We had the honor of interviewing Disney Legend Floyd Norman in conjunction with The Jungle Book Diamond Edition, which releases on February 11th, 2014. He talked to us about working on The Jungle Book, memories of Walt Disney, and about his interview with Diane Disney Miller and composer Richard Sherman in the bonus features!
MS: The Jungle Book will be turning 50 in a few years, congratulations on that! Did it ever occur to you that the film would be so beloved nearly 50 years later?
FN: It certainly did not! My partner Vance Gerry and I, when we finished the movie way back in 1966, we said ‘boy, we have that out of the way..and the old man seems happy, so…’. We felt satisfied we had done our job. However, we had no idea this film would go on to be so beloved over the years.
MS: When I was a kid, the Disney movies would repeat in the theaters every 7 years or so (there was no VHS, DVD, Blu-ray). Back when The Jungle Book came out, how often would you expect people to see it – or was it something you’d expect everyone to see just once?
FN: That’s the way it was back then, when the film came out back in 1967. I did go to a screening at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and I saw the film. I remember being satisfied with the way it turned out, and I thought that audiences appeared to enjoy it. But after that, I thought it would be put on the shelf and forgotten, and then maybe come out on videotape – as it did many, many years later. But I thought that it would be over and done with, so I was quite surprised when maybe a decade later, we had a big thing down at Walt Disney World. A lot of people wanted to see the film again, and they wanted to talk about it. And I did a Q&A with a host down at Walt Disney World. There was a good deal of interest in the film, and I couldn’t figure out why. It’s an amazing film, the fact that people don’t seem to let it go.
MS: And it’s great that people can own it now, it’s something I could never do as a kid – and even differently than the last version, with new bonus features.
FN: That’s very true. Back in 1967, there was no way to see an animated film except in a motion picture theater. That was the only venue.
MS: And how did you get started working for the Walt Disney World Company? And back then, the Walt Disney Company meant working for Walt Disney himself.
FN: Yeah, it was called Walt Disney Productions back in those days, and I simply fell in love with animation when I was a kid at school. I wanted to do this job one day. So once I graduated from high school, I simply drove down to Burbank from Santa Barbara, and applied for a job. It was that simple. Of course, I didn’t get the job when I did apply. But lucky for me, they never forgot me. So some 3 years later, I got a phone call and Disney was starting one of their many training programs, and that is how I got in the door.
MS: And at what point do you meet Walt Disney in the process?
FN: Oh, I would not have. That is what is so amazing. The Walt Disney Studios, even back then, was a good sized company of hundreds of people. And that meant that not everyone would interact with the boss. I honestly never expected to speak to Walt Disney, except to maybe see him walking down a hallway or walking down the street on the studio lot. There would be no interaction with kids like us who were essentially nobodies at the studio. The only people who would be interacting with Walt Disney would be the important people – the big shots, as we called them. So, when I had the unique opportunity to work with Walt Disney on The Jungle Book, believe you me that it was something totally unexpected.
MS: For The Jungle Book, you actually got moved to the Story department, which was not where you were planning on being, is that correct?
FN: That is correct. I came to Disney to become an animator, and that was my career path. I was on my way to becoming a full-fledged Disney animator hopefully, and all of that changed when I found myself in the Story department, something that was totally unexpected.
MS: And can you tell me what the difference would be between being an Animator and being in the Story department?
FN: Well, quite simply, in artistic terms, an animator is the actor, the performer. The storyteller is the writer…the person who creates the story. Two totally different disciplines really, although they are both related somewhat. Story was not something that I was focused on. I wanted to be an animator. That is why I came to Disney. But Walt Disney thought otherwise, and decided that I belonged in the Story department and not in the Animation department.
MS: That is pretty amazing that Walt Disney wanted you there. What was the process to come up with the story and animate your section of The Jungle Book?
FN: Well, the story had already been developed by Bill Peet, who spent most of 1965 developing his version of The Jungle Book. Walt Disney was not pleased with that approach, and wanted everything Bill had done thrown out, and he wanted us to start over again. So, our job was to take a fresh look at the story, and give Walt what he wanted. He (Walt) didn’t want a film that was dreary and dark, he didn’t want a film that was scary and mysterious. What he did want was a film that was light and fun and happy. That became our job, that is what we had to do, was to give Walt a film that was totally different in tone than Bill Peet had developed for him. Now, lucky for me, I knew how to do that. And so in that sense, it made my job a good deal easier.
MS: Did you work with the Sherman Brothers closely as far as story, or did the music come in later?
