The National Film Board of Canada has been nominated 33 times in the category for Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards, which makes it the second most highly nominated producer of animation behind Walt Disney Pictures. Pretty impressive for a publicly-funded agency of a foreign government. The NFB’s many accomplishments in this particular field can be traced back to an innovative filmmaker who helped make the animated art-form an indelible aspect of Canada’s culture, Norman McLaren.
McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland and attended the Glasgow School of Art before moving to New York City in 1939. In New York, McLaren developed a technique of drawing abstract designs directly onto film stock, which resulted in jazzy experimental shorts like Boogie-Doodle (1940) and Loops (1940). In 1941 McLaren moved to Canada to take a job at the NFB making wartime propaganda reels like Keep Your Mouth Shut and V for Victory. In 1943, McLaren was selected to helm the NFB’s first animation studio in which capacity he met his long-time collaborator Evelyn Lambart. By this early stage in his career, McLaren’s films were already being lauded by the likes of François Truffaut and Pablo Picasso.
McLaren spent decades refining his experimental approaches to animation, however his most widely recognized film is an Oscar-winning comedy short with an uncharacteristically straightforward message. In the NFB short Neighbours (1952) came about after McLaren’s has spent time teaching animation in China and India as part of international cultural exchange organized by the United Nations and UNESCO. McLaren used live performers in a type of stop-motion called pixilation to create a cartoonish parable about an escalating conflict between two neighbours fighting to maintain procession of a single flower which sprouted on the property line. At first the neighbours erect fences to suit their claims but they soon resort to violence, destroy each other’s homes and ultimately trample the coveted flower. The peaceful message of Neighbours struck a chord with many looking for signs of hope during the uncertainty of the Cold War. Towards the end of his life, McLaren commented “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.”
McLaren’s more avant-garde animated projects reflect a contemporary Modernist trend away the literal in favour of abstraction. In many of his animated shorts, McLaren creates a spellbinding visual experience using a barrage of minimalistic shapes and lines which express themselves only through changing colour and movement, many with intentionally uninsightful names as if to avoid assigning any predetermined meaning at all: Dots (1940), Loops (1940), Lines Vertical (1960), Lines Horizontal (1962), Spheres (1969) and Synchromy (1971).
Our collective expectations of film being what they are, many of McLaren’s moving paintings might be best encountered as they loop over and over in the contemplative space of a museum gallery. In the tradition of the German forbearers of abstract animation, Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger, McLaren’s films bypass the rational part of the mind and endeavour to communicate with us on the same level as jazz music or modern dance.
Dance and ballet in particular became a great source of inspiration for McLaren during the second half of his career. To create the BAFTA awarded Pas De Deux (1968), McLaren filmed a pair of dancers in high-contrast black-and-white and overlaid their performance to create unusual shapes and patterns with the human body. McLaren’s films often explore the relationship between movement and music, and many use a song as the foundation for the visual experience he creates. Begone Dull Care (1949) is inspired by an Oscar Peterson jazz composition, Spheres (1969) is set to Bach performed by pianist Glenn Gould and two of McLaren’s films, La Poulette Grise (1947) and Le Merle (1958), are based on Quebecois folk songs.
McLaren’s contributions to Canadian culture where recognized when he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972 and the NFB building in his adopted home of Montreal has been renamed in his honour. Two years before his death in 1987, the 72 films McLaren created over his career were donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2006, the NFB released a DVD set of McLaren’s works and also made many of his films available for free on NFB.ca. The NBF has also developed a popular animation app called McLaren’s Workshop which translated McLaren’s scratch-on-film technique into the age of the touchscreen. Animator Don Hertzfeldt used the app to create a 30-second demo called Day Sleeper (2013). In 2009, Norman McLaren’s films were selected for inclusion in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme which is designed to preserve significant works of world culture.