SIGGRAPH: Floyd Norman Warns VR Developers: If Story Doesn't Work, "Technology Isn't Going to Save You"

The animation pioneer also recalled working with Walt Disney and Steve Jobs during his keynote.
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Floyd Norman

Floyd Norman, who in 1956 became the first African-American storyboard artist to work for Walt Disney Animation Studios, shared his wisdom, humor, humility and charm before thousands of admirers on Monday during a keynote address at SIGGRAPH at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

He offered some sage advice to those who came to the annual CG and VFX confab with a focus on virtual reality. "It's great to work with this cool technology, but you have to serve the story," Norman advised. "It’s the content. That's what the audience responds to. Ultimately, if the story doesn't work and it's not compelling, the technology isn’t going to save you."

A Disney Legend, Norman learned from the pioneers of the business. He was hand-picked by Walt Disney himself to join the story team on 1967's The Jungle Book, and later worked on Toy Story 2 during the time that Steve Jobs was with Pixar. Norman commented that the two pioneers were a lot alike, "demanding and opinionated, but they wanted the very best and would settle for nothing less."

Disney instilled in Norman the understanding that story is top priority. "Nobody had the ambition that Disney had to make feature films. He pushed his artists and technicians to do better than the other studios," he said. "They were creating a business from scratch."

Norman praised the studio founder for being a brilliant Innovator and for his tenacity. “Disney Studios was so close to failure, many times," he remembered. "By the time I got there, things were looking good. But they had to survive the war, which cut their film income in half. Then they were hit by labor action in the early '40s. By the '50s, they had been through a lot. Many times the studio could have gone under."

Years later, during his time working on Toy Story 2, Norman found Pixar's filmmaking process to be much the same as that at Disney -— there was a similar focus on storytelling, only with different technology. "It was very exciting being at Pixar and having access to Steve Jobs," he said, chuckling, "Who better to get tech support from if you had an Apple problem?" He added, "He was a very cool dude, and I liked him very much."

On hand to introduce Norman was Cheryl Boone Isaacs, outgoing president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She described him as the "21-year-old who broke the color barrier in the world of animation. Floyd Norman was Disney's Jackie Robinson. And he proved that he belonged at the table."

SIGGRAPH runs through Thursday.

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