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Norman McLaren: Hands-on Animation

Norman McLaren: Hands-on Animation

John Grierson was a complicated man, and he liked to keep people guessing or off-balance. He would make statements like “Art is a hammer” or “Art is a by-product of a job well-done.” But behind those utilitarian pronouncements was a deep love of the arts, particularly painting; and one must not forget that he hired young artists, musicians and writers for his various film units – people such as W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Len Lye and Norman McLaren. In 1941, Grierson brought McLaren to Canada to the new NFB to make animated films related to the war effort, although he assured McLaren that they would not be “hard-sell.”

In 1942, Sydney Newman suggested to Grierson that an animation department was needed to provide sequences for NFB documentaries. McLaren was asked to set one up. But there were no animators in Canada. McLaren went around the art schools. From both portfolios and interviews, he chose people he thought had animation potential. And McLaren chose wisely – Grant Munro, René Jodoin, George Dunning were amongst others.

There was no money for production line animation à la Hollywood, which delighted McLaren. A central McLaren belief was that in film “how it moved was more important than what moved.” He encouraged his tyros to experiment, and many began working directly under the camera. And so was born an NFB tradition conviction – that animation should be personal, experimental and diverse in technique.

To devote his time to his own films, McLaren handed over the direction of the animation studio to Jim Mackay at the end of the war in 1945. In 1967, the animation studio was split into two, one English, one French. The French unit was headed initially by René Jodoin, who continued the McLaren tradition of individualistic animation in a wide range of techniques. That tradition is still alive and well today in both studios and accounts for the enviable universal reputation of NFB animation.

McLaren continued to make films until his retirement in 1984, always seeking the new and fearful of repeating himself. Even when repeating a technique, it was with a new wrinkle. For example, McLaren became famous for eschewing the use of the camera and working directly onto film. Sometimes, he would draw with pen and ink, sometimes paint, sometimes he etched into black emulsion-coated film. He also became a master of the optical printer (the film equivalent of Adobe After-Effects). On this machine, he created several films, including the great dance film, Pas de deux.

McLaren made trick films with actors who performed with the freedom of cartoon characters. He was also an important pioneer of electronic music. In the late 1930s, he began drawing or scratching directly onto the optical soundtrack area of the film. The result was a new instrument. In time, he developed a system of cards with patterns on them which he photographed directly onto the soundtrack area. Synchromy and Mosaic are two striking examples of this way of making music. In all, McLaren made 60 films.

UPDATE: Neighbours has been added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Registry.

Donald McWilliams

Donald McWilliams is a documentary filmmaker who uses both live action and animation in his work. He was a long-time friend of Norman McLaren and collaborated with him on his last film, Narcissus. McWilliams made the definitive documentary on McLaren: Creative Process: Norman McLaren in 1990.

  • Neighbours
    1952|8 min

    McLaren had been very intrigued by French trick films from the early 1900s in which everyday objects were animated frame by frame. He did some experimenting in his student films, and later he animated a household of furniture in a film for the General Post Office in London. He then wondered about the possibility of animating people frame by frame. This curiosity culminated in the extraordinary parable Neighbours, in which two men behave like cartoon characters in a tale both funny and ferocious. McLaren called the technique pixillation. The term is now universally misspelt as pixilation, which has an entirely different dictionary definition. McLaren made the term up from the word “pix,” an abbreviation for picture.

  • Toys
    1966|7 min

    When Grant Munro made this brilliantly animated film, there was heated societal debate about war toys and their effect on children. When one looks at the film now, one can see its current relevance to a discussion about video games. We filmmakers always think our films are totally clear. But, in fact, viewers bring their own beliefs and history to the films they watch. Imagine Grant Munro’s dismay when he received the following letter: “I saw your film entitled ‘Toys’ on Channel 10, December 28, 1971. Where did you get those marvelous war toys? My children are now so disappointed in their Christmas presents. The gifts they received can’t compete with the great creations you employed. Please advise me of where you purchased these ingenious war toys. Birthdays are coming and I do want to get some.”

  • A Chairy Tale

    As filmmaking, A Chairy Tale is a virtuoso piece. A mélange of single-frame animation of a chair and an actor, multi-speed shooting, reverse shooting, moving time exposures, and the chair-as-marionette, being operated with black nylon thread, for the most part by Evelyn Lambart and Herb Taylor. A chair refuses to let a man sit on it. After many trials, the man (Claude Jutra) realizes that the chair wants the same privilege. The man concedes. Only then does the chair agree to accept his role in life, that of being sat upon. The film, with an improvised score by Ravi Shankar, was a big success, yet co-directors McLaren and Jutra were uneasy. Brilliant though it was, they realized they had in fact made a film about assimilation. The chair was still the loser.

