Animating Characters in Drag

I’m not sure why, but we had moved our story meeting to one of the large projection rooms on the third floor of the Animation Building. I had recently joined the story team of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book and I was still amazed that I was in such illustrious company. In one such meeting I remember we were sitting toward the front of the large third floor theater near the screen. Oddly enough, it was the same location shown in the forties Walt Disney film, “The Reluctant Dragon.” In the motion picture, Walt Disney and Robert Benchley were sitting in the first row of seats as well. Even though I had been employed by the Disney Studio for at least ten years It still felt oddly out of place. Did I really belong in the company of so many masterful Disney veterans?

I sat with our head writer, Larry Clemmons and my story partner, Vance Gerry. We were trying to hammer out a sequence in the film while Larry seemed more interested in regaling us with tales of his show business past. Remember, Larry Clemmons had written for the popular radio crooner, Bing Crosby back in the forties. For those of you too young to remember, Bing Crosby was an enormous super star back in those days and his radio show was listened to by millions. Being a writer on the popular prime time show made Larry quite proud and he loved sharing his show business stories of “Derr Bingle” and other Hollywood stars. Vance and I tried to return to The Jungle Book’s plot line but Larry seemed more interested in coming up with funny schtick. For some wacky reason, Larry kept saying how much funnier the scene would be if the character was in drag. Vance and I looked at each other completely befuddled.

Suddenly the doors swung open and we were joined by two of our directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The story guys grumbled a bit because they didn’t care for the animators - even directing animators encroaching on story meetings. However, Frank and Ollie were pretty important guys at the Walt Disney Studio and nobody dared kick them out of the meeting. For the most part, Frank Thomas did most of the talking and was eager to share his ideas. Looking back, I think Thomas was eager to get started animating and he was growing impatience with the progress - or lack of progress on the storyline. It would not have mattered in any case because nothing was going to move forward without the approval of Walt Disney. Once again, Larry Clemmons reiterated how funny it would be if one of the characters was in drag. Perhaps that did it, because Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston decided to leave the meeting and return to their drawing boards in downstairs D-wing.

This fanciful story from the year 1966 has a very satisfying ending. You see, the sequence we were working on was the very same sequence Frank Thomas animated. I can’t say for sure whether Frank animated every single scene, but he sure animated the lion’s share of it and his animation was masterful. I’ll bet you remember all that funny stuff between little Mowgli and Kaa the Python up in the tree? That was the sequence Frank Thomas couldn’t wait to get his hands on. It turns out that sequence was one of the best Vance Gerry and I ever storyboarded. A huge part of what makes that marvelous sequence spring to life is the brilliant animation of Disney Legend, Frank Thomas. Sure, Vance and I put the ideas on the board, but it was Thomas who gave the sequence, charm, fun and vitality. 

Thank heavens no one cared all that much about animation back in the sixties. Consequently, we were pretty much left alone to make animated films our own way and to do so without the stress and pressure of the filmmaking process today. Just the thought of meetings with forty people in a room fills me with terror. When we met with Walt Disney usually no more than six people attended the session. The idea of a crowd of artists, writers, producers and executives making story decisions sounds insane. Plus, we only had to answer to one man and that man was Walt Disney. In many ways it was the best job any animation artist could have wished for and we wanted it to go on forever. Of course, Larry Clemmons got his wish of having a character in drag. Remember the wacky duet with King Louie and Baloo? The zany bear is wearing a skirt of palm leaves and a coconut bra. Somewhere, writer, Larry Clemmons is smiling.

It's summer 1966 and I'm sitting with Larry Clemmons and Vance Gerry. Animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas decide to crash the meeting.

It's summer 1966 and I'm sitting with Larry Clemmons and Vance Gerry. Animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas decide to crash the meeting.

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.