The lauded documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life gets a new life this month when it moves to The Criterion Channel. Directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey, the 2016 documentary--which was on Netflix worldwide for three years, with special broadcasts on TCM in North America--takes us on an intimate journey through the life and career of Floyd Norman, the first African-American animator at Disney Studios who went on to team with colleagues to launch Vignette Films, one of the first Black-owned production companies in Hollywood starting out in the mid-1960s. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life debuts Feb. 7 on The Criterion Channel, which is also presenting four short films created by Floyd and Vignette Films.
Norman joined Disney in 1956, working on such classics as Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians before being handpicked by Walt Disney himself to serve on the story team for The Jungle Book. He became just one of a dozen artists over the years selected by Disney for his story team. Norman later in his career found himself at Pixar where he got to know Steve Jobs of Apple who owned that computer animation studio at the time (before it was acquired by Disney).
Reflecting on his experience working with visionaries Disney and Jobs, Norman shared with SHOOT, “Few people have the opportunity to meet and learn from their heroes. Walt Disney and Steve Jobs were men from different eras. Yet, both were surprisingly alike. Natural leaders, they were passionate, single-minded and visionary. Of course, you’d be wise not to get on their bad side. The few times I was in their presence I was both fascinated and intimidated. These were remarkable individuals whose ideas changed the world. It was an honor and opportunity to be in their presence.”
Norman has been celebrated for not only his artistry but also groundbreaking achievements relative to breaking racial and age barriers. On the latter score, he kept working at Disney despite a studio policy of mandatory retirement at the age of 65. However, Norman doesn’t view himself as an industry pioneer. He related, “I’ve never considered myself a person who has, ‘broken down barriers.’ Let me explain. My parents and grandparents were progressive for their time and never wanted to encumber their children with ‘social baggage.’ Consequently, we were never told we were unique in any way because of our color. I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios much like my colleagues as another young artist looking for a job. Totally unaware of any ‘barriers,’ I knew each of us would succeed or fail on our abilities and nothing more. While I am aware my profile at the Disney Studio would eventually inspire other young artists of color to seek a career in film, I had no intention of becoming a ‘trailblazer’ of any sort. I don’t consider my confronting ageism as anything unique. That’s the one thing we all share as we grow older. I often tell people, ‘don’t let anyone or any company decide when you should retire.’ That decision is yours and yours alone.”
As for how society and the industry have evolved over the years since his launch of Vignette Films, Norman observed, “I’ve seen remarkable changes in the entertainment business over the years. Perhaps I’ve had a unique perspective because of the years I’ve spent making films. When I arrived in the 1950s, Hollywood film community, motion pictures sets and studios were predominately male, and white male at that. Over time, more women were welcomed into our business followed by people of color. Today, the set of a movie company bares little resemblance to the workplace I observed in the 1950s. The world has changed and Hollywood has changed.”
Now 86 years young, Norman remains active. “I began my career making movies as a hobby. This was a hobby that eventually became my career.” And that career continues. “In 2020, I was invited to return to Sesame Street to write, design, and direct a new animated countdown for season 50,” shared Norman. “I had worked on seasons 1 and 2 of the show performing the same creative roles, so this was a very special return to the Street we all grew up on. I also enjoyed re-teaming with Floyd Norman: An Animated Life producer/co-director Michael Fiore and animator Nirali Somaia. Michael produced the Sesame Street animation through his Fiore Media Group banner and we had a ball making it.”
Norman also had the opportunity to work with NBA superstar Steph Curry, creating a series of NFTs that commemorated his breaking the all-time record for three-point goals made. The art raised nearly $4 million across three days for Curry’s Eat.Learn.Play Foundation.
Norman noted that Floyd Norman: An Animated Life “has made me a recognizable face and has led me to many wonderful broadcast TV and speaking appearances over the last few years. Some fun ones have included Pawn Stars on The History Channel, Sesame Street, the Steve Harvey talk show, and Buzzfeed’s Draw Off. I love sharing my life and career stories with people around the world.”
Recently, Norman worked with The Met to share some of his experiences at Disney on Sleeping Beauty. These stories have been included in The Met’s first-ever exhibit on Walt Disney titled “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts”. The exhibit runs through March 6, 2022.
Furthermore Norman continues his relationship with the Walt Disney Company as a freelancer and consultant. He has been appearing in various Disney commercials and on their streaming channel.
And in the spring, Norman is being inducted into the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame. “It is a truly special honor and an event I am looking forward to attending,” he said, adding, “I continue to write, animate and edit motion pictures because it’s what I’ve always done. Of course, I have no intention of stopping anytime soon.”
SHOOT also has a bit of history with Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. On the strength of that documentary, Fiore and Sharkey were selected for SHOOT’s 2016 New Directors Showcase.