  • Hen Hop
    1942|3 min

    I met McLaren in 1968. I soon understood that the frequency of birds, chickens and chickens’ feet in his films was no accident. He identified with birds, particularly chickens. I was very puzzled and asked his friend Evelyn Lambart about it. She looked at me with astonishment. “We’re all an animal. I’m a horse. What are you?” I was speechless for perhaps a minute. Then I saw. “You’re right, Evelyn. I’m a squirrel.” I would then see that McLaren’s animation of chicken movements and behaviour had much in common with his own movements and behaviour. Knowing he was a hen made it easier to work with him. Hen Hop features a dancing hen. McLaren told me that he pretended the hen was Fred Astaire.

  • Begone Dull Care

    As a teenager, McLaren became interested in Colour-Music, an art form in which moving patterns of coloured lights were projected. When he was at art school, McLaren and fellow student Stuart McAllister tried to create colour-music by painting abstractions directly onto 35 mm movie film. McAllister would later become a great editor of documentary films. McLaren was delighted with the experience but knew the results were primitive. Then, in London in 1936, he saw Len Lye’s revolutionary hand-painted-on-film Colour Box. It did not influence McLaren but it gave him the confidence to continue drawing directly on film. He had to wait ten years, however, before he would have access to a three-colour film printing stock, which would allow him to copy a multi-hued hand-painted original. And what an original it is! For me, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying jazz film – in this case, a marriage of hand-painted improvisations to the piano improvisations of a young Oscar Peterson.

  • Le merle
    1958|4 min

    This is a film about a (white) blackbird who loses body parts and gets them back three fold. This bird with three of everything dances to the old folk song. What is amazing about the film is that one only sees essentials – highly stylized and disconnected bits – the body parts are small paper rectangles, the eyes little paper circles. Here is what McLaren said to me about the film. “That sort of thing is Marcel Marceau [the French mime whom McLaren much admired]. Le Merle is full of that; you’re leaving out things; the bird is not structured like a bird. There are a lot of gaps but you assume it’s got a neck – so the viewer has to supply a lot of things which are not visible, but which are referred to by the motion. The fact that Marcel Marceau goes up a flight of steps – there are no steps there, he remains on the ground. I think it is the same thing when the bird bounces the eye in the clouds. You imply a floor. You’re given clues and I’m sure there’s a great variation in how much some people fill in compared with other people.”

  • Very Nice, Very Nice
    1961|6 min

    Arthur Lipsett was an artist in the animation studio who eventually started making live action films – but live action with a difference. The sensibility is that of an animator – cut with extraordinary precision, not one frame too long or too short. Very Nice, Very Nice is composed with still images and is a wickedly funny and terrifying examination of modern life. When teaching in Norway in recent years, I always showed it to my film students. Its impact was tangible. Although made in 1961, it has not dated at all. Lipsett was a true original, and much of the sound and imagery for his films was found in the trim bins of the NFB. Trim bins were the receptacles where one put one’s outtakes. Following Grierson’s dictum, Lipsett found the extraordinary in the ordinary.

  • Pas de deux
    1968|13 min

    This is not a film record of a dance. The choreography, per se, is not memorable. The important thing is that the choreography was created strictly for McLaren to work with on the optical camera. There he transformed the dance into something of heart-stopping beauty – technology at the service of art. What McLaren did was multiply the imagery up to eleven times, each of eleven passes staggered by a few frames. The dancers are followed by his and her own waves. The story is the old one of Narcissus. In this case, it is a female Narcissus, in love with her own self, until a young man appears and wins her. For McLaren, it fulfilled a need to make a plea that we must look outside ourselves and love others – the same theme which underlay his anti-war film, Neighbours. It was a very difficult film to dance, since Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren had to dance in almost total blackness with only side lighting. The soundtrack is fascinating. Maurice Blackburn took a two-and-a-half-minute pan pipe recording and by looping the music with the addition of a harp stretched the music to 13 minutes. Otherworldly music for otherworldly imagery.

  • Two Sisters
    1991|10 min

    Caroline Leaf made this tour de force in the technique pioneered by McLaren – that of etching directly into the emulsion of the film. Leaf herself pioneered the techniques of animating sand and oil on a light box directly under a camera. A legendary perfectionist, Leaf said that she was tired of working for an eternity locked away in dark rooms. If she scratched directly into film stock, she would be able to make a film quickly. For Two Sisters, she decided to use 70 mm Imax film with different coloured emulsions, e.g., black or green. Perfectionism, however, reared its head and Leaf was still stuck in a dark room animating for two years. But it was worth it. This story of the relationship between two sisters, one disfigured, which is disturbed by the appearance of a male stranger is wonderfully animated and profoundly emotional. In 1974 I watched the silent test print of another Caroline Leaf film – The Owl that Married a Goose– with Norman McLaren. I was speechless. McLaren wept.