Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren (1914–1987) revolutionized his field with his hand–drawn and hand–painted animated films. He also pioneered the use of pixilation—a filming technique that creates a stop–motion effect—which he used in his Academy Award–winning film Neighbors. McLaren created many of his projects for the National Film Board of Canada, where he was employed for more than 40 years.
McLaren was born on April 11, 1914, in Stirling, Scotland, the youngest of three children born to William McLaren, an interior designer, and his wife Jean (Smith) McLaren. In addition to his father, many of McLaren's other relatives on his father's side were house painters and interior designers, while his mother's family were farmers. McLaren's first introduction to animation came at the age of seven, when he first viewed Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse cartoons, as well as Walt Disney's "Silly Symphony" series. McLaren did not become interested in film until he was a teenager, however, and grew intrigued by the work of Russian filmmakers Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein.
McLaren entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1932 with the intention of studying interior design. He began making films during his first year at the college and so impressed the local newspapers with his work that he was called the "young genius of the Glasgow School of Art." Soon, he shifted his attention to animation. McLaren saved himself the expense of buying a camera and new film by purchasing a worn–out 35mm commercial film, soaking off the emulsion of the images in his bathtub, and painting new color images directly onto the celluloid to create animation. "The less money there is, the more imagination there has to be," he later remarked, as quoted in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times. The technique had another advantage, McLaren once noted, as recounted in a 1993 issue of Americas: "If I don't like what I've done, I can wipe it out with a damp cloth and begin again." He continued to paint and draw directly on film for the duration of his long career. "Handmade cinema is like watching thought, if thought could be seen," he once said, as quoted in Americas.
Experimented in Student Films
McLaren's next project was Seven till Five, a silent, black–and–white film shot on 16mm documenting the activities at the art school between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. His next two films were created in 1935. Camera Makes Whoopee, featuring a school dance orchestra with self–propelled instruments, utilized pixilation, a stop–action filming technique that exaggerates the movements of the subject. The technique gained widespread recognition in the 1980s, when it was used in musician Peter Gabriel's music video "Sledgehammer." Color Cocktail, another hand–painted work, followed. This film earned McLaren an award at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival, which was presented to him by John Grierson, a celebrated British documentarian who judged the festival. In 1926, McLaren and Helen Biggar produced Hell Unlimited, a critique of arms trading, utilizing both camera less animation and photography of diagrams, animated maps, and puppets. McLaren also traveled to Spain to serve as a cameraman on Defense of Madrid, a documentary on the Spanish Civil War created to raise money for international aid. In addition, while in school he produced a series of advertising films for a local meat store which were shown in the company's window display.
McLaren found regular employment in the film industry in 1936 when Grierson, who headed the British General Post Office Film Unit, offered him a job. The film unit's staff was known for producing highly regarded experimental work, and McLaren trained with filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Evelyn Cherry. At this time, he began to experiment with animated sound, creating percussive elements on a film's audio strip using pen and ink. McLaren's first film for the post office was a ten–minute, black–and–white documentary on the printing of the London telephone directory shot in 35mm and titled Book Bargain. The film was followed by News for the Navy, a documentary for the military branch. Many a Pickle, which featured animated furniture and used pixilation, promoted the post office's savings bank. A five–and–a–half minute film promoting airmail, Love on the Wing featured hand painted images of a lock and key, fork and spoon, and moth and flame, dancing through a landscape inspired by the surrealist paintings of Yves Tanguy. According to Americas, the British postmaster suppressed the film, declaring it "too Freudian," and it was not viewed widely until later years when it became popular among fans of underground film. McLaren left the post office in 1939 and briefly worked for the Film Center, a London company that made industrial films. His only project there was The Obedient Flame, an animated and pixilated piece on gas cooking.
The political consciousness McLaren exhibited in art school continued to develop along with his career and he leaned first toward communism, then socialism, and eventually, pacifism. As World War II approached, he feared he would be required to produce war propaganda films in London so he moved to the United States. Upon his arrival in New York, he first painted murals for wealthy homeowners and directed a New Year's greetings film for NBC. Soon, he was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum to create a series of abstract shorts for $100 apiece. With no money for soundtracks, McLaren furthered his exploration of "synthetic sound." He first worked on perfecting the method he had developed at the post office, whereby he drew dots and dashes on an audio strip. Later, he photographed sequential index cards marked with specific sound patterns, which he then printed directly onto the audio strip.
