Where to begin with Norman McLaren

A beginner’s path through the ingenious animation of Norman McLaren.

11 April 2018

By David Parkinson

Neighbours (1952)

Why this might not seem so easy

During his 50-year career, Norman McLaren (1914-87) made more than 70 films. Few ran longer than 10 minutes, yet each one was a work of painstaking precision that pushed the boundaries of animation as an artform. But where do you start with a genius who didn’t make a single bad film?

McLaren’s canon is so moreish that hours can disappear in following his shifting styles from the early infomercials produced for the GPO Film Unit through his first experiments with abstraction to the award-winning masterpieces that still seem as innovative and enticing as they did when they first appeared.

Yet McLaren isn’t for everyone. He rarely traded in narrative and his improvised interactions with light, colour, shape and rhythm demand an emotional rather than an intellectual response. Indeed, they can seem a bit baffling, even when it’s possible to appreciate their technical virtuosity.

Norman McLaren animating Fiddle-de-dee (1947)

Another reason McLaren is hard to pin down is that he’s not strictly an auteur. He might have dispensed with cameras and applied ink, paint or scratches directly on to the celluloid at his customised drawing table. But he often worked in tandem with skilled collaborators like Evelyn LambartRené Jodoin and Grant Munro, while his rhythmic abstractions were heavily dependent on the music composed by Lou Applebaum and Maurice Blackburn or performed by such maestros as Pete SeegerRavi Shankar and Glenn Gould.

Nevertheless, his output is all governed by the maxim that “animation is not the art of drawings-that-move but the art of movements-that-are-drawn”. And if you’re on McLaren’s wavelength, he’s a constant source of invention, wit, exhilaration and delight.

The best place to start – Neighbours

McLaren’s most distinctive innovation is a process called ‘pixillation’, using live actors as stop-motion objects. This is seen at its most inspired in 1952’s Neighbours, in which he was roused by the Korean war (and by what he had witnessed while working for UNESCO in China and India) to demonstrate the folly of solving disputes by violence.

As two pipe-smoking pals read their papers in deckchairs outside their idyllic homes, an orange flower pops up through the lawn. Both men are enchanted by the fragrance and try to claim that the flower is growing on their side of the invisible line between their properties. So, when one chap produces a white picket fence that encloses the bloom, his neighbour objects and the tension quickly escalates into savagery.

Although he is best known as an animator, McLaren’s earliest films were photographic, and he’d been experimenting with stop-motion since collaborating with Richard Massingham on Mony a Pickle (1938). For Neighbours, he varied the speeds of both the camera and the performances to create a kind of antic motion.

With its impassioned pacifist message, the film earned him (somewhat curiously) the Academy Award for best documentary short. He was nominated again for A Chairy Tale (1957), an allegorical study of exploitation mixing pixillation and slapstick – a combination he returned to with Canon (1964) and Opening Speech (1969).

What to watch next

McLaren’s achievement is dazzlingly diverse, but his fascination with synthesising sound and vision provides a common thread. Influenced by surrealism, he used Jacques Ibert’s ‘Divertissement’ to guide the cinematic metamorphoses in Love on the Wing (1938), which was banned in Britain for being “too Freudian”. Meanwhile, in the most glorious of his American-made abstractions, Begone Dull Care (1949), the imagery appears to be duetting with the Oscar Peterson Trio’s jazz score.

Painted directly on to clear 35mm celluloid leader, the colours in the first and third segments are almost overpoweringly vibrant, but there’s an ethereal beauty to the images etched on to 35mm black emulsion-coated film in the slower middle movement. There’s a similar sensation in La Poulette grise (1947), one of a series of French-Canadian folk songs (this time centring on the eponymous hen) that he illustrated using the ‘chain of mixes’ technique of modifying pastel drawings on card.

Birds were also centre stage in Hen Hop (1942) and Le Merle (1958), with Pablo Picasso declaring the former to be a leap forward in the art of drawing. Indeed, McLaren could often be playful, as he proved by giving numerals a life of their own in the Berlin-winning Rythmetic (1956) and by switching between live action, cut-outs, tin toys and line drawings in the Oscar-nominated Christmas Cracker (1963). He also utilised his own inventions, such as the travelling zoom in C’est l’aviron (1944), and dabbled in new techniques like 3D – see Now Is the Time (1951) and Around Is Around (1953).

Throughout his career, McLaren returned to abstraction, whether for free-spirited pieces like Hoppity Pop (1946), Fiddle-De-Dee (1947) and the Cannes-winning Blinkity Blank (1955) or more precisely controlled exercises like Lines: Vertical (1960), Lines: Horizontal (1962), Mosaic (1965) and Spheres (1969).

The last of these had the feel of computer animation. But, while he used optical printers, McLaren preferred to remain hands on, even after he began to feel he was making abstract animations “to the detriment of his soul”. At this point, he turned to his first love: dance.

Inspired by the chronophotographic effects achieved in cinema’s prehistory by Étienne-Jules Marey, McLaren created visual poetry in motion in the Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning Pas de deux (1968) – another essential stop-off as you explore McLaren’s work. Choreographed by Ludmilla ChiriaeffMargaret Mercier and Vincent Warren appear to leave light trails across the frame, as they dance to Romanian panpipe music.

Having experimented with choreographing striations of light and colour to produce ‘graphical sound’ in Synchromy (1971), McLaren returned to live action in Ballet Adagio (1972) and Narcissus (1983), which also exquisitely combined trick photography and balletic grace.

Where not to start

Such is the uniform excellence of McLaren’s filmography that each item leads to new discoveries. However, he did admit that the self-explanatory Flicker Film (1961) was “too esoteric for me”, while there’s little to set pulses racing in New York Lightboard Record (1961), a silent monochrome account of passers-by watching McLaren’s lively Canadian tourist promo on a big-screen loop in Times Square. 

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