The Real Floyd Norman

Usually known as, “Mr. Nice Guy,” few people know how crass and cutthroat a businessman, Floyd Norman can be. Over the years, Norman has managed to cultivate the phony image of a benign, benevolent Disney artist. However few people know the man behind the mask. Finally, this BusinessWeek article by reporter, Jessica Krassweiler pulls back the curtain and reveals the real Floyd Norman. It’s a sobering, eyeopening view of life in the upper ranks of the cartoon business and the ruthless tactics used to keep artists subservient to their corporate masters. The story of Norman’s climb to fame is not necessarily unique but it reveals a side of cartoon making few people ever see.

Floyd Norman began his Disney career toiling in the trenches of the animation department back in the fifties. Fed up with the long hours and low pay, Norman began to curry favor by building a relationship with the company founder. He began by bringing bran muffins to Disney’s office and eventually gained the confidence of the visionary leader. By the early sixties, Norman would enter Bill Peet’s office during lunch hour where he manipulated the storyboards. In time, this led to a falling out with Walt Disney and the veteran story man. Once Peet clashed with the boss he was immediately replaced by Norman. No one was the wiser that the ambitious young board artist had orchestrated the whole thing.

After the passing of Walt Disney, Norman found himself no longer welcome at the studio, so he left to explore opportunities outside the company. In time, Floyd returned to the studio with his old colleague, Don Bluth. However, Bluth and his followers were beginning to gain power, so Norman concocted a masterful plan to persuade Don Bluth to leave the Walt Disney Studios and launch his own company. Once out, Bluth and his minions were never allowed to return. Having successfully gotten rid of Bluth, Floyd put his next plan into action. He managed to convince Walt Disney’s nephew to replace the current management and the plan worked for a while. New life was breathed into the company and the greedy Norman acquired stock like it was going out of style. Before long he was calling the shots, yet managed to wield power without anyone knowing he was the shadow “king pin.”

By the nineties, Floyd had moved into upper management and was plotting his next move. He concocted an elaborate plan to relocate to the Bay Area where he would carefully exert his influence on a new animation studio called Pixar. He promoted an enthusiastic young man who liked to wear Hawiian shirts and appeared to be a natural leader. Floyd huddled with his moody, mercurial tech pal, and the two of them hatched a plot to eventually take over Disney Animation. However, once the deed was done, the computer guru decided to return to the company he founded and left Norman to run things. However, the ambitious Norman quickly ran things into the ground. Shortly thereafter, Norman found himself in the middle of a massive price fixing scheme that involved not only himself but several other animation companies as well. In an effort to avoid litigation and save his own skin, Norman reluctantly decided to step down. The BusinessWeek article uncovers Norman’s rapid climb and decline in the cartoon business and provides a cautionary tale that ambitious young animation executives might take to heart.

Don't let his smile fool you. Floyd Norman was never a nice guy and this article proves it.

Don't let his smile fool you. Floyd Norman was never a nice guy and this article proves it.

Family Portrait

The fun and fanciful Walt Disney and Pixar characters we see cavorting on the big screen are charming, delightful and provide loads of entertainment. Yet, they can serve another purpose you might not have considered. These wonderful animated characters often remind us of ourselves and members of our family. It seems only natural that the family members should gather for a family portrait, don’t you think?

And, that’s how this particular large format color sketch came about. A young animation artist requested I create this painting because he saw himself and his family members as Disney and Pixar characters. It was easy to picture himself as Monsters, Inc.'s “Sully,” and his lovely wife could easily play the role of, “Belle.” Naturally, I’m sure she wanted much more than this provincial life. The animation artist saw his petulant young son as “Grumpy,” while his energetic, bouncing baby boy was the perfect Jack-Jack from The Incredibles. Finally, his cute teen age daughter was perfectly characterized as, “Rapunzel.”

I realized I hadn’t shown this color sketch to anyone else since I painted it some years ago. I happened across a photograph of the painting last evening while going through a bunch of photos. I hadn’t seen the picture in years, so I thought I would share it with you. Perhaps you see yourself as a Disney or Pixar character on occasion. If that’s the case, what Disney character would you be? A hero, villain or a zany side kick? Would you live happily ever after, or fall to your doom from a high tower? It appears Disney villains often die this way. True, it may not be fun, but at least you’ll go out with a bang. Then again, I wonder if Disney or Pixar villains even die anymore? More often than not, It appears they’re required to return for the inevitable sequel.

It was fun to create this cartoon family portrait for an animation artist and his family.

It was fun to create this cartoon family portrait for an animation artist and his family.

The Doctor will See You Now

The 1999 San Diego ComicCon was wrapping up when I received an unexpected telephone call. Could I be on a plane to Pixar Animation Studios Monday afternoon? Producer, Darla Anderson wanted to speak with me. I hadn’t worked with Ms Anderson before but I was well aware she was a major player at the Northern California animation studio. I had recently returned from a nearly three year stint on Pixar’s “Toy Story2” and I was taking a break. However, when Darla Anderson calls that means break time is over.