McLaren used his developing technique in almost all his Guggenheim films, and even produced one sound–only piece, Rumba, which featured only the sound forms painted directly on the film as visual effects. McLaren also contributed several hand painted animated films, including Color Rhapsodie, Dots, Loops, and Stars and Stripes, in which the elements of the American flag dance. Boogie Doodle also featured hand painted animation, alongside a boogie woogie soundtrack by Albert Ammons. In addition, McLaren collaborated with filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute on Spook Sport, an animated interpretation of composer Camille Saint–Saëns' Dance Macabre. The animation technique exhibited in the Guggenheim films was painstaking, requiring more than 4,000 separate, tiny sketches just to complete a three–minute production. McLaren earned the admiration of some of the most prominent figures in film and art for his pioneering work. According to Americas, esteemed French director François Truffaut once called a four–minute McLaren piece "an absolutely unique work bearing no resemblance to anything achieved in sixty years of cinema history."
Joined National Film Board
In 1941, McLaren was again recruited by Grierson, this time to head the animation department at the newly created Canadian National Film Board in Ottawa, Ontario. McLaren was first enlisted to create war propaganda, despite his best efforts to avoid such work, and he applied trademark innovation to shorts on such topics as war gossip and the benefits of purchasing war bonds. His film on the latter, titled Hen Hop, featured a chaotic mass of line–drawn chicken scratch movements. McLaren spent several days in a chicken coop to set himself in the right frame of mind to draw the piece. According to Americas, when Pablo Picasso viewed the film, the famous painter remarked, "Finally, something new in the art of drawing."
McLaren next produced a series of short pieces set to French–Canadian folk songs. C'est l'aviron utilized traveling zoom photography, a special effect that created a sense of headfirst movement through space. McLaren had developed the technique in the 1930s and it was later used by director Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The next film, La poulette grise, used a "chain of mixes" technique that involved shooting a still pastel image frame by frame, adding to or subtracting from the drawing in each shot. La Merle depicts a white paper cutout blackbird that loses his features then has them oddly rearranged. After McLaren completed the series, he worked with Evelyn Lambart, a collaborator on several of his films, to produce Begone Dull Care, an abstract piece set to the music of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. McLaren and Lambart took turns painting long test strips of clean film then spliced together sections that best accompanied the soundtrack.
McLaren revisited his political concerns in the pixilated film Neighbors, conceived after he returned from a 1949 visit to China with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. There, McLaren taught animation to children and also saw communism in action, which he recognized to be much less insidious than it was portrayed to be in the west. Neighbors employed actors in a tale of two neighbors who raise a dispute over a flower growing on a mutual property line to the level of war and, ultimately, destruction. In 1952, McLaren received an Academy Award for the film, which remains his best known work. McLaren believed Neighbors was his most significant work. "If all my films were to be destroyed except one, I would want that one to be Neighbors because I feel it has a permanent message about human nature," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. In 1955, McLaren was awarded the Palm D'or at the Cannes Film Festival for another short, Blinkity Blank.
Turned Focus to Dance
In the 1960s, McLaren turned his focus to dance, an art form for which he also felt a great affinity, given its emphasis on movement. "Animation is not the art of drawings that move but rather the art of movements that are drawn," McLaren once remarked, as quoted in Americas. "What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame. The basic substance of the cinema is movement—at its lowest physical level, the movement of lightwaves and soundwaves . . . it is the motion that speak to us." Pas de Deux, produced in 1967, and Ballet Adagio, produced in 1972, both incorporate step printing, a production technique that creates a strobe–like effect. While intended as instructional tools for dancers, the films are also highly regarded for their artistic merits.
McLaren revisited the theme of ballet in his final film, Narcissus, which he completed in 1983. The 20–minute film, McLaren's longest, offers a balletic interpretation of the tragic myth portraying its title character's destruction through self–love. The special effects are subdued in comparison to McLaren's earlier work, allowing a studied focus on the film's subjects. "Narcissus has the idyllic mood and spare movement of Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun rather than the epic quality of Martha Graham's Greek myths. Like all of McLaren's dance films, it points the way to a new, collaborative art," wrote Christine Temin in the Boston Globe.
McLaren retired from the Film Board in 1984. Long in poor health, he died of a heart attack in Montreal, Quebec, on January 26, 1987. Following his death, the International Animated Film Association–Canada established an annual award in McLaren's honor and in 1989, the Film Board renamed its main building the Norman McLaren Building. In 1991 the Film Board issued a video collection of McLaren's 40–year body of work under its auspices in recognition of its 50th anniversary.
Richard, Valliere T., Norman McLaren, Manipulator of Movement, University of Delaware Press, 1982.
Americas, September/October, 1993.
Boston Globe, March 5, 1984.
Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1987; February 8, 1987.
National Film Board of Canada, http://www.nfb.ca/e/highlights/norman–mclaren.html (November 16, 2004).
