Floyd Norman was the first Black animator hired by the Walt Disney Animation Studios, a legacy that will remain cemented in time. Norman is the subject of a new documentary that airs this weekend in Hollywood, and reveals little-known details about the animator’s private life.
Norman was born June 22, 1935 in Santa Barbara, Calif., a far cry from the Jim Crow South that he experienced later as a boy. Without the overt racism that was prevalent throughout much of America at the time, Norman grew up in a relatively sheltered environment which fueled his imagination.
In 1956, Norman received a big break in his career when Disney hired him as a part-time animator when he was just 21. Prior to this, Norman worked as a cartoonist’s assistant. The first film Norman worked on was Sleeping Beauty, which saw a 1959 release. Other early works that employed Norman’s expertise was the original Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and other smaller films.
In past interviews, Norman defended the notoriously picky and hands-on Disney, saying that the studio owner never once fretted about Norman’s race. The studio was especially patient with Norman, who originally applied to work there fresh out of high school. The company plucked Norman out of the Art Center College of Design and the rest was history.
In 1966, Norman and his partner Ron Sullivan formed Vignette Films and worked on a series of projects including the original 1969 Fat Albert special, the animated Soul Train logo and many other projects. The film studio was the among the first to produce pieces on Black history for children. In 1999, Norman and Sullivan created the website, Afro Kids.
Norman returned to the studio in the ’70’s, but was asked to resign at the turn of the century. Norman’s second wife, Adrienne Brown-Norman, is still a Disney employee and Norman drives her into work everyday as he has for the past 15 years. His connection with the studio is still solid as animators and directors look to Norman for mentoring.
This year, Norman was added to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ education and outreach committee. He is also the recipient of the 2002 Winsor McCay Award and the 2007 Disney Legend award among other honors.
According to reviews of the documentary, the film highlights the troubles Norman’s work obsession caused his first marriage and their children. The documentary, “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life,” can be seen at Laemmle’s NoHo, North Hollywood.
(Photo: Floyd Norman — An Animated Life Vimeo Screenshot)