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Toon Tuesday: The Wow Factor

Toon Tuesday: The Wow Factor

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I’ve often been asked this goofy question. “How would you run an animation studio if you were in charge?” Questions like this come from young people who assume I have answers. The truth is, I’m not in that position, and I don’t expect to be. However, I once ran my own business many years ago, and I learned a few things from that experience.

When you run your own business, I do not joke when I say you gain the equivalent of a Stanford business degree. Those who have taken this wild ride know what I mean, and those who have never tried it - don’t. There are a few successes out there, but they are few. More often than not, businesses fail - and there are a number of reasons why. Among them are, lack of business savvy, being under-capitalized, along with producing and marketing a less-than-stellar product. However, this experience taught me a few things about the road to success, and I’ll share one of them with you.

Many years ago, before studios had security guards and electronic gates, we animation artists often visited each other. In those days animation art was not hidden away, but proudly displayed on the studio walls for all to see. Every now and then we would come across storyboards and development art that would cause everyone in our little group to say, “Wow! Look at that!” I’m talking about concepts that caused our jaws to hit the floor. I’m talking about art work that inspired awe and inspiration. This is the movie you wanted to work on. This was the movie you had to work on. I’m talking about the “Wow Factor.”

A Floyd Norman cartoon depicting what used to happen when animators visited the Disney studio in the old days
In the old days, studio visits would often blow us away.  While not always
reaching production, the development art by the
various studios was impressive

Some years ago, I received a call from a producer friend of mine. He was a hard-as-nails Hollywood-type who spent most of his day barking orders on the phone. “You’re in animation, right?” he began. “I want you to find me some animation artists! I want you to find the baddest dudes in town, because I want stuff that will (his words, not mine) kick ass!” This guy knew what he wanted, and was willing to pay whatever was necessary. His message may have been coarse, but it was clear. He wanted to see some “bad-ass” development art up on the walls, and he wanted stuff that would, as he put it, blow people away. Once again, we’re talking about the “Wow Factor.”

These are the lessons I’ve learned in my many years in the business. And, should the unlikely opportunity be laid at my feet, I know exactly what I would do. First of all, I would scour the studios and schools for the finest talent available. Young or old. Veteran or novice, I would be on the lookout for the boldest and the baddest talent I could find. I would be like the obessive computer boss who called in his finest hardware and software designers and gave them a task. A task that could be stated in two words.

“Astound me.”

Much like the crazed computer boss I would tell them, don’t look to the past for inspiration. What’s been done has been done, so move on. Don’t look to your competitors and try to duplicate what they’re doing. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is - pathetic. And, most important, don’t listen to your public to tell you what they want to see. Because by the time you finish your movie, they will have moved on and will probably want to see something else.

A Floyd Norman cartoon depicting what happens when artists don't come up with ideas that "Wow!" the bosses
Stories in development for decades. Why are you paying these people?

So, how do you achieve the “Wow Factor?” It’s very simple - and very scary, but here goes anyway. When there’s a choice of following the safe and well tread path or the dangerous road, choose the dangerous road. When your director is the old, reliable veteran or the studio “crazy man” - choose the “crazy man.” When you’re faced with following or breaking the rules - break them. Sure, these choices can land you on your butt if you fail. But, what the heck. You were probably going to fail anyway. However, should you succeed - Wow!

There was a guy who exemplified this kind of leadership. He didn’t look to others to see what they were doing, and he didn’t need focus groups to tell him what would work. Finally, he was willing to commit incredible resources to accomplish his goals even when his financial advisors didn’t agree. They all said he was nuts, but he proved that a creative vision was something worth fighting for. So, each time he did something bold and amazing, his audience said, Wow!

Not an easy job being a leader, is it? Because in order to achieve the “Wow Factor” a leader must be creative, innovative and most of all - fearless. A man I once worked for had those qualities. But sadly, he passed away in 1966.

A Floyd Norman cartoon showing a young boy thinking that the statue of Walt Disney is Stan Lee
Creating and Innovating? Nah. Now, I guess it’s easier to shop

Maybe I’m nuts, but I think the “Wow Factor” is still obtainable. We’ve no shortage of talented young kids eager to show their stuff. Hell, there’s no shortage of talented old veterans. All we need is a bold dynamic innovator who’s ready to lead.

Any takers?

And speaking of taking, I want to take this opportunity to point out that that Floyd Norman currently has several books on the market that also talk about the amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had while working in the animation industry.

Floyd’s most recent effort – '"Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age” – is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman’s original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" – is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo.

And if you still haven’t had your fill of Floyd … Well, then feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • I'd like to add a comment to what Floyd wrote: Get the best business people on board. Walt and Roy Sr. were an oddity as they were both the best in their fields and they were brothers. Just having great animators isn't enough. The business people have to be the best as well. Even the great Ub Iwerks tried to go it on his own but he didn't have the financial sense necessary, nor did his backer, Pat Powers.

    Having tried and failed to run my own business (that's another story) I've been in the bankruptcy courts myself LOL.

  • Floyd's articles are always instructive and inspiring. In this latest entry, he points out what makes good leadership - especially in an art-driven field - and also surreptitiously points out what's wrong with the current Disney leadership. The switch from Eisner to Iger has only amounted to exchanging one buy-crazy bean-counter for another. As a result, Disney classics are now forced to mingle with foreign invaders. It's gotten to the point where I wonder, when the baby boomer generation dies out, whether the next generation will even understand what Disney used to stand for. I feat that Walt himself will seem like more fable than fact, and will then lose the ability to inspire, and that the cheapness and crass commercialism that's now marring the Disney image will become its signature identity. Walt's legacy deserves better. And so do those future generations.

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