FN: The Sherman Brothers were part of the team, which meant that we worked not always together, but they were always involved in the movie – even from the very start, Robert and Richard Sherman were involved in the film, writing songs. So we were always collaborating. It is a very organic process, where all of these talents come together, and we all bounce ideas off of each other, and we all feed off of each other. It’s a very interesting process, where artists and writers and songwriters, composers…you are all part of the mix, and you all hopefully make some magic happen. So it was just a delight to work with Robert and Richard Sherman, who are just fun guys. And at the time, they were the ‘old guys”, because you know, I think they were in their 30’s back then (laughs). They were old, because they were in their 30’s, and I was only in my 20’s. But we had fun working together, and like I said, it was a collaborative process, and it was a lot of fun.
MS: Was it very collaborative with Walt Disney?
FN: Oh, yes…but, I have to explain to people that in the early days when Walt was a young man, he was much more energetic and would jump around and act out the characters and really get into it. At the time I began working with Walt Disney, he was an older gentleman well up into his 60’s. So Walt was a bit more restrained. He was no longer hopping from couch to couch, he was now just seated in a chair, just giving us his approval or disapproval over what was going on. But he was still very much involved.
MS: What is your personal favorite scene in The Jungle Book?
FN: I’m going to be selfish and say the song “Trust in Me”, that is the scene that I storyboarded in the film. So, if if I am going to be selfish, I am going to say that it is the sequence where Mowgli and the snake are interacting. Of course, the film is full of wonderful sequences, such as Shere Khan the tiger, who is just a marvelous villain.
MS: From the moment that you started storyboarding, how long did it take from that point to animation, to the time you feel it was a finished product?
FN: Well, it’s a process. It begins with story. And once our storyboards are approved, and that was approved by Walt Disney himself, at that point the storyboard moves on to what was then known as Music Room. And Music Room is the director’s unit, where the storyboard begins to turn from a storyboard to a film. And of course, that whole process is kind of involved and convoluted and difficult to express. But that is when the artists take over. The layout artists, the animators, and they began to take these boards and make a movie out of it. Once those boards are turned over to Music Room, then our job is done and we move on to our next story assignment. Our job is to develop the storyboard, get it approved by Walt Disney, and then it moves on to the production process. We had little to do with that, because once it leaves us, now it is in the domain of the directors and the animators, whose job it is to bring it to life. That is pretty much the way the Disney process worked back in those days.
MS: Did the process change a lot after Walt passed?
FN: No, it didn’t really change until the advent of digital production. Once the computer came into play, that really changed the way animated films were made. But it continued even after Walt’s passing, it continued to follow the same process as the film moved through production. It was only the advent of digital production where the entire filmmaking process was altered, and that was because of digital technology. But that’s another story.
MS: And you’ve seen the changes in films through the years – with home video, computer animation. What innovation has excited you the most over the years?
FN: I don’t know, I think every change excited me. When we moved from hand-inking to Xerox…it’s kind of funny, at that point in the early 1960’s, it was a major technological shift in the way films were being made. And when we went from hand painting to painting on the computer, another technological shift. So these things keep happening. So when animation moved off the drawing board, and onto the computer screen with digital animation, another major shift. And so, I don’t see this stopping anytime soon, and who knows what the next major technological shift may be. I think this is the process that is continually evolving, continually becoming more efficient, and who knows what the future might hold? So, I’m very excited. I think I work in a very exciting industry, a fantastic industry filled with enormous artistic opportunities, and just look forward to the future, just as Walt would have if he’d still been with us.
MS: I’ve read that you will be in the bonus features for The Jungle Book. Can you tell us a little about that?
FN: We were lucky enough to sit down last year with Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and the wonderful composer Richard Sherman, and talk about what it was like to work on The Jungle Book. And this was a fantastic opportunity to sit down with these two wonderful people, and talk about Walt Disney’s final film. And to hear stories from Diane Disney Miller, and hear stories from Richard Sherman, and to know that the three of us shared this marvelous film that Walt Disney was so proud of. So, that will be included on the bonus features on The Jungle Book. It’s just a lovely addition and certainly a tribute to Diane Disney Miller, because this was the last thing she did for us.
MS: Do you have any special memories of Walt?
FN: I think what was so special about Walt was the fact that he was always such an optimistic individual. Even in his last weeks of life when his health was declining steeply, he still showed such amazing optimism and enthusiasm for the future. I think that provided for all of us such an inspiration, that Walt was a man who simply never gave up, and never lost his enthusiasm for the future. In doing so, I think he inspired all of us. Certainly, his loss was tragic. And I can’t think of a sadder day than that day back in 1966 when we lost him. But what he left us was such an enormous legacy, and to have the opportunity to work with such a man was just a genuine pleasure. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity, because not everybody got that opportunity. And I think I was one lucky kid to have been there and enjoyed this one last film with a man who can easily be called a genius.
MS: Thank you so much for your time, we are looking forward to seeing you with Diane Disney Miller and Richard Sherman on the bonus features for The Jungle Book (Diamond Edition).