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Norman McLaren

Overview of work

Norman McLaren

The Tireless Innovator
By Marcel Jean

Norman McLaren was born in Scotland in 1914. His interest in filmmaking began early in life after he became acquainted with works by the great Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin and the German animator Oskar Fischinger. While a student at the Glasgow School of Fine Arts, McLaren’s fascination with dance led him to make such stylized documentaries as Seven Till Five (1933). He subsequently joined the General Post Office Film Unit (GPOFU) in London, where he worked under John Grierson. It was there that he created Love on the Wing (1937), using the technique of drawing directly on the filmstrip. In 1939, McLaren immigrated to the United States, where he made several abstract films, including Stars and Stripes (1940) and Dots (1940). In 1941, he came to Canada and met up once again with John Grierson, who, at the request of the Canadian government, had founded the NFB. Grierson asked McLaren to put together the NFB’s first animation team.

McLaren animating <strong><em>Le merle</em></strong> (1958) in paper cut-outs. © NFBMcLaren while shooting the film <strong><em>A Chairy Tale</em></strong> (1957). © NFB
McLaren animating Le merle (1958) in paper cut-outs. © NFBMcLaren while shooting the film A Chairy Tale (1957). © NFB

McLaren’s personality and philosophy are inseparable from the direction animation took at the NFB. A tireless innovator, he perceived animation filmmakers as artisans who, much like artists in their studios, control every step of the production of their films. Consequently, McLaren set an example for his colleagues, motivating them to develop their own tools and experiment with new techniques. Owing to such masterpieces as Begone Dull Care (co-directed by Evelyn Lambart, 1949) and Blinkity Blank (1955), McLaren’s name has become widely associated with drawing and etching directly on film, yet his impressive filmography shows a variety of techniques: paper cut-outs (Rythmetic, co-directed by E. Lambart, 1956; Le merle, 1958), animating a chalk drawing through a series of modifications (Là-haut sur ces montagnes, 1945), the systematic use of cross fading (C’est l’aviron, 1944), pixillation (Neighbours, 1952; Opening Speech: McLaren, 1961) and superimposing images obtained by an optical printer (Pas de deux, 1967), etc.

<strong><em>Neighbours</em></strong> (1952). © NFB<strong><em>Blinkity Blank</em></strong> (1955). © NFB
Neighbours (1952). © NFBBlinkity Blank (1955). © NFB

Thematically, McLaren’s work sets itself apart through its humanism (Neighbours; A Chairy Tale, co-directed by Claude Jutra, 1957), its refined sense of humour (Rythmetic; Canon, 1964), and its surrealistic overtones (A Little Phantasy on a 19th Century Painting, 1946; A Phantasy, 1953). While the films where McLaren works with dancers (Pas de deux; Ballet Adagio, 1972; Narcissus, 1983) express a classical concept of beauty based on principles of harmony and balance, his more abstract works (Begone Dull Care; Lines Vertical, co-directed by E. Lambart, 1960) are rooted in a choreographic concept that essentially defines animated film as a kinetic art form unrestricted by theatrical or novelistic influences. Nonetheless, in this last category of films, McLaren does not stray from abstract expressionism. In fact, his work is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

Begone Dull Care marks a summit in McLaren’s work by the radical freedom of the technique he adopted—painting directly on a frameless filmstrip as if it were a long, thin canvas. The effects achieved by synchronizing images with the piano of jazz artist Oscar Peterson are complex and brilliant: images and music interact through a network of associative connotations that reveal their essence, their rich texture, patterns and energy.

Another highpoint is Blinkity Blank, which unfolds like a fireworks display etched on film. McLaren pushes the explosiveness of etched lines to an extreme—lines that let light burst forth while subtly creating space of astonishing depth. With a few luminous streaks, characters take shape to tell an embryonic albeit satirical tale.

Over his long career, Norman McLaren received an impressive number of awards, including an Oscar for Neighbours and a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Blinkity Blank. He holds an unparalleled place in the history of world cinema. McLaren died in 1987. In 1990, the NFB produced a full-length documentary film on his life and work: Creative Process: Norman McLaren by Don McWilliams.


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