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.

Animating Robin Hood

I’ve had a number of requests for this color sketch of Robin Hood and Maid Marion. I initially chose this particular pose because of its energy. It’s clear that Robin and Marion have been startled by something. I began painting the couple because it had more life than the usual static poses I had been doing. Naturally, this image has been taken from the Disney motion picture. The same film I worked on back in the early seventies. I had never planned to work on Robin Hood but I soon found myself animating on the film. Let me tell you how it all began.

With the sad and unexpected passing of Walt Disney I left the studio to launch my own production company. This was not a snap decision. In truth, I had been planning my departure from the Walt Disney Studios for some time. Still, I was hesitant to leave the creative facility that had been my home for at least a decade. However, the passing of The Old Maestro clearly signaled it was time to move on. With Walt Disney no longer guiding the company I knew we would soon be following a different path. I had little interest in what would soon become the “post Walt Disney Studio,” so I handed in my resignation. I’ll admit it was pretty heady stuff being a part of my own company. Decisions could be made without reporting to a bunch of clueless hardheads in upper management. When I needed to be promoted to animator…I simply promoted myself. After all, I was the boss, or at least one of the bosses. We produced a number of educational films, developed a television pilot and devised movie and television titles and credits for various clients. Suddenly, the seventies were on us and the country experienced an economic downturn. I had recently married and my wife had given birth to twin daughters when I received a call from my old boss, Andy Engman at the Walt Disney Studios. Would I be willing to help out on their new feature, Andy inquired? I could even work at home should that be more convenient.

After a nearly five year absence, I returned to the Animation Building on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I remember walking down the hallway of B-wing and waving to my old pals. Here were, John Kimball, Chuck Williams, Al Stetter and Cliff Nordberg still at the drawing boards. I gotta tell you it felt good to be home again. I began work on the animated segment of “Bednobs and Broomsticks,” a musical that contained a good deal of the Disney talent but unfortunately none of the magic of “Mary Poppins.” Missing was one very important ingredient - and you can probably guess who that was. Soon, my assignment was wrapped, but before departing the Disney Studio, key assistant animator, Dale Oliver wanted to show me something. I made my way down to D-wing where I watched a number of scenes on the Moviola. Scenes animated by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. They were for the movie just beginning to ramp up. A new animated film entitled, “Robin Hood.” “We’d sure love to have you back on this film,” said Dale. “I’d love to return, Dale,” I replied. Several months passed before I returned, but late in 1971 I did make my return to the Walt Disney Studios to work on, “Robin Hood.”

I began working with Disney veteran, John Lounsbery, a mild mannered, soft spoken gentleman. I was mainly redoing scenes that had been completely changed by Milt Kahl. Unhappy with the initial designs, Kahl began redesigning the characters. Known for his skills as Disney’s finest draftsman, Kahl always got his way. John Lounsbery and the other animators pretty much let Milt do what he wanted. After all, who wanted to fight with Milt Kahl? As the film began to make progress, I was assigned to work with a talented young animator named, Dale Baer. Baer had been part of Disney’s training program and showed promise as an upcoming animator. The Disney Studio had been active in wooing young talent to be a part of this program and now it was beginning to pay off. One day, animator, Art Stevens stopped me in the hallway of B-wing and asked pointedly why I wasn’t in the animation program? “I’m too old, Art,” I replied. “Disney only wants young kids, and I’m way to old to qualify.” At the time, I was thirty eight years old.

My story has a happy ending, sort of. Thanks to Dale Baer I was able to animate on “Robin Hood” even though I never garnered a screen credit. In a way, I felt I had accomplished something. I was finally able to create animation on a Walt Disney feature animated film and that’s no small potatoes in my opinion. I was actually beginning to feel good about my return to the animation department of the Walt Disney Studios. Some wondered why this was such a big deal when I had already worked in Walt Disney’s coveted story department. It was a big deal because I had come to Disney many years ago with the dream of becoming a Disney animator. Now, I had finally become one. However, my Disney story takes another twist. One day my bosses, Ed Hansen and Don Duckwall (yes, that’s really his name) called me into the office and fired me. However, this is such a good story, I’ll have to save it for another time.

I enjoyed animating this character back in the seventies. Disney showed their appreciation by booting me out on my butt. You gotta love 'em, don't you?

I enjoyed animating this character back in the seventies. Disney showed their appreciation by booting me out on my butt. You gotta love 'em, don't you?

My Comic Book World

Today, I’m back at work on my comic book story. Some might call it a graphic novel, but that seems a little pretentious. Basically, it’s just a fun comic story that I hope will be somewhat entertaining. Comics were my entry into the world of storytelling and entertainment back in the old days. I loved comic books as a kid and I had my own stash of favorites that included superheroes along with funny animals. In later years I graduated to Mad and other EC Comics. Remember, this was all before the “morality police” decided that comic books were corrupting the youth of America. Of course, comics were never highly regarded in the United States. While Europe and Asia embraced this unique form of storytelling, the literary police informed the public that comics were trash. What’s laughable about this is the fact that we’ve never had a shortage of trash in literature. But, for some reason comics always took the hit.

