Norm Ferguson: William Norman “Norm” Ferguson (September 2, 1902 – November 4, 1957) was an animator for Walt Disney Studios and a central contributor to the studio’s stylistic development in the 1930s. He is most frequently noted for his contribution to the creation of Pluto, one of the studio’s best-known and most enduring characters, and is the artist most closely associated with that character.
Ferguson, known at the studio as “Norm” or “Fergy”, was also the primary animator of the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first in a long line of great Disney feature villains. He was also a sequence director on the film. After starting at the studio in 1929 as a cameraman, Ferguson switched to the animation department and rose rapidly, despite a lack of formal art training. His early animation of the dog who would become Pluto drew strong response at the studio and on-screen for giving the character a personality and apparent inner life that was considered a great step forward for the young art form of animation. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston paid extensive tribute to Ferguson’s work in their 1981 book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, calling his famous “flypaper sequence” from the 1934 short Playful Pluto- in which the dog is stuck to a piece of flypaper- a “milestone in personality animation…through it all, his reaction to his predicament and his thoughts of what to try next are shared with the audience. It was the first time a character seemed to be thinking on the screen, and, though it lasted only 65 seconds, it opened the way for animation of real characters with real problems.”
Ferguson as seen in How Walt Disney Cartoons are Made (1939):
Playful Pluto (1934)
Attached to this assignment is a .jpg image of drawings created by an animator for the 1934 Disney Short Playful Pluto. This cartoon features a scene now known as the flypaper sequence in which artist Norm Ferguson animated a scene in which Pluto gets stuck to a piece of flypaper. In the book, The Illusion of Life, authors Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas describe the scene as:
” (a) milestone in personality animation…through it all, his reaction to his predicament and his thoughts of what to try next are shared with the audience. It was the first time a character seemed to be thinking on the screen, and, though it lasted only 65 seconds, it opened the way for animation of real characters with real problems.”
In planning for the sequence, Ferguson sketched out a set of preliminary thumbnail drawings (see pluto_page_1.jpg attached) to serve as a loose guide for what he wanted to achieve in the scene. These preliminary thumbnails served as a kind of roadmap that Ferguson could refer to as he worked on animating the scene.
Your Preliminary Thumbnails
We’re going to begin a set of drawings that we work on this week as we begin to plan out what you want to happen in your animation. We know that at one point in the animation, your word form will appear. Other than that requirement, the rest is up to you. Perhaps the animation begins with your word form design and then the design transforms into something else. Perhaps the word form design will move around the image area. Perhaps other elements will come into the scene and interact with the word form design. Anything can happen. Take a look at the link attached to this assignment to see some student examples from previous years.
We will be taking this week and exploring more than one idea in a series of thumbnail sketches (small, loose drawings) that you create on multiple pages of newsprint. We will look at examples of previous student work to get us started but I encourage you to try a new direction. Remember that whatever you end up choosing will be the focus of your attention for the entire Fall semester! Choose something that you are enthusiastic about so you can maintain your focus on this project. We will be animating all the way until Winter Break.
This sequence is considered by many animators and historians to be important in the development of personality animation; certainly we’ve observed characters thinking on screen before 1934, but Ferguson is credited with advancing the psychological complexity of an animated character’s performance:
For further reading on this sequence and the rough sketches, read this essay by animation historian Michael Barrier on the historic mystery behind the sketches themselves.