Animator. Nationality: Scottish. Born: Stirling, 11 April 1914. Education: Attended Stirling public schools; Glasgow School of Art. Career: 1934—while a student at Glasgow School of Art made
antiwar film with animated sequence which won first prize, Scottish Film Festival; 1936—after graduation hired by John Grierson at General Post Office Film Unit; 1936–38—worked on live-action documentaries; 1938—made first professional animated film Love on the Wing; first example of his drawing-directly-on-film technique; 1939–41—worked in New York independently, and for company producing publicity shorts and Museum of Non-Objective Art; 1941—hired by Grierson at Canada's National Film Board to set up animation department; 1949—began long collaboration with Evelyn Lambert on Begone Dull Care; 1952—for antiwar film Neighbors developed process of animating film of live actors called "pixillation." Award: Academy Award for Neighbors, 1952. Died: 1987.
Films as Director:
Hand Painted Abstraction; Seven Till Five; Camera Makes Woopee; Colour Cocktail
Hell Unlimited; The Defense of Madrid
(For GPO Film Unit, London) Book Bargain; News for the Navy; Many a Pickle; Love on the Wing
(For Film Center, London) The Obedient Flame
(For National Film Board of Canada)
Mail Early; V for Victory
Five for Four; Hen Hop*
C'est l'aviron; Keep Your Mouth Shut
La Haut sur ces montagnes
A Little Phantasy; Hoppity Pop*
Fiddle-de-dee*; Poulette grise
Begone Dull Care*
Around Is Around; Now Is the Time
Neighbors (Les Voisins)** (+ mus); Two Bagatelles** (+ mus)
Rythmetic (+ mus)
A Chairy Tale (Il était une chaise)**
Serenal*; Short and Suite*; Mail Early for Christmas; The Wonderful World of Jack Paar (for TV) (credit sequence only)
Lignes verticales (Lines-Vertical)*; Opening Speech (Discours de bienvenue de McLaren)**
New York Lightboard
Lignes horizontales (Lines-Horizontal)*
Caprice de Noël (Christmas Crackers)** (credit sequence and intertitles only)
Mosaic (Mosaïque)* (+ mus)
Pas de deux (live action)
L'Écran d'épingles (co-d with Alexeieff and Parker) (documentary)
Le Mouvement image par image (series of 5 animation instruction films)
Narcissus (live action)
* films without camera (direct drawing, engraving, or painting on film)
By McLAREN: books—
The Drawings of Norman McLaren, Montreal, 1975.
Norman McLaren on the Creative Process, edited by Donald McWilliams, Montreal, 1991.
By McLAREN: articles—
"L'Animation stéréographique," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1952.
"Notes on Animated Sound," in Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (Berkeley, California), Spring 1953.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1955.
"L'Écran et le pinceau," in Séquences (Montreal), December 1955.
"Making Films on Small Budgets," in Film (London), December 1955.
Interview, in special animation issue of Cinéma (Paris), January 1957.
Séquences (Montreal), October 1965.
"The Synthesis of Artificial Movements in Motion Picture Projection," with Guy Glover, in Film Culture (New York), no. 48–49, 1970.
Film Library Quarterly (New York), Spring 1970.
"Où va l'animation?," in Ecran (Paris), January 1973.
"Rhythm 'n Truths," interview with D. Elley, in Films and Filming (London), June 1974.
"A Dictionary of Movement," interview with M. Magistros and G. Munro, in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), v. 3, no. 4, 1980.
On McLAREN: books—
Forsyth, Hardy, Dots and Loops: The Story of a Scottish Film Cartoonist, Edinburgh, 1951.
Norman McLaren, La Cinémathèque québécoise, Montreal, 1965.
Collins, Maynard, Norman McLaren, Canadian Film Institute, 1975.
Russett, Robert, and Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation, New York, 1976.
Bakedano, Jose J., Norman McLaren, Bilbao, 1987.
On McLAREN: articles—
"Hen Tracks on Sound Tracks," in Popular Mechanics, April 1949.
Queval, Jean, "Norman McLaren ou le cinéma du VVIe siècle," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October-November 1951.
"Movies without a Camera, Music without Instruments," in Theatre Arts (New York), October 1952.
Jordan, William, "Norman McLaren: His Career and Techniques," in Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television (Berkeley, California), Fall 1953.
Special animation issue of Cinéma (Paris), January 1957.
Martin, André, "Le Cinéma de deux mains," in 2 parts, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January and February 1958.
Martin, André, "Mystère d'un cinéma instrumental," in 3 parts, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February, March and April 1958.
D'Yvoire, Jean, "Les Démons de McLaren," in Radio-Cinéma-Télévision (Paris), 29 June 1958.
Mekas, Adolfas, "The Second Story—Honoring the Only Canadian Artist," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1962.
Weinberg, Gretchen, "Mc et Moi," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1962.
"The Craft of Norman McLaren," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Winter 1962–63.
Egly, Max, "Klee, Steinberg, McLaren," in Image et Son (Paris), March 1965.
Cutler, May, "The Unique Genius of Norman McLaren," in Canadian Art, May-June 1965.
