Disney Legend Floyd Norman, the first African American animator to work for Walt Disney Studios, came to Atlanta recently with his wife Adrienne Brown to talk about his career that spans more than 50 years.
Named a Disney Legend in 2007, he has worked on Disney features such as Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book. And more recently he has worked as a story artist on Pixar Animation Studios’ features Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. He also co-wrote the animated features Mulan, Dinosaur and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
While here, he also was able to promote his memoir and how-to book—released this year in paperback — “Animated Life: A Lifetime of tips, tricks, techniques and stories from an animation Legend.”
Following Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Norman struck out on his own to co-found the AfroKids animation studio with business partner animator/director Leo Sullivan. Norman and Sullivan worked together on various projects such as the original Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert television special which aired in 1969 on NBC (not to be confused with the later Fat Albert series made by Filmation Associates). He also worked on the animated television shows for Hanna-Barbera Productions (Scooby Do, The Flintstones and Jonny Quest, to mention a few.) He also worked on animated segments for Sesame Street during the 1970s.
A true pioneer, Norman worked directly for Walt Disney, himself, when he first started in the 1950s. Still modest and down-to-earth at 78, Norman and his wife talked to ADW about their Atlanta visit. Norman’s wife is an artist in her own right. She works for Disney Publishing, and has created art for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Beauty and Beast, among others.
The two met 20 years ago at Disney, and have been married for 14 years. She says she still does some traditional drawing by hand, but most of her work is digitally produced. They collaborated on one book project, “Bobby’s World.”
Part of their visit included a trip to the Wren’s Nest in West End. While she admitted a somewhat negative attitude about the Wren’s Nest before her visit, she said she came away with an enlightened understanding of the importance of the museum and its role in preserving storytelling. The Wren’s Nest is the name given to the home of Atlanta newspaperman and writer Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus Tales. The home is now a museum and learning center.
In 1946 — before Norman’s tenure — Walt Disney produced Song of the South based on the Uncle Remus stories collected by Joel Chandler Harris. The film depicts the character Uncle Remus – an African-American former slave – cheerfully relating to several children – including the film’s white protagonist – the folk tales of the adventures of Br’er Rabbit and his friends. The film’s song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song. The film’s depiction of African-American former slaves and of race relations in Reconstruction-Era Georgia has been controversial since its original release, and is now commonly regarded as racist. Consequently it has never been released in its entirety on home video in the United States.
In true Disney fashion, Norman sees the good in the film. He wrote the foreword to a book published last year Jim Korkis about the controversial Disney film. The book is titled, Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories.
“The film remains a sweet and gentle tale of a kindly old gentleman helping a young child get through a troubled time,” Norman writes in the foreword. “The motion picture is also flavored with some of the most inspired cartoon animation ever put on the screen. If you’re a fan of classic Disney storytelling, I guarantee you’ll not find a better film.”
Perhaps Norman comes by this outlook because he never experienced the racism and discrimination of the segregated South. He grew up in southern California. Noting all the strides made by the Civil Rights Movement, Norman said he is happy to support the efforts of the Wren’s Nest. He said he even suggested that the museum start an artist program to go along with its writing and storytelling programs. “That would be a fantastic thing,” he said.
In addition to their Wren’s Nest visit, Floyd talked with Atlanta University Center and Emory University students. “I’m very encouraged about the future,” he said. I was inspired. I could feel their energy. These kids seem to be more focused than the kids in Hollywood.”
Norman said he would never have believed that he could have had the career that he’s had.
“It’s been a pleasure to share my career,” he said, “not just with kids, but to everyone. It makes you feel good.”