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Toon Tuesday : Animators of the Caribbean

Toon Tuesday : Animators of the Caribbean

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It was Friday evening and I found myself rushing to LAX hoping to grab a last minute flight to Jamaica. Once aboard the crowded aircraft, I was stuffed into a middle seat that seemed to have been made for Billy Barty. The plane's speakers throbbed to the sounds of Bob Marley as excited tourists anticipated their visit to a Caribbean paradise.

Why was I headed to Kingston, Jamaica on a plane full of American tourists? Well, certainly not for vacationing. I was working. It was the early eighties, and the studio that employed us had suddenly melted down. Unfortunately, such events are not unique in the cartoon business. Like most animation professionals we hit the streets looking for work. Lucky for us, we found some. My business partner, Leo Sullivan had scored contacts with advertising agencies in the Caribbean, and before we knew it, the two of us were busy producing television commercials for this new and growing market.

A much younger Floyd Norman teaching at the University of
the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica --
Photo by Leo Sullivan

Though my partner traveled often to the Caribbean, this business trip would be my first. Our agenda included the usual meetings with various agencies to go over scripts and storyboards. However, this trip included an additional task. We would be shopping for office space, and auditioning local talent for a studio we hoped to open in downtown Kingston. While working in Jamaica, Leo became aware of the University of the West Indies. The institution was filled with talented young men and women, some of who were eager for a career in animation. With an available talent pool in the area, Leo and I considered putting the young artists to work.

If you recall what animation was like in the early eighties, most stateside companies had already begun sending a fair share of production off shore. With an accessible talent pool now available in Asia and elsewhere, what businessman or woman could resist getting their production done at a cheaper rate? This was not our motivation, however. If we were producing animation for the Caribbean market -- why not simply do it in the Caribbean? Along with employing the local talent, we would have an additional edge over other stateside producers. Unlike the Japanese, Korean and Chinese studios, our staff spoke English, instantly freeing us from the hassle of translating scripts and production notes.

 My business partner, Leo Sullivan instructs a young Jamaican artist
Photo by Floyd Norman

As you can imagine, when local animation professionals heard about our plans for a Caribbean animation studio, both Leo and I received calls from several animators, layout and background artists. All were eager to relocate to Kingston, Jamaica and be part of this new venture. I must admit that producing animation in the Caribbean had its appeal. I'm sure the artists could picture themselves sipping cool drinks under a shady palm, or leaving their drawing table for a dip in the crystal blue waters of this tropical island paradise.

Along with our usual business tasks, Leo and I taught a series of animation classes at the University. Though they had never done animation before, our group of young students quickly got the hang of doing layouts, backgrounds, and simple animation. Should our studio open its doors in Kingston, we knew we would not go lacking in talent.

There were many things I learned in Jamaica's multicultural society. One, I'll share is the total absence of color. And what is that, you ask? Well, all my career I've been mildly annoyed by being identified as a "black artist." Black studio was another tag given us by the Los Angeles media. Now all of a sudden the color of our skin was no longer relevant. For most of you this is not a big deal. Yet, I can't tell you how it felt to finally be introduced as a producer, or the American producer. In Jamaica, the annoying color prefix was never uttered. Since white people do not continually refer to themselves as white, it would have been ludicrous for people of color to make an issue of color. Working in Jamaica was truly the first time in my life I was completely free of racial baggage.

Yet, businessmen and women come from all over the world to do business on this tropical island. While having lunch in a Kingston restaurant I could hear people at adjoining tables speaking Japanese, Spanish, French, and German. Americans were always easy to spot, however. A group of guys at a local hotel bar were easily pegged as a Hollywood movie crew.

Beautiful Duns River Falls in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. A great place to
be should you need a break from work --
Photo by Floyd Norman

We continued our morning meetings at the agency and taught animation in the afternoon. On a rare day off, we ventured to Ocho Rios and the beautiful Duns River Falls. I had seen this exotic tourist location on television's travel channels. Now, I was able to enjoy this special travel treat in person. Another of the many perks of animating in the colorful Caribbean. And of course, the weather was nothing less than perfect. Never too hot or cold, a T-shirt was the heaviest thing I ever needed to wear day or night.

Ocho Rios was a beautiful city, and one could easily get use to its tropical lifestyle. "No problem" was Jamaica's mantra. Whatever you wanted to do, the answer was always "No problem, mon." After a wonderful dinner, I fell asleep on the beach. It seemed odd because unlike my hometown of Santa Barbara, there was absolutely no surf. The island water was calm and peaceful.

The sun had set, and I wasn't about to attempt the daunting drive back to Kingston on the island's winding roads. So, even though I was checked into a hotel in Kingston, I checked into another hotel in Ocho Rios. It was still early, so I decided to check out more of the town's nightlife. As I glanced around, I noticed that Jamaica's exotic nightspots were filled with beautiful women from all over the world. I confess I couldn't help but feel I was in a James Bond movie.

All too soon, it was time to leave for home. My business partner, Leo stayed on while I hopped a flight back to Los Angeles. Still lacking studio space in Kingston, the commercial spots would have to be completed in Hollywood. Remember, this was the early eighties. Long before technology revolutionized the cartoon business. Drawings were still made on paper, and painted animation cels were photographed over a background with the Oxberry camera.

A young Jamaican artist prepares a storyboard for production
Photo by Floyd Norman

My ending to this Caribbean tale is bittersweet. Due to local politics and other factors, we were never able to set up our Kingston animation studio. Some of our students were determined to seek a career in the cartoon business even if it meant leaving the island. I was told that some eventually headed for New York and Florida.

As for Leo and myself, we returned to work in Hollywood's cartoon studios, and I eventually returned to Disney. But I'll never forget Jamaica. The beautiful blue skies and the crystal clear waters of this wonderful Caribbean paradise. We lived well, because the American dollar was worth five and a half times the value of the Jamaican dollar. Because of this, I often felt like an island pirate.

Still, I miss the days when we worked to the music of Bob Marley, and relaxed on the sunny beaches with a cool glass of rum. Our Jamaican animation studio is now only a dream. But, I remember those rare and wonderful days when a bunch of animation artists from Hollywood became in their own way -- Pirates of the Caribbean.

Did you enjoy today's Jamaican animation adventure piece? Well, that's just one of the hundreds of animation-related tales that Floyd Norman has to tell. Many of which you'll find in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at the time that Mr. Norman has spent in Toontown.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • Thanks for another great story Mr. Norman.  You certanly have gotten around in the Animation Business, I am always surprised with how interesting and varied the animation business is

    I've been to Jamaica and it is amazing, too bad you couldn't get a studio set up down there, but then the problem would have been getting people to show up :)

  • Great article :) Always love your stories. Interesting to hear that you tried to set up a Jamaican animation studio, too bad it didn't work out. But I still think, even though the studio wasn't set up, that you and your business partner will have a staying effect in the country, because of the animation lessons and all.

  • Wonderful article, Mr. Norman!  I'm wondering if any work got done with those young Jamaican artists, since we see these pictures of them working.  From what you wrote, it sounds like you had a fun & interesting experience!

  • Hey Floyd. You mention of Billy Barty was a major flash back for me. As you probably know, Billy Barty was on many episodes of the "Wild, Wild West." Many of those episodes were written by Ken Colb, who happens to be a long time family friend. My sisters and I sometimes asked Ken what James T. West was gonna be doing the following week on TV. Thanks for the memory.

  • Good post. I learn something new and difficult on blogs I stumbleupon day-to-day. It will always be useful to read simple things articles from their writers and practice a little something from other web pages.

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