Experts across different industries talk through their past breakthroughs and look forward to what the future holds. This issue we speak to celebrated Disney animator, Floyd Norman

 What does the future hold for the working world? With tech taking over, headlines have everyone thinking about future-proof jobs again. But the stories vary. One week, the Bank of England’s chief economist warns 15 million UK jobs will be automated. Next thing, reports conclude there’s only been one career made obsolete by automation: the elevator operator. Jobs going down? The truth is innovation throughout history has always sparked debate in the working world. ‘Luddite’, probably the favourite retort for someone scared of innovation, was the name of the 1811 Nottinghamshire weavers that destroyed the looms replacing their jobs. Since then, tractors, computers and even bowling alley pinsetters have all revolutionised work around the world.

Preparing for the future, this new series features conversations with veteran experts across different industries. We’ll find out what the future holds for them, their craft and what career breakthroughs have taught them about the unknown. Starting us off is Floyd Norman. The 80-year old animator was the first African-American cartoonist at Disney, who continues to impact animation and stir up his own brand of “trouble.” Calling from his office at Walt Disney Studios in California, he spoke to us about embracing tech, bluffing business heads and how a bizarre computer obsession saved his career.

 ESSENTIAL JOURNAL: What was a revolutionary breakthrough during your career that changed the way you work?

FLOYD NORMAN: That’s a difficult one because here at the Walt Disney Studios there have been constant innovations. From the very beginning of the studio there have been many technological breakthroughs, even before I got here. One of the first major breakthroughs during my tenure here in the late ‘50s into the early ‘60s, was the photocopy process Xerox. This enabled us to transfer our drawings from paper to sheets of acetate. Before, that was all handmade, hand traced and then we had technology to do that work for us.

Would you credit that as a standout breakthrough?

It was the first breakthrough that we took notice of. Nearly a decade later we moved to digital paint, where we actually used a computer to paint the cells. The next move was a decade after, when the entire post-production process was done digitally, when the computer took over mundane jobs like inking and painting and compositing. These were the major changes I saw during my time here at Walt Disney Animation.

How did you personally react during that drastic shift?

In my case it was positive for the most part. While I did regret that hand drawn, traditional animation had been marginalised, I knew this transition was coming anyway. I knew as far back as the ‘70s, I could just see the way the progress was tracking, so I prepared myself for it. Many people were caught unaware. It hit them like a tonne of bricks. But I’ve always found it’s important to look ahead, to not get yourself stuck in a rut or to assume things are gonna be the same forever. Wherever I liked it or not, change was going to happen so I might as well embrace it.

What were the first signs that change was coming and how did you prepare for it?

It’s strange and I honestly do not know why this happened in my life. But back in the ‘70s, I began taking an interest in computers. Now, keep in mind I had no computer background, I had no mathematical background, I was not a coder, I had no interest in programming and yet I began to study computer technology.

For some reason it began to fascinate me. I began to dig through bookstores and find every book I could find on this technology that was only beginning to emerge. I studied programming languages. I learned about the hardware. I began to immerse myself in computer technology even though I’m anything but. I knew that this technology was going to impact our business in a profound way and because of that I thought it would be wise to be knowledgeable in this area. I began to prepare myself as far back as the 1970s for the technological revolution that I knew would eventually come.

That’s really interesting.

It really is because you would think that an artist would have no interest whatsoever in technology.

What’s’ the biggest difference between then and now as an animator?

The biggest difference today is that animation is so successful. When I began in this business, it was hardly considered a business. People would warn their children “don’t go into animation because there’s no future in it. You’re not gonna find a job and if you do, it’s not going to be steady.” So animation back in the 1950s was regarded as a strange, odd, quirky little business. And why would anybody with any common sense want to enter such a crazy, unstable business?

Today, that is the total opposite. Animation is hugely successful. There are more animation studios than ever employing literally thousands of people. The films that are produced make millions of dollars. I would say that is the biggest change since I began in the 1950s, where this business was regarded as a dying business with no future and anybody who wanted to enter it must be out of their minds.

Where do you see the next boom in your industry coming from?

Well it’s probably going to be one of the new platforms. Now, there are many platforms emerging today. There are many small studios producing what they call ‘shortform content’ possibly for the internet or for other platforms yet to be invented. It’s one of those things where the future is uncertain. But there’s going to be a future there’s no doubt about that, since media is pretty much a part of everybody’s life today.

There’s gonna be a need for content so what that platform is going to be, I really can’t tell you. I can guess, I can speculate, but even the big corporations that are in this business don’t know where it’s headed. They try their best to second guess. They try their best to look forward, to scope out what the future might be, but nobody really knows. Even those that say they do are just putting us on [laughs].

The great unknown.

Yeah, it truly is the great unknown. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How will machines and automation change animation?

Back in the 1950s, If I were to look forward and speculate what the year 2000 might be like, I doubt if I could’ve predicted where we were headed. It may open up greater opportunities, it may provide more jobs not fewer jobs. You don’t have to look toward the future and technological innovation as a negative thing. It could be overwhelmingly positive. I would say there are more jobs today in animation than ever before, so even though technology has invaded the animation workplace, even as it has cut out a number of jobs, it actually created more jobs, there are more people employed today than ever before in the history of this crazy business.

Once again, the benefits were overwhelmingly positive. More people working, more product being created, more money being made — as the business has been pushed forward because of technology.

A young animator flies out to California for his first day at Disney. What advice would you give them to future-proof their animation career?

First of all, learn your history. Learn about the business that you’re entering. One of the things I did as a young kid was learning about all of those that came before me. It’s important to know your history, it’s important to have a solid foundation with which to build. I would tell all the young students that look forward, be aware of what has come before you. Know about the history of this business, about the legacy of this business.

I always tell my students to not focus so narrowly. Don’t study one thing but study everything. From music, dance, archeology, architecture whatever it might be, learn as much as you can because this will inform everything you do. Educate yourself and everything else will take care of itself. You’ll learn about the business as you work in the business. Much of my education here at Disney didn’t even start until I was hired here, but I had prepared myself with the fundamentals attending art school. But really, your education begins on that first day of work, when eventually the ball is in your court. And then you have to come up with answers.

 Following screenings at AMC Disney Springs last month, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life is available everywhere.

 Words by Reuben Tasker