Although Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories had been a favorite throughout my youth, the Disney Company had little to do with comics back in the eighties. New management had come to Disney along with a number of bright young executives eager to make their mark. One such was a young man who decided to shake things up by launching a new Disney comic book company. Michael Lynton had spent part of his youth in Europe and was keen on bringing a European sensibility to Disney publications. Naturally, he immediately began to butt heads with the “old guard” who regarded Lynton as a loose canon who knew little about the Mouse House and the way things should be done. However, I found Lynton’s wacky ideas pretty progressive and a handful of us were eager to put his ideas into practice. Things never improved in our little comic book world. I remember early morning shouting matches in the executive offices and Michael Lynton eventually left Disney Publishing for a new job in the film division. He may have failed at comics, but our old boss did alright for himself. He’s now the boss of a major movie studio. You might have heard of the Culver City movie company called, Sony.

Our comic book company managed to hang on for another two years before Disney ended this sad chapter in publishing in the early nineties . Our comic book efforts remain impressive, however. We managed to publish eight separate Disney titles each month and get the comics to market. However, marketing and distribution was a continual problem that was never resolved. Without support from the rest of the company, Disney Comics soon found itself on life support and eventually died a sad and sorry death. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long after that the venerable Walt Disney comic strips came to an end as well. An unexpected visit to HR one early morning made it quite clear my services were no longer needed in Disney’s Publishing Department so I returned to the world of filmmaking. As much as I love filmmaking, comics will always remain a first love. We’ve come a long way since my early days of paper, pencil and pen and a desk at Woggon Wheels Ranch in Santa Barbara. Now, I write, sketch and color on a computer and the creative process is totally digital. Yet, comics remain comics no matter how much the production process changes. It’s a unique method of storytelling and an art form that’s not going away anytime soon.

Unlike the old days, the creation of a comic book today is totally digital. No pencil, pen or paper. All you need is a computer and a fair amount of creativity.

Unlike the old days, the creation of a comic book today is totally digital. No pencil, pen or paper. All you need is a computer and a fair amount of creativity.

Nice Kids. Not Heroes

As I completed my color sketch of Briar Rose and Prince Phillip I happened across a delightful column written by Bobby Johnson some years ago. Mr. Johnson makes an effective argument that “Sleeping Beauty” is the most feminist Disney movie they’ve ever made. It certainly gave me pause because I worked on this Disney classic many years ago and much of the film remains fresh in my head even today. However, this column by Mr. Johnson makes me look back at the Walt Disney motion picture in a whole new way.

First of all, Mr. Johnson makes his case that Aurora or Briar Rose is pretty much a nothing character who wants to marry a guy she danced with in the forest one afternoon. However, she doesn’t do much after that but fall into an unending slumber and doesn’t wake up until the same dude shows up and molests her in her sleep. On the other hand, Maleficent is a kick ass villain who isn’t defined by her relationship to a dude. She’s ticked off because she was snubbed by the royals and decides to make the king and queen pay for their rather cold oversight. Maleficent is ready to lay a lot of hurt on the kingdom and she doesn’t care who gets nailed in the process. She’s a pretty strong character in the Disney film. Certainly a good deal stronger than Aurora who spends the major part of the movie in bed.

Of course, Prince Phillip tries to be the bad ass hero but he’s quickly dispatched by Maleficent’s henchmen. before Phillip knows it he’s sitting chained in a cel while Maleficent gleefully spells out his future. A cruel punishment, the Prince will not be united with his beautiful princess until he’s a frail old man ready to begin collecting social security. So much for our protagonists. It would appear both are losers. So far it would appear that the strongest character in the Disney movie is the villain and a woman at that. Perhaps not the best example of feminist ideals in the Disney movie, but there you go.

But, here’s the really cool part. Much to my surprise it would appear that the true protagonists of Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” are three middle-aged women. The very same three women I worked on back in 1957. The three good fairies are truly the main characters of the film. When Maleficent puts the curse on Aurora, it’s the fairies who step in and do what’s necessary. Remember, it’s the protagonists who make the important decisions in a story, and the three fairies are right on top of things. They’re clever, resourceful and they have a plan. Things only go sour when the three women get into a stupid argument over the color of the dress. Having given themselves away, Maleficent is onto their game and she springs into action and the third act begins.

Even after the three fairies break Prince Phillip out of prison it appears he’s still not ready to tackle the all powerful Maleficent and she knows it. Once again, Phillip is getting his butt kicked until the three fairies after giving him a shield and sword, tell him what to do next. Using their magic to show Phillip the target, the prince hurls the magic sword into the heart of the dragon who screams and crashes to her doom on the rocks below. With that out of the way, Phillip goes to Aurora’s bedroom and gives her a big wet kiss. It’s okay because mom and dad are still asleep anyway. She wakes up and - well, you know the rest. But who would have thought it? Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip are not the heroes of this Disney animated motion picture. It’s three middle-aged, overweight little old ladies who make the important decisions and ultimately win the day. It’s an important lesson we can all learn from. No matter your age, weight or gender you can still be a hero. If you’re looking for a feminist message in a Walt Disney film, you’ll find a really good one in this animated motion picture.

Prince Phillip and Briar Rose are nice kids...but hardly heroes.

Prince Phillip and Briar Rose are nice kids...but hardly heroes.