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Drawing and etching on film

Norman McLaren etching on film for <strong><em>Blinkity Blank</em></strong> (1955). Photo: Bert Beaver. © NFB

Norman McLaren etching on film for Blinkity Blank (1955). Photo: Bert Beaver. © NFB

<strong><em>Blinkity Blank</em></strong> (1955) - Norman McLaren. © NFB

Blinkity Blank (1955) - Norman McLaren. © NFB

Pierre Hébert during the 1970s, etching on 35 mm film. © NFB

Pierre Hébert during the 1970s, etching on 35 mm film. © NFB

<strong><em>Memories of War</em></strong> (1982) - Pierre Hébert. © NFB

Memories of War (1982) - Pierre Hébert. © NFB

Play excerpts of films that use this technique

Animando, 1987

Animando, 1987

Play this excerpt

By Marcel Jean
Animation Expert

Direct-on-film animation does not use a camera; instead the artist draws or etches directly on filmstock. There is no need for a camera, because the image is made directly on the filmstock using inks (in the case of drawing) or a pointed instrument to scrape off the emulsion (in the case of etching).

These techniques originated with the entry of avant-garde painters into filmmaking, around 1910. Italian futurist Arnaldo Ginna claimed to have had the idea of painting on film in 1908. In 1910 he made four abstract films based on chromatic experiments this way. Unfortunately, these short films are no longer in existence.

New Zealander Len Lye and Scots-born Canadian Norman McLaren were the first two filmmakers to produce an accomplished and sustained body of direct-on-film animation work.

Lye made his first film by painting directly on film, A Colour Box, in 1935, while at the General Post Office Film Unit (GPOFU) in London. For Lye, this was the start of significant output that culminated with such titles as Free Radicals in 1958 and Particles in Space in 1964, both etched on film.

In 1937 it was McLaren's turn to go to the GPOFU, where his work included Love on the Wing, which contained segments drawn directly on film. McLaren later said that he had been inspired by the shock of seeing Lye's A Colour Box. While living in the United States from 1939 to 1941, McLaren continued his direct-on-film animation experiments Scherzo (1939), Stars and Stripes (1940) and Dots (1940), all drawn on film.

McLaren's first short at the NFB, Mail Early (1941), is an ad for the post office in which a series of figurative symbols drawn on the film come to life to the music of Benny Goodman. In his first decade at the NFB, McLaren made a dozen films—including Dollar Dance (1943) and Fiddle-de-dee (1947)—by drawing on film. One of them, Begone Dull Care (1949), which he made with Evelyn Lambart, is a masterpiece of musical illustration. By skilfully painting on both sides of the filmstock, the animators created rich textures that are the visual equivalent of the complexity and freedom of Oscar Peterson's music.

Although he did a great deal of painting on film, McLaren did less etching. In fact, Blinkity Blank (1955), a breathtaking display of cinematographic fireworks, is one of the few films he made entirely using this technique. This short film's choppy narrative, in which strange birds form and disappear intermittently, demonstrates how impossible McLaren believed it was to tell complex stories using direct-on-film animation techniques. But in 1982, Pierre Hébert proved him wrong with Memories of War, a powerful antiwar film, most of which was made by etching directly on filmstock.

This was not Hébert's first effort using this technique. Back in 1962, he had made two shorts by hand: Histoire verte and Histoire d'une bébite. He joined the NFB in 1965 and began right away on an abstract film, Op Hop - Hop Op (1966), created with combinatory repetitions of series of images etched directly on film.

Apart from McLaren and Hébert, few NFB filmmakers have worked directly on film. Worth mentioning are the experiments of Raymond Brousseau, who etched two films based on geometric abstraction (Dimension soleils, 1970, and Points de suspension, 1971), and André Leduc's La Bague du tout nu (1974), a dynamic drawn-on-film fantasy on the fleeting nature of things. Some independent Canadian filmmakers, including Richard Reeves (Linear Dreams, 1996) and Steven Woloshen (Cameras Take Five, 2003), have acquired solid reputations thanks to their direct-on-film animation.

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