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Norman McLaren

Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Animator, Composer
(b. April 11, 1914 Stirling, Scotland - d. January 27, 1987 Montreal, Quebec)

Norman McLaren was a creative and technical innovator whose film career spanned more than 50 years, during which he created a body of work that has no peer in cinema. Considered an artist, animator, filmmaker, scientist, inventor, musician and technical expert, his work might be better classified as experimental than as animation. His films are artisanal creations designed to provoke an aesthetic response, although they also inform, amuse and entertain.

While studying interior design at the Glasgow School of Fine Arts, McLaren discovered an interest in film — he was exposed early on to the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Fischinger. He was encouraged by his teachers to make his own films, which he proceeded to do even though he didn’t have a camera. McLaren adapted to the lack of equipment by acquiring used film stock, removing the emulsion, then painting coloured ink directly onto the film. This was the beginning of his film experimentation, which over the years would encompass a wide range of styles and techniques invented or revived by McLaren.

In 1934, McLaren’s first amateur film attempt won him a cash prize at a local Glasgow film festival, which he used to produce two more films that were shown the next year at another festival. John Grierson saw the films and liked McLaren’s work enough to offer the young filmmaker a job at the GPO Film Unit in London. A year later, McLaren took a job as a cameraperson covering the Spanish Civil War, an experience that stayed with him and strongly influenced his views about the devastating, futile nature of war. When WWII broke out, McLaren immigrated to New York, where he worked as an independent producer. During this period, he made several films without using a camera — by marking, scratching and painting images onto blank filmstrips.

Norman McLaren was only 27 when John Grierson, who had become Canada's first government film commissioner, invited him to work for the National Film Board of Canada. McLaren accepted Grierson’s offer of “$40 a week and a chance to make films.” He moved to Canada in 1941 and established the NFB’s animation studio in 1942. McLaren remained with the NFB for his entire career, with the exception of two brief periods during which he took part in educational programs sponsored by UNESCO to train film students in China (1949) and later in India (1953).

His first films at the NFB were produced to support the war effort (V for Victory, 1941; Five for Four, 1942; Dollar Dance, 1943; and Keep Your Mouth Shut, 1944), but at the same time, McLaren pursued his own subjects and his driving interests in experimental animation, filmmaking technique and music. Collaborating with jazz great Oscar Peterson, he produced Begone Dull Care (1949), using his method of painting images directly onto film to create an onscreen interpretation of Peterson’s music. The film received recognition and awards from festivals and organizations worldwide. In his pixillated anti-war allegory, Neighbours (1952), McLaren mixed the stop-motion effects with live characters and animation to tell the tale of two people who destroy their families and homes over the possession of a flower. The film won an Academy Award® for best short documentary in 1953, among other honours.

Upon returning from India, McLaren made Blinkity Blank (1954), using his technique of painting and scratching onto film; however, this time, he deliberately missed frames to create a unique motion effect. The film received many awards, including the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1955. He continued to explore movement and music throughout his career, notably in works such as the Oscar®-nominated films A Chairy Tale (1957), performed by the filmmaker Claude Jutra, and Pas de deux (1968), with some of Canada’s foremost ballet dancers. McLaren worked with two of his favourite collaborators, Evelyn Lambart, producer, and Maurice Blackburn, musician and composer, on A Chairy Tale, which employed the music of Ravi Shankar. In the lyrical Pas de deux, McLaren used stroboscopic effects. Maynard Collins, who wrote a biography on McLaren, described Pas de deux: “The technical virtuosity of this film, its ethereal beauty, its lovely Roumanian pan-type music, made it a joy to watch, even if — perhaps, especially if — you do not care for ballet.”

The most honoured Canadian filmmaker, McLaren received hundreds of prizes, awards and distinctions (an estimated 200 international awards) throughout his career and posthumously. Yet, it is difficult to measure the effect of McLaren’s genius and his legacy of films and filmmaking expertise. The magazine Séquences celebrated their 20th anniversary in 1975 by devoting a special issue to McLaren, whom they called the "poet of animation"; and after his death, the magazine published a tribute in April 1987. The NFB honoured the filmmaker in 1987 by renaming their headquarters the Norman McLaren Building.

