Hard Cel: An interview with Disney Animator Floyd Norman

With the Blu-Ray release of Sleeping Beauty coinciding with the release of the live action reboot Maleficent, The Skinny caught up with veteran animator Floyd Norman to discuss his memories of making the film as a young artist

Feature by Nathanael Smith | 03 Jun 2014

The Skinny: 55 years on, how does Sleeping Beauty hold up for you?

Floyd Norman: It holds up extraordinarily well. As a work of art it was kind of like the pinnacle for Walt. It was the last film of its kind, really. It ended an era, back in 1959. From then on films would be made differently. So Sleeping Beauty was, I like to say, Disney's last hand-made product, where everything in that motion picture was done by hand.

It was the last cel-animated film that Disney made, and the art form is lost now. What do you think the strengths of that medium are?

Well I think the thing that a handmade film gives us is an artistic sensibility that is somewhat lost when technology is introduced. On the other hand, technology is amazing as it enables us to do incredible things. We had very distinct limitations on Sleeping Beauty. We were limited to five levels of cels. We could not go beyond five levels because then the image would become degraded. In the new digital technology there is no limit to how many levels you can have. So, there's a give and take. The technology enables us to do amazing things, yet the old hand drawn process brought a certain sensibility that I'm afraid we've lost because of that change.

Hand-made Disney: Sleeping Beauty

You've worked with several formats, having been involved with Pixar and Disney in the early stages of computer animation. Where do you think we are at with animation at the moment? Do you think there is an element of imagination that is lost in the limitlessness of it?

That's really an interesting thought because one of things Walt was always complaining about – and I think that's one of the reasons Walt continually pushed for innovation at his studio – was that he always wanted to make things better, he wanted to make new things possible. I think Walt would have been quite impressed with the new digital technology because he would have a brand new tool that he could use in amazing ways. So while on one hand we've lost something as we move forward, I do recognise that things will always be changing. Animation changed from the 1930s to the 40s, on up through the 50s and 60s; there has always been new technologies being created, enabling us to make a better product.

An animator is someone who constantly has to adapt, because unless you are directing, you are working with a number of different styles. Every person who leads an animation team will have different aesthetics they are trying for. Is that a particular challenge, to constantly change what style you are going for?

Oh yes, I would say that is something that you have to be continually aware of. An animator has to have the ability to be flexible, to be able to adjust, to be able to draw on different styles, to be able to work with different techniques. One of the things about surviving in this business is adaptability. You have to be able to move forward, you cannot settle down into a rut and not change. When Pixar did Toy Story, I immediately recognised that I would have to become comfortable with this new digital medium. I knew that this would be the way films would be made in the future, so I made it a point to adjust to it. For me, it's always been a natural thing as I was using computers long before they came to the studio here, so for me it wasn't difficult. But for a lot of my colleagues, they found the change quite difficult. Some found it almost traumatic to switch from the old way of doing things to the new paradigm.

Not just the changing technologies, but you have worked with different aesthetic styles as well. After Sleeping Beauty you worked with Wolfgang Reitherman whose style was much sketchier and jazzier. What was it like working with him after something as ornately detailed as Sleeping Beauty?

I guess technology in a way drove that change in sensibility in our films, to a degree. Part of that was economic, because when you hand draw and hand ink and hand paint a film that becomes very, very expensive, and Walt Disney knew that he had to find a way to make films that were less expensive. With the introduction of Xerox, the photocopy process, it enabled us to transfer our drawings on to sheets of acetate without having to use inkers. That immediately impacted the way films were being produced at Disney and for many people they thought that the new look was fresh and dynamic. Woolie's films, that had that loose, sketchy feel, were embraced by some people. There were others, of course, who didn't like that sketchy, rough look and seemed to prefer the old fashioned style of Bambi or Cinderella. So sometimes it's about personal taste, but the one thing that is constant is that animation is always changing.

How do you think that Sleeping Beauty fits into the legacy of Disney princesses? Have you seen Frozen, for instance?

Yes, yes indeed. Sleeping Beauty, she's up there, she's one of the top princesses. I was sketching her just this past weekend so she is very much still a viable Disney princess.

A new kind of Disney Princess: Frozen

But do you think there has been a shift in the way princesses are perceived? I feel like after Frozen there won't be any princesses with the simplicity of Aurora. You've worked on Mulan as well, which was part of a growing complexity among the Disney princesses.

It's interesting actually, I was just looking at a group of our Disney princesses just last week, and you know they're all different. They all have a different personality, a unique sensibility, some are drawn in a different style – Snow White is drawn in a different style from Aurora – and yet the one thing they all have in common is that they all remain Disney princesses. So even with the introduction of the characters from Frozen, there's a new look and a new sensibility, and yet they are all uniquely Disney. There is no real conflict. They're like a big Disney family and they all seem to work together.

You don't think, perhaps, that our Snow Whites, Cinderellas and Auroras are perhaps a little old fashioned, now?

Well you know what, it's true that could happen. But I think that our artists here, even when they draw Snow White today – and keep in mind that she was our first princess done back in the 1930s – somehow Snow White is still relevant today. Even though she was the first, she has no less of a following. She's still very much adored by fans. As old as she is, you might say that she never really gets old. So there is a timelessness to Disney princesses.

How does it feel to see the trailers for Maleficent, and your work essentially being rebooted and redone for a new generation?

Well that's very true, I remember back in 1956 when I got my first look at Maleficent in a pencil reel that was animated by Mark Davis. This character, when she came on screen, was so threatening yet so compelling. It's nice to know that that malevolent character that we saw back then can return decades later and still be just as compelling as she was back in the 1950s. So what we're able to create here at Disney never grows old, it can continue on in a new form. I've seen footage from the film and it's very impressive. It's nice to know that what we created many many years ago still can continue on in a new and different way.

You can't beat the original though, can you?

That's gonna depend on how the Disney fans feel about it.

Sleeping Beauty is out on Disney Blu-ray, DVD and to download 2 Jun

Maleficent is in cinemas now