Book Review - 'Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, and Stories from a Disney Legend'

Fred Patten explores Disney Legend Floyd Norman’s colorful and informative history of working at the legendary studio.

Kitty and Ella. Click here for a pdf download of a higher res version of this page from the book.

Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, and Stories from a Disney Legend, by Floyd Norman.  Illustrated.

NYC, Focal Press, April 2013, trade paperback $34.95 (x + 275 pages), Kindle $19.22.

Floyd Norman began working at the Disney studios in 1956 as a young animation inbetweener.  In 2000 he “retired” – actually, he was laid off for the last time, and since he was 65 then, he chose to regard it as retirement.  Yet he didn’t let that slow him down.  Since 2000, he has kept busy as a freelancer or an “animation veteran”, including being called back by Disney on several occasions as an instructor.  In 2007 he became one of the “Disney Legends”, recognized for helping to make the company what it is today.  Today he works at his own pace – including writing this book.

Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, and Stories from a Disney Legend is really two books, divided nearly in half.  The first is Norman’s chatty autobiography, told in short chapters as he bounces from one Disney department to another, becomes an experienced veteran at one department before being assigned to start over in another, has the opportunity to work with Walt Disney himself (“the Old Maestro”, Norman calls him), becomes a writer of Disney picture books for a subsidiary (which is not considered by Disney as still working for the company, although it is all “Disney work” to him), goes to work at the fledgling Pixar Animation Studios before it was a part of Disney, leaves Disney during the 1960s to create a new studio, Vignette Films, to make educational films for the Black community with another Black filmmaker he met at Disney (they are on hand to film part of the Watts riots in 1965 on a camera once used by Roy E. Disney to film the studio’s True-Life Adventures”) – it’s all part of a lifetime working in the animation industry and working for Disney.

This is “Part 1, Inside the Magic Factory”, the first 165 pages.  “Part 2, Tips, Techniques, and Animated Observations”, is the equally chatty second half of the book.  Norman tells, in conversational style, his experiences and opinions on the various aspects of animation; many of which are applicable to filmmaking in general.

Animation artist Jim Fletcher. Click here for a pdf download of a higher res version of this page from the book.

The autobiographical section is both a personal reminiscence and a history of the animation industry in general and the Disney studio in particular from 1956 to today.  Norman started in the last days of ink-&-penmanship, and experienced the transition to the Xerox machine and the introduction of the computer.  He tells what it was like to work with Walt Disney directly; and incidentally disproves the current picture of Disney as an anti-Semite and a racist.  Disney was a tough boss and demanded that his employees be talented men (and women), but otherwise showed no prejudice against Jews or African-Americans.  Norman was there when Pixar started up as a tiny subsidiary of Lucasfilms, became an independent company, grew to gain Disney’s old reputation for excellence in animation (in CGI), and was acquired by Disney – or did Pixar take over Disney?

The “Tips, Techniques, and Animated Observations” cover every aspect of the animation industry, including the importance of getting a good schooling before you start out in the industry.  Norman admits that he is “less than impressed with animation management today”. (p. 198)  His advice is mostly to take chances on new ideas, and to speed things up.  If an idea does not seem to be working, don’t hesitate to drop it and move on to something else instead of spending months and countless dollars in “development hell”.

Animator John Ewing. Click here for a pdf download of a higher res version of this page from the book.

“Inside the Magic Factory” is illustrated with dozens of photographs from throughout Norman’s career of himself and the people with whom he worked.  There are few of Disney’s most famous names, but plenty of the rank-and-file inbetweeners, animation assistants, animation artists, and others who were Norman’s workmates.  Where he does not have photos, Norman has plenty of cartoon sketches of the Disney people, characters, and projects that he worked with and on.  There are also many photos of the Disney “campus” in Burbank.  Norman also illustrates his “Tips, Techniques, and Animated Observations” with sketches on almost every page, many in color.

Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, and Stories from a Disney Legend is a colorful and informative history of working at Walt Disney Productions (or whatever the official name of the studio has been over almost fifty years).  It is also a very handy collection of practical advice for the beginning filmmaker who hopes to plan and make a film, animated or live-action.

Piles of sketches generated during story development. Click here for a pdf download of a higher res version of this page from the book.

To close on a personal note, many years ago I knew someone who was working in the animation industry.  Once I introduced her to someone else as an animator.  She practically had a heart attack.  “I am NOT an animator!  What I do is several ranks below the animator level!  I could get fired if anyone from work thought that I was claiming to be an animator!”  After reading Norman’s book, I have a better understanding of the different jobs, and their professional levels within the animation industry.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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