It was an easy trip north that Monday afternoon. Walt Disney Animation Northside was practically across the street from Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. You could practically walk to the airport from the studio. Actually, I did walk to the airport from Disney Animation. I left my car in the Disney parking lot and headed over to catch my afternoon flight. In 45 minutes I was in Oakland and driving north on highway 80 to Point Richmond and Pixar Animation Studios. Once I arrived at the studio I was ushered into Darla Anderson’s office where we had a lovely chat lasting about 45 minutes. It seemed we talked about everything except movie making or upcoming projects at Pixar Animation Studios. In spite of being known for her toughness as a studio manager, I found Ms Anderson delightful. We concluded our conversation and I was soon driving south on highway 80 on my way back to the Oakland Airport. On my flight back to Burbank I couldn’t help but wonder what our conversation was all about.

Of course, I should have known. While working on a development project at the Walt Disney Studios I again received a late afternoon telephone call from Pixar. Would I like to join the story team on a new Pixar animated movie, they asked? My answer should have been an immediate, yes, but I had some reservations. You see, I had departed my home in Pasadena in spring of 1997 and that was nearly three years ago. Would my wife, Adrienne appreciate her husband once again defecting to the Bay Area? I was about to do the unthinkable and turn down the Pixar job. Suddenly, Adrienne said to accept the job because, in her words, “I know you really want to work on the movie.” So, with my wife’s blessing I was able to return to the Bay Area and Pixar Animation Studios and work on their fourth animated feature film called, “Monsters, Inc.” However, it gets even better. You see, back in the fifties I attended Santa Barbara High School with a talented guy named, Dave. We were both in the music department because I played in both band and orchestra. Dave’s brother, Steve Doctor was captain of our football team, but that’s another story. After graduation, Dave moved back to the Midwest to attend university, marry and raise a family. His talented daughters became professional musicians but his son decided to go into the cartoon business. Yes, Dave’s son wanted to be an animator. And, that’s how I ended up working for Dave Doctor’s son on Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” I’m sure you’ve already guessed the name of Dave’s son, haven’t you? He’s a talented animator, writer, director… and his first name is, Pete.

The delightful, Boo. She was the delight of the movie and the daughter of one of our story artists.

The delightful, Boo. She was the delight of the movie and the daughter of one of our story artists.

King Louie Goes Vegas

It was late afternoon at the Walt Disney Studio back in 1966. The door to D-Wing swung open, and a crowd of animators came stomping through the door and down the hallway laughing their heads off. A new animated motion picture was in production and the directing animators had just returned from a recording session. However, this recording session was different because you would have thought the animators had just returned from a party. Actually, they had done just that.

If you were lucky enough to have been a guest on Disney’s recording stage A back in the sixties you would have seen and heard Louie Prima and his band “tear up the place.” Prima had been selected to be the voice of King Louie, the orangutan Mowgli encounters in the jungle. However, when tapped for the gig, Louie Prima didn't show up alone for his recording session, he decided to bring his band along as well. And, who could blame the musicians? Las Vegas can be the adult playground, but it can't hold a candle to the fun over at Walt Disney's cartoon factory in Burbank. 

Directed by composers, Robert and Richard Sherman, Louie Prima began to rehearse the wacky ape song. Once into it, the Las Vegas showman could no longer stand still. It would appear the energy in the music was just too high. Suddenly, Prima began to channel his inner orangutan and became, King Louie. As the music grew in intensity the band couldn't help but join in. With Prima in the lead, the musicians marched single file behind the king as he made his musical plea to the amused Mancub, Mowgli. Most of you have probably never seen Louie Prima’s Las Vegas lounge club act. I can assure you it’s one of the wildest performances you’ll ever see. Louie Prima’s infectious high energy practically explodes full force on the stage. I’m sure this is why Walt Disney tapped the popular entertainer for a role in his film. Of course, this is a music track I doubt you’ll ever hear. Like most vocal performers at the Walt Disney Studios back then, Louis Prima's voice was isolated on a separate track. This is so film composer, George Bruns could make musical revisions later. You see, the original music tracks recorded by Louie Prima and his band were more Las Vegas than Anaheim. Clearly, Walt Disney wanted high energy…just not that much energy. And, I don't exaggerate when I say Louie Prima and his band totally freaked out and practically blew out the recording equipment on Stage A. The final tracks you’ve heard on the completed film’s soundtrack have been toned down. And, I mean way, way down. Louis Prima and his band at full “Las Vegas tilt” was a lot more than moviegoers of the sixties would have been able to handle. At least that's what Walt Disney thought.

Then again, maybe Walt Disney was wrong about movie audiences of the nineteen sixties. People might have liked the music. I’ll add that a few cranky old animators thought the stuff was pretty darn cool. However, it gets even better. The Old Maestro thought we might consider an up and coming rock band to perform the voices of the Vultures. After purchasing a stack of the bands’ record albums, Walt Disney changed his mind and killed the idea. After all, who’s going to remember an obscure 60’s rock band known as the Beatles?

Louie Prima's King Louie. The ape was just a little too hip for the room back in 1966.

Louie Prima's King Louie. The ape was just a little too hip for the room back in 1966.