The demanding directing animator who once instilled fear in the hearts of all who assisted him seemed surprisingly benign. We sat on the commissary patio at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank on a beautiful Southern California morning. Having been retired for a number of years, the aging animator seemed remarkably quiet and relaxed. He was older now, and his vision wasn’t as stellar as it once was. Worse, his hand would shake when he tried to draw. Aging is a bummer especially if you happen to be a skilled and talented Disney animator. I was older as well, and it appeared the years had flown past at remarkable speed. We refer to it as the Disney “Time Warp.” An odd compression of time experienced by all who spend a decade or more working on Walt Disney animated feature motion pictures.

Hardly as boisterous as his outspoken colleague across the hall in D-wing, Frank Thomas was hardly reticent when it came to expressing an opinion or correcting a less than acceptable animation drawing. Milt Kahl was bombastic, while Thomas was a good deal more subtle. Should you have the pleasure of working for Frank, the experience was no less terrifying. However, I was not feeling the wrath of Frank Thomas on this quiet morning. Thomas had become a kindly, older gentleman eager to share his knowledge with a young artist. While it’s true I had the opportunity to animate a few scenes in Disney movies, no way could I accept the lofty title of, “animator.” Thomas was a master. He was Yoda while I continued my struggle to become a Jedi. I confess I felt lucky to have Frank Thomas to myself that day. Now, I might be able to ask a few of the several hundred questions I had on my mind.

Frank Thomas’ animation style was unique and the Master Animator seemed to search for the essence of the scene in the scribbles on his paper. This is what made Frank so difficult to follow should you be his animation assistant. You had to know instinctively what to include and what to leave out. What to emphasize and what to dismiss. Your draftsmanship and your knowledge of animation was critical. Should you come up short on either, you would have made the mistakes I made back in the sixties and gotten your a** chewed out. After a decade in Disney’s animation department I thought I knew a thing or two. I found out the hard way that I didn’t know squat. It was this trial by fire that made our generation of Disney animation artists so unique. We were mentored by Walt Disney’s finest, and the bar was held high. As I said in the documentary, “If you could make it through Disney back then, every other job during your career would be a cake walk.”

Before our mid morning coffee came to a close, Frank Thomas volunteered some unexpected advice. “Don’t expect your retirement to be easy,” smiled the Directing Animator. “I work harder today than I ever did at the drawing board. Coming to work at Disney each day was easy. Now, I have to travel, lecture and author books. I’m working harder today than I ever have.” I wondered why Frank would mention that? At the time I was hardly anyone important, nor did I expect to be. Who would seek my advice or ask me to lecture on the subject of animation? Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston might be lecturing at universities or traveling the world, but they were famous Disney artists. A marginal animation artist like myself was hardly in their class. This mid morning conversation took place on the outdoor commissary patio of the Walt Disney Studio many years ago. I can’t help but reflect on it today as I prepare for a master class at a local midwestern university. The wise words of Frank Thomas keep coming back to me. “Get ready to teach, travel and work harder than ever,” said the Master Animator. “That’s retirement for guys like us.” It appears Frank Thomas had already seen my future. Who knew?

Yes, he did smile on occasion. Over time, the directing animator I feared the most became a good friend. He's truly a Master and I have nothing but admiration and respect for this stellar Disney talent.

Yes, he did smile on occasion. Over time, the directing animator I feared the most became a good friend. He's truly a Master and I have nothing but admiration and respect for this stellar Disney talent.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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It’s funny how a simple photograph can completely capture a view of the recent past. I think this image would appear almost foreign to people working in the animation business today. It almost seems quaint and slightly crude. It’s the way animated films were once made. It’s a view of a time few would recognize today.

Of course, those of you old enough already recognize the animator’s desk. That big silver platter in the center is called a disk. Drawings were affixed to it on pegs and the device could even rotate. For many years, artists managed to draw on these devices, and although it took some getting used to - over time it became comfortable. That’s a model sheet above the sketch. Artists kept these images nearby for continual reference as they went about their work. The yellow paper on the right is known as an exposure sheet. Critical in the animation process, it contained all the information needed in a particular scene. This fact filled sheet would also be used by the camera department when they photographed each individual drawing. In the world of animation, this was pretty much our bible.


That white object in the animator’s left hand is called a cigarette. That’s pretty much a thing of the past as well. We’ve since learned to do without these items because smoldering ashes could land on the sketches and edges of the scene could be accidentally burned. Of course, That wasn’t the only damage they could do. They could also kill you. I might add that the sketch on the animators desk is not an animation drawing or a layout. It was something called a, “blue-sketch,” and several young women used to trace these things as part of the production process. Naturally, it’s simply another job that has been totally forgotten today.


If you’re old enough and lucky enough to have labored on these ancient devices you may have fond memories of the forgotten process. There was something unique about being an animation artist and the fact that you were making a movie by hand. That’s correct. The process was totally analog and the human touch was felt every step along the way. Naturally, the physical process had its limitations and we were restricted to five levels because of the density of the animation cel. Even the camera had its limitations and that even included the mighty Multi-plane once considered a technological marvel. Despite these obvious handicaps, we were able to create magical worlds where elephants flew, and princesses were given life with a kiss. Worlds were created with watercolor and gouache and the animator’s pencil brought amazing characters to life. The pre-digital animation process for Walt Disney animation was clunky, crude and coarse. But, by god - it was magical and nothing like it is being done today. Today’s animation studios dismiss traditional hand drawn animation as inefficient and costly. That’s all bullsh*t of course, but the studios make the rules, and things are not about to change. As Frank Sinatra once said, “You can wait around and hope - but you’ll never see the likes of this again.

The desk of a Disney animator. Compared to digital, the work was coarse, crude and clunky - but by god it was magical.

