Norman McLaren: Animation genius created poetry


Few meetings in Canadian film history have been as momentous as the one that took place in Manhattan between the National Film Board’s pioneering commissioner John Grierson and the mild-mannered, immensely talented Glaswegian animator Norman McLaren in mid-1941. The hardboiled Scot, Grierson, had flown down to New York from Ottawa with one purpose in mind, to persuade McLaren to come to the NFB. ‘You will see that you can make cinema as you understand it,’ Grierson assured the resolutely abstract, experimental young artist.

Over the next 45 years, McLaren made good on Grierson’s prophecy. Embraced by the Board, McLaren went on to make nearly a film a year in genres as diverse as animation, documentary, dance and live-action ‘pixilation.’ It was in the last of those disciplines, pixilation – creating animated motion by manipulating characters in-between each frame – that McLaren won his Academy Award for Neighbours in 1952. The Oscar was an accolade that resonated in a culturally deprived Canada and practically guaranteed the brilliant Scotsman carte blanche in his adopted country for the rest of his life.

Not many Canadians realize that Neighbours garnered its Academy Award in the documentary category, or that McLaren’s film was cut and expurgated in classrooms in many countries because of its resolute depiction of violence between two next-door families. The irony is that McLaren was the most gentle of figures, whose experiences filming the brutal fighting during the Spanish Civil War turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

One of McLaren’s protégées, Robert Verrall, recalled recently that ‘Norman was impressed by the [peaceful] way Chinese Communists took over a village’ towards the end of their civil war a decade later. Always an idealist, McLaren was inspired by Spain and China to craft his most famous film – and watch it win honors – during the darkest days of the Cold War.

While McLaren once admitted that ‘if all my films were burning in a fire, I’d prefer to see Neighbours rescued,’ it’s clear that much of his art was acclaimed for its form, not for what it said.

Commissioned by the British Film Institute to create 3D animated films for the legendary Festival of Britain, he achieved stereoscopy by, according to an NFB account, ‘photographing and drawing two visuals (one for the left eye, one for the right) with controlled displacement of the elements in relationship to each other.’

In the classic animation works Begone Dull Care, Fiddle-de-dee and Boogie Doodle, he drew, painted, engraved and scratched onto film stock in order to make the music of jazzman Oscar Peterson, fiddler Eugène Desormeaux and pianist Albert Ammons come alive. For Blinkity Blank, he engraved and colored black film stock, then cut the imagery spasmodically in order to see how much ‘after-image’ can be recalled in the eye’s retina. For Neighbours, the soundtrack was created by photographing cards ‘inscribed with sound-wave patterns for 60 notes on a chromatic scale.’

The results in each case were breathtaking, challenging and, ultimately, highly successful.

Grierson was canny enough to place McLaren as the head of the NFB’s animation unit in 1942. An artist first and foremost, McLaren chaffed at his responsibilities, but that didn’t prevent him from recruiting such remarkable talents as Verrall, Colin Low and René Jodoin, all of whom had long and distinguished careers as animators, producers and administrators at the Board. Before the Second World War ended, McLaren had promoted his talented young filmmakers to unit heads, so that he could return to making film.

Still, years later, when the NFB was ensconced in Montreal, McLaren’s presence was felt, inspiring younger generations of animators, notably Oscar-winning producer, writer and director Derek Lamb, director Kaj Pindal and, perhaps most notably, the tragic, driven talent of Ryan Larkin.

Assessing McLaren’s legacy isn’t an easy task. He garnered dozens of awards – a Silver Bear in Berlin, a Palme d’Or in Cannes, a British Film Award (BAFTA), a First Prize at the Venice Biennale, a Gold Hugo in Chicago. Prizes were given to McLaren in Edinburgh, Salerno, Barcelona, Bilbao, Phnom Penh and Brussels. Yet, as another great cineaste and friend, Claude Jutra, said, McLaren was ‘a lonely man.’ Like Jutra and Larkin, he was gay – but unlike them, his longtime partner Guy Glover stayed committed to him throughout his adult life.

Perhaps McLaren’s biographer Donald McWilliams, sums him up best: ‘He wanted to communicate not just to a few but to many. So he married his technique to content. And the films he made tapped into the joyous, positive side of his nature.’


1914: Norman McLaren is born in Stirling, Scotland
1934: Seven Till Five, his first completed film, awarded first prize in Glasgow’s Amateur Film Festival by its one-man juror, John Grierson
1936: Hired by Grierson to work at the GPO Film Unit, a wing of the U.K.’s General Post Office
1938: Love on the Wing, McLaren’s first professional animation film, in which he draws directly on film stock, publicizes the U.K.’s airmail service
1939: Emigrates to New York. Makes NBC Greeting for TV broadcast and Allegro, purchased by the Guggenheim Museum
1941: Grierson persuades McLaren to join the National Film Board and move to Ottawa
1942: Establishes animation unit at NFB
1941-44: Makes six wartime animation shorts
1944-45: Creates two ‘Chants Populaires’ shorts, which are huge successes in Quebec
1949: Makes Begone Dull Care, with music by Oscar Peterson
1950-51: Produces two 3D films commissioned by the British Film Institute for the Festival of Britain
1952: Neighbours, an anti-war parable employs ‘pixilation’ techniques with live actors, wins the Academy Award
1955: Blinkity Blank uses spasmodic rhythms and electronic score
1956: Moves to Montreal with NFB
1957: A Chairy Tale stars Claude Jutra and features Ravi Shankar sitar music
1960-65: Lines Vertical, Lines Horizontal and Mosaic form an abstract animation trilogy
1967: Pas de Deux, first dance film, uses slow-motion techniques
1972: Ballet Adagio, second dance film
1976-78: Animated Motion, five ‘study’ films on animation
1981: Narcissus, final film, a ballet
1987: Norman McLaren dies in Montreal