A period of development took place between l939 and 1941 during his lean years when working independently, and for the Museum of Non-Objective Art in New York, who commissioned five 200 foot camera-less films, these were Dots, Loops, Scherzo, Stars & Stripes and Boogie Doodle. The sound was drawn directly onto the sound track area of the first three, one without pictures, the others with hand-drawn visuals.
In 1940, in collaboration with May Ellen Bute he helped animate a semi-abstract Dance Macabre to Saint Saens music.
Towards the end of 1941 John Grierson invited him to join the newly founded National Film Board of Canada where he produced five short colour films, once again cameraless, direct drawing-on-film with scenes occasionally superimposed on multiplane backgrounds, and colour added at the very last moment. All made in support of the war effort, Hen Hop has special significance because its central character became a McLaren trade mark.
They varied in length from 200 to 500 feet, three were shot in two colours, two in three colours. Dupes were made from the master print and “assembled in parallel to act as the separation negatives for the particular colour process used.” They were all hand-drawn on an apparatus consisting of a specially adapted camera gate and claw mechanism, and an optical system designed to reflect an image of the drawing of the previous frame onto the next clear frame, making it easy to keep the images in register and the degree of movement under strict control.
After taking a couple of years off to train the staff of the NFB animation department he made La-Haut-sur-cesMontagnes and then C’ Est L’Aviron, based on a French-Canadian folk song. It was an elaborate exploitation of the zoom shot. With the aid of several hundred paintings in white on black cards approximately 18 x 24 inches each, he filmed a continuous series of overlapping staggered zooms. Each drawing taking the viewer one step further along a mystical river journey in a canoe. McLaren said there were often as many as six or seven separate exposures on the same negative.
Between 1946-49 he made four films, two of them exploited a pastel technique, A Little Phantasy on a 19th Century painting and Poulette Grise. Only a single drawing is used throughout the length of the first film, the artist constantly changing the scene a little at a time, retiring during the exposure, before continuing his work. In the second film metamorphosis of the original picture was successfully completed, in colour this time.
In 1947 he made Hoppity-Pop, another direct animation on film, then Fiddle De Dee reviving his technique of painting coloured dyes direct onto clear film, completely ignoring the frame line. Abstract patterns were synched to music played by a local folk-fiddler. McLaren explains:
“To describe the technique of Fiddle-De-Dee. It was made by taking absolutely clear, 35 mm motion picture celluloid and painting on it, frequently on both sides with celluloid dyes, inks and transparent paints.
Begone Dull Care (1949) made in conjunction with Evelyn Lambart, has lines gyrating and swaying to the music of the Oscar Peterson Trio. The constant flow of abstract and occasionally recognisable imagery extending the frameless technique used in Fiddle-De-Dee by including etching and painting, has made the viewing of this film a memorable experience.
Following a short visit to China where he taught audio visual techniques he returned in 1950 and accepted an invitation from the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank in London to make his abstracts move through three dimensions.
Two films were made Around Is Around, based on oscilloscope imagery and Now Is The Time in which a hand drawn figure moved among paper cut-out clouds to a card-photographed musical sound track. Since two-dimensional drawings were to be used he had no need of a stereoscopic camera. The visual stereo effect was produced by changing the parallax, by lens shift in the optical camera, by double punch holes on art-work, by moveable cut-outs in the art work, by frame stagger on the negative, and finally by frame-stagger plus lens shift.
Speaking of his method of producing hand-drawn sound with cards, McLaren admitted: “In general principle it is very little different from systems developed by Russian, Voinov and German, Rudolph Pfenninger. However, a number of refinements have been incorporated.”
Specifically, it consisted of a small boxful of several dozen long narrow cards. “The drawings Consist of a basic figure or simple shape, that is repeated over and over to form a patterned band. The figure may be no more than a white line on a dark ground or a simple gradation of tone from light to dark but, by virtue of its identical repetition it builds up into a series of sound waves having a definite tone value.”
Pitch was controlled by the number of repetitions, a low note requiring only four, while a very high note might Consist of 120. Using a ‘keyboard’ library of 60 cards, McLaren shot synthetically produced tracks for a number of films.
In 1952 McLaren animated human beings, making them move frame-by-frame in the manner of an animated puppet, supplementing the effect by filming real- time action using different Camera speeds. More recently, Benny Hill has adopted a similar approach for use in his television comedy series, but 35 years ago the idea was startling in its effectiveness. Neighbours, the first of two films made in this manner, won a coveted ‘Oscar’ in March 1953 for best documentary short. The other film was Two Bagatelles.
His contribution to the art of film making and in particular, these last two ‘pixilated’ films, won the hearts of a newly formed British amateur group devoted to the production of cartoon and experimental films, The Grasshopper Group. Conceived by John Daborn, originated in Walton-on-Thames, and meeting regularly at the Mary Ward Institute in the heart of London, the committee had no hesitation in electing Norman McLaren honorary president, