A few months ago, I attended an interview with Floyd Norman. Floyd is a Disney Legend – “the first African-American at Disney,” he says. He got his start in animation, but his career really took off when Walt himself asked him to help with the story on The Jungle Book.
During the interview, he said a lot about the creative process. I took notes. (My notes weren’t exact, so most quotes below are paraphrased.)
Creative people are more willing to take a risk, he explained. “Creativity is not being afraid to be different, and to be a little bit nuts.” He talked about his job being a collaboration between art, creativity, and technology. “Walt and his colleagues were just making stuff up. The painters, the cameramen, et cetera – they learned and made it up as they went along.” His career has spanned from Sleeping Beauty all the way to Monsters Inc.; he explained that Pixar is very much like the Hyperion studio in the 1930s. Because no one had done it before, there was nothing telling them they couldn’t do it.
Walt Disney was all about story. “I always tell my students that I don’t know anything about storytelling. Every time I start a new story, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but I’m willing to do it.” He was surprised, and somewhat humbled, when Walt moved him from animation to the story department. Story was developed by teams of two people working together, so he was paired with Vance Gerry. “Story is a process of try and fail. Pixar stories are so good because they are done over and over again, there are many iterations.”
But “what you did in the last movie doesn’t apply for your current film. There’s always the danger that you’re going to fall on your face. There’s always the possibility of failing. It’s a leap of faith. Brad Bird says you jump off a cliff and you build a parachute on the way down. If I were to start a new movie tomorrow I would be just as terrified as I was back in 1966 when I worked on The Jungle Book.”
He has worked for Walt as well as for Pixar’s John Lasseter. They could both identify when something wasn’t working, and everyone who worked for either man was eager to please them. Walt was difficult to please, and whenever he was around, the code among the staff to let each other know was “man is in the forest” (from Bambi). Floyd worked lots of all-nighters at Pixar, but he said that John Lassiter is less terrifying than Walt “because I regard Lasseter as a kid.” Steve Jobs personally thanked Floyd for the work he did on Toy Story. Floyd was walking on air for the rest of the day.
Then he opened the floor to questions, and to my delight, my own question was chosen: “What are your methods for developing an idea into a story?”
“It depends on where you’re starting,” he said, “whether it’s existing material, like a storybook that’s already been published even though they give it a new spin, or an original idea.” He explained that he does a lot of dreaming. “Vance likes to create images, drawing or painting, then he will ‘dream into it,’ enter that world and see what happens. I go for walks around the Disney lot. It looked like I was goofing off, but my best ideas happen when I’m just walking around, letting ideas flow.”
“Creativity is all about being open. Open up and let the ideas come in.” He’s working on a new book. He had difficulty getting a handle on what the book would be, didn’t know what he was doing, but he trusted that eventually it would come. So he sat at his desk and started drawing, drawing, drawing, and now he can see the book in his head as if it’s already done. “The creative process is in my hands first before it’s in my head.”
Someone else asked a question about diversity. “The more vegetables you put into the pot,” Floyd explained, “the better the soup is going to be.”
And, on broadening one’s skills: “It’s very important to learn everything. If you want to be an artist, study dance, study literature, be a poet, travel, get to know other cultures, get out of your safe zone, take some risks.” Being able to read music meant he could read a score when he was working with a composer in a Disney recording studio.
The last question from the audience was “when did it sink in that you’re working at Disney?” The moment it hit him that he was at Disney working for Walt, he answered, “was the day I arrived at the animation building and saw all the names of my co-workers in the directory and on the doors. These were all names that I already knew from the credits of the Disney films I had seen.”
A documentary of Floyd’s life has been released on Blu-Ray and is available at “http://floydnormanmovie.com/“. He didn’t mention it during the interview, and I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m linking it here because he’s fascinating speaker with a great background.