The desk of a Disney animator. Compared to digital, the work was coarse, crude and clunky - but by god it was magical.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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Believe it or not, this blog post is about coffee. That’s right, my subject today is coffee. This is my view from my corner table at Starbucks and I find that a rough sketch often says a good deal more than a photograph. So, let’s talk about coffee.

Today, Millennials routinely gather at this early morning watering hole and it has become a matter of habit for most. Casually, paying two dollars or more for a cup of coffee, most would be shocked to hear that a hot cup of Joe once cost a nickel. That’s right. Five cents. Let’s go back to the early days of Disney. The time known as, Walt Disney Studios B.S. (before Starbucks) and see what coffee was like back then. If you know the Animation Building you’ll know that each of the wings had a small foyer. My office was in F-wing and ours was the only one with a coffee machine. No matter your position in the company, it meant a trek down to 1-F, where a nickel would buy you a cup of brown gunk from the coffee machine. There were other options, of course. Some hardy souls chose to make the trek across Buena Vista Avenue to Saint Joseph’s Hospital where the coffee was a good deal better. This was before the hospital expanded and built the multi-storied hospital building we see today. Of course, that tall building put an end to the nude sunbathing on the roof of the Animation Building - but that’s a fun story for another day. Should a motion picture or television show be in production on the Walt Disney Studio lot, you might even take a chance at snagging a cup of Joe from Craft Services. However, you’d better not get caught doing so. There were also a few who brought their own coffee makers from home, but the studio fire marshal discouraged having a coffee pot in the office.

For years, the coffee machine was pretty much the only place you could find coffee in Walt Disney’s Animation Building. In-betweeners and movie stars alike could be seen standing in line at the coffee machine in f-wing. Of course, everyone complained about the terrible coffee, but the options were few. Should you want to see your favorite movie or television star, simply stand in the lobby of F-wing. You never knew who might show up on a given day. Sometimes it was Disney voice actor, Sterling Holloway or film star, Dean Jones. Actress, Suzanne Pleschette was a frequent visitor along with Fess Parker and his Davy Crockett pals. The coffee was terrible, but the star power was pretty impressive as you stood in the F-wing coffee line back in fifties Disney.

Today, the dreaded coffee machines are pretty much a thing of the past and nearly every studio worth its salt has a least one Starbucks on the lot. Here at the Walt Disney Studio we have several and I’ve made it a point to visit every one of them. After all, I’m the guy who used to pay a nickel for a bad cup of coffee. Thanks to Starbucks, today I can pay a good deal more.

Young people waiting in line at Starbucks. The view from my corner chair.

Young people waiting in line at Starbucks. The view from my corner chair.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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I probably know these lovely ladies better than most. I spent nearly two and a half years drawing Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. I had the privilege and pleasure of working with the best in the animation business, and our directing animators were the legendary, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The directing animators rode herd over a talented team of veteran Disney animators that included guys such as Hal Ambro, Hank Tanous and Hal King. Our team, led by animator, Freddy Hellmich consisted of Chuck Williams, Jim Fletcher, Bob Reese and myself. We were tasked to clean-up the scenes delivered to us by the Good Fairy animators. Freddy went over our scenes drawing by drawing before they were handed to Frank and Ollie who did pretty much the same. Were they tough, you ask? You better believe it. They were damn tough, and I do not exaggerate when I say we often did our scenes at least three times before they were finally approved.

Walt Disney found his finest voice actors often came from radio. Unlike a film star, the only tool a radio actor has is his or her voice. That means actors trained in radio were exceptionally talented when it came to creating a character using only their vocal talents. That’s why Walt Disney choose the famed radio actress, Verna Felton to voice the character of Flora who often took the role as the lead fairy. Verna Felton was a radio veteran who radio listeners knew from the “Red Skelton” radio show and the Fanny Brice show, “Baby Snooks.” She was an amazing actor who could deliver a scary performance as the Queen of Hearts to the warm and delightful Fairy Godmother in Disney’s “Cinderella.” Another talented radio actor was, Barbara Jo Allen who provided the voice of Fauna. Miss Allen had the knack of often playing “ditzy” characters on radio and Walt knew she would be perfect as the often scattered, Fauna. Finally, the voice of cute little Merryweather was performed by Barbara Luddy, who was also a radio veteran. Luddy had a cute, delightful little voice, but she could also be spunky and determined when needed.

While the voice actors did their job, ours was keeping our nose to the grindstone or in this case, the drawing board. As the “Sleeping Beauty” deadline loomed, our teams began to put in overtime hours. The Walt Disney Commissary instituted a night shift to feed the hungry animation staff and keep us working full steam ahead. In spite of all this, our boss, Walt Disney did something exceptional. The Old Maestro set a limit on how late the artists could work. Walt Disney did not want his staff spending all night at the studio. The boss stated that his staffers needed to get home and spend time with their families. They should not work all night at the Walt Disney Studio and be an absent mother or father. Honestly, can you imagine anything like that happening today? Can you imagine the Disney top managers stating their staffers need to spend more time with their family? The world has changed, hasn’t it? And, our priorities have changed as well. This Disney old timer has to confess that we’re all the worse for it.

As a young Disney animation artist, I cut my teeth on this first feature film assignment. Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was my first animated motion picture and though the work was rigorous, it was never a grind. We put in long hours and we sketched our scenes over and over again until we pleased our bosses and that included the big boss, Walt Disney. It may sound a bit naive, but I’ll confess as I look back on this time with fond memories and I can honestly say I loved every minute of it.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather were three wonderful Disney characters. They became a big part of my life back in 1957.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather were three wonderful Disney characters. They became a big part of my life back in 1957.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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