The BBC film The Eye Hears, the Ear Sees (1970) examines McLaren’s work prior to 1970, and Donald McWilliams’ film Creative Process: Norman McLaren (1990) contains interviews and excerpts from his most recognized films as well as unfinished or unreleased works.

Film and video work includes

Seven till Five, 1933 (director; producer)
Camera Makes Whoopee, 1935 (director; producer)
Colour Cocktail, 1935 (director)
Polychrome Phantasy, 1935 (director; producer)
Defence of Madrid, 1936 (co-director with Ivor Montagu; producer)
Hell Unlimited, 1936 (co-director with Helen Biggar; producer)
Book Bargain, 1937 (director; producer)
News for the Navy, 1937 (director; producer)
Mony a Pickle, 1938 (director; producer)
Allegro, 1939 (director; animator)
Love on the Wing, 1939 (director; animator)
The Obedient Flame, 1939 (director)
NBC Greeting, 1939 (director; animator; producer; TV, commerical)
NBC Valentine's Day Greeting, 1939 (director; animator; producer; TV, commerical)
Rumba, 1939 (director)
Scherzo, 1939 (director; producer)
Spook Sport, 1940 (director; producer)
Mail Early, 1941 (director; animator; producer)
Five for Four, 1942 (director; animator; producer)
Hen Hop, 1942 (director; animator; producer)
Stars and Stripes, 1939 (director; animator; producer)
Dollar Dance, 1943 (director; animator; producer)
Tic Tac Toe, 1943 (producer)
Alouette, 1944 (co-director with René Jodoin; co-animator with René Jodoin; producer)
Chants populaires no. 1-6, 1944 (producer)
Keep Your Mouth Shut, 1944 (director; animator)
Rainy Day, 1944 (producer)
Là-haut sur ces montagnes, 1945 (director; animator; producer)
Hoppity Pop, 1946 (director; animator; producer)
A Little Phantasy on a Nineteenth Century Painting, 1946 (director; animator; producer)
Fiddle-de-dee, 1947 (director; animator; producer)
La poulette grise, 1947 (director; animator; producer)
Story of a violin, 1947 (co-animator with Evelyn Lambart)
Boogie-doodle, 1948 (director; animator; producer)
Dots, 1948 (director; animator; producer)
Loops/Boucles, 1949 (director; animator; producer)
Over-dependency, 1949 (animator)
Pen Point Percussion, 1951 (director; producer)
A Phantasy, 1952 (director; animator; producer)
Twirligig, 1952 (producer)
Two Bagatelles, 1952 (co-director with Grant Munro; animator; music; producer)
Upright and Wrong, 1954 (music)
Rhythmetic, 1956 (co-director with Evelyn Lambart; co-cinematographer with Evelyn Lambart; co-animator with Evelyn Lambart, producer)
Le merle, 1958 (director; co-animator with Evelyn Lambart; producer)
Mail Early for Christmas, 1959 (director; animator; producer)
Serenal, 1959 (director; animator; producer)
Short and Suite, 1959 (director; co-animator with Evelyn Lambart; producer)
The Wonderful World of Jack Parr, 1959 (director; animator; producer; TV credit titles)
Opening Speech, 1960 (director; animator)
New York Lightboard, 1961 (director; animator)
New York Lightboard Record, 1961 (director; producer)
Opening Speech: McLaren, 1961 (director)
Christmas Cracker, 1963 (co-director with Grant Munro, Jeff Hale, Gerald Potterton)
Seven Surprises, 1963 (co-director with Grant Munro, Claude Jutra)
with Evelyn Lambart; music, producer)
Korean Alphabet, 1967 (music)
Spheres, 1969 (director; animator; producer)
Striations, 1970 (director; animator)
Ballet Adagio, 1971 (director; animator; producer)
Synchromy, 1971 (director; animator; music; producer)
Pinscreen, 1973 (director; animator)
Animated Motion, Parts 1-5, 1976-78 (co-director with Grant Munro; producer)
Narcissus/Narcisse, 1983 (director)
Pas de deux and the Dance of Time, 1985 (co-director with Francine Viel)