Vinet, Pierre, "Multi-McLaren," in Take One (Montreal), September-October 1966.
Burns, Dan, "Pixillation," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Fall 1968.
"The Career of Norman McLaren," in Cinema Canada (Montreal), August-September 1973.
Elley, D., "Rhythm 'n Truths," in Films and Filming (London), June 1974.
"Norman McLaren au fil de ses films," in special McLaren issue of Séquences (Montreal), October 1975.
Revue de la Cinémathèque (Montreal), February-April 1990.
Bassan, R., "Trois films de Norman McLaren," in Bref, no. 10, Autumn 1991.
Ciment, G., "Voyage à l'interieur d'un crane," in Positif, no. 371, January 1992.
Werner, L., "Spontaneous Frames of Movement," in Americas, September-October 1993.
Chevassu, F., "Hommage à Norman McLaren," in Mensuel, no. 11, November 1993.
Clark, Jeff, "Selected Films: Norman McLaren," in Library Journal, 15 March 1994.
Felperin, Leslie, "A: Animation," in Sight and Sound (London), June 1996.
Robinson, C., "Norman McLaren: A Tribute," in Take One (Toronto), Summer 1997.
* * *
Norman McLaren was one of the great polymaths of animation and filmmaking. Although many independent and experimental animators can, and do, work with a range of different techniques, few have explored the breadth of possibilities with such thoroughness and expertise as McLaren. Cel animation, animation with paper cutouts, pastels, paint, three-dimensional objects, "pixillated" human beings, the light board at Times Square, and even "animation without a camera" are just some of the methods he used in his nearly fifty-year-long career. In addition, he also painted and drew, wrote extensively about animation, collaborated with and inspired many other artists (including John Grierson, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Evelyn Lambert, Rene Jodoin, George Dunning, Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker, and Ravi Shankar, to name but a few), developed sophisticated optical printing techniques for live-action film, and is said to have invented the "travelling zoom" shot which inspired the "portal" sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nonetheless, though his technical accomplishments and aesthetic achievements have profoundly influenced animators all over the world, he often maintained that his films' primary function was to convey his own feelings and to elicit an emotional response in his viewers. Towards the end of his life he said, "I just would like to be remembered for having made some films which have touched people greatly or melted them or moved them in some way or excited them."
Although the body of his work is heterogeneous, eclectic, and resistant to totalizing characterization, its single, unifying concern is the representation of movement. Indeed, he is said to have described animation itself as not the art of moving drawings, but of drawing movement. His later interest in dance, and ballet especially, is thus not an aberration from his animated work, but contiguous with it, as Pas de deux (1967) demonstrates. In an interview with Maynard Collins, McLaren revealingly notes that even when listening to music, which is so integral to his work, "I see movement, rather than specific images. . . . Movement is my basic language."
The most intriguing films in which McLaren articulates this "language" of movement are the "cameraless" and abstract ones he made while working independently and for the National Film Board of Canada where he headed their animation department. Some of these depict recognizable figures and imagery, like Dollar Dance (1943) and Hen Hop (1942) (of the latter, Picasso is said to have proclaimed "At last, something new in the art of drawing!"). Others veer in the direction of total abstraction and consist of flickering patterns of colour, line, and form, like Begone Dull Care (1949). This last is probably one of his best known cameraless films, made with Evelyn Lambert, his longtime collaborator, and scored by Oscar Peterson. It consists of a rich jumble of jiving squiggles and blobs rendered by washes of dyes that were etched, scratched and variously textured by a number of materials, including Lambert's fortuitous and accidental discovery of dust. Some of McLaren's abstract films consist of elaborations on a single geometrical theme or figure taken to their furthest logical extreme, like Lines-Vertical (1960), Lines-Horizontal (1962), Dots and Loops (1940), and Mosaic (1965). This aspect of his oeuvre owes a considerable artistic debt to Oscar Fischinger.
McLaren's reputation as a sort of abstract expressionist of film has tended to occlude recognition of the overtly political films he made throughout his life. It was, after all, the powerful antiwar film he made as an art student at Glasgow's School of Art, Hell Unlimited (1936), that launched his professional career and gained him entry to the G.P.O. Film Unit in the 1930s, leading to his work on The Defense of Madrid (1937) with Ivor Montague. Some of the "propaganda" films—Stars and Stripes (1941), Mail Early (1941), and V for Victory (1941)—he made in America during the Second World War may seem facile now, and perhaps mere excuses for formalist experiment, but Neighbors (1952) an allegory of war with two "pixillated" men fighting to the death over a flower, manages to synthesize emotive content with technical innovation. Neighbors eschews intellectual proselytizing and makes its pacifist point with admirable economy of expression. Its clarity has won it a place in many a school film library, an appropriate place for a man who was as much an educator, literally and figuratively, as he was an animated film maker.
—Leslie Felperin Sharman