was a master storyteller because he never lost focus. A lesson todays young story tellers might want to consider.

 Though his storytelling teams were the best in the business, Walt Disney remained the finest story editor I've ever worked with.

Though his storytelling teams were the best in the business, Walt Disney remained the finest story editor I've ever worked with.

Sacked in the Seventies

Okay, here’s the rest of my “Robin Hood” story. Months had passed since the completion of “Bednobs and Broomsticks” and I had finally settled in on the new Disney animated feature motion picture. I began by working with John Lounsbery which meant re-working much of the lead character since he had been redesigned by Milt Kahl. Weeks had passed and now I was working with fledgling animator, Dale Baer. Like most young men of the hip seventies, Dale sported a full mane of shoulder length hair. The world was changing and the old men of Disney were having difficulty adjusting to it. The changes in society were beginning to freak out the old guys who were still trying to deal with all the young kids with their long hair, patterned shirts and bell bottomed trousers. The hippy-dippy seventies was hardly a concern for me so I decided to go with the flow. I still remember an afternoon studio screening of Stanley Kubricks, “A Clockwork Orange,” that left the poor veteran Disney animators in a virtual state of shock.

I was happily animating Robin Hood when I received a surprise afternoon call from one of my animation bosses. His name was, Don Duckwall, and for years he had worked in Disney’s accounting department. Suddenly, Don was in charge of Disney Animation. A wise choice, I would assume. Who better to head up a creative artistic department than a guy who had spent his career crunching numbers. I headed up to the third floor of the Animation Building curious why I had been summoned. I had recently done a talk at one of the local schools about Disney animation. Perhaps the boss wanted to thank me for doing such a good job in representing the company. When Don finally returned to his desk I’ll have to confess his conversation had me totally confused. He kept talking about the amazing growth of the animation industry and all of the new studios cropping up all over town. There were incredible opportunities at the new animation studios and who wouldn’t want to take advantage of them? Of course, I sat puzzled. What did all this have to do with Disney - and what did this have to do with me? However, our little talk was hardly over as Don reached for a stack of papers on his desk. It appeared he had been going over the footage reports and mine was hardly impressive. The numbers on the sheet apparently proved that as an animation clean-up artist I was slow as hell. However, what the footage reports didn’t show was the fact that my scenes had all been put on “ones.” I’ll not try to explain animation jargon at this point but let’s just say when a scene is on “ones” it takes twice as long to do. Since the “duck man” was an accountant you would have thought numbers would have easily explained the situation.

Two weeks later I was sitting at my B-wing desk working away when something struck me. Suddenly, it all made sense. Other studio “opportunities” and low footage reports clearly meant one thing. In his own subtle way, Don was preparing to get rid of me, but he had to first build a case against me. Low footage was the perfect excuse. Now, that I was onto Don’s plan, I began to build a strategy. I would not only improve my animation footage - I would double it. I began to work through my lunch and after hours. My reason, you ask? This was to prove my getting sacked from the studio had little to do with my animation footage. Management simply wanted to fire me and needed a viable reason to do it. It was a rather sad and clumsy affair and hardly worthy of the respectable enterprise Walt Disney had built. Finally, what was the reason for this little charade? The company wanted to bring in new staffers who were younger and cheaper. Makes good economic sense, don’t you think? In any case, one would have thought the company that bears Walt’s name would have shown more class.

All these events were a long time ago and I’ve never let this little incident tarnish my image of the company or my respect for those who manage the organization. Tough business decisions have to be made and I’ve no problem with that. What I do expect from management is that they be honest and comport themselves with a degree of dignity and respect.

 Young Floyd Norman and daughter, Elaine. Working on "Robin Hood" in the Seventies.

Young Floyd Norman and daughter, Elaine. Working on "Robin Hood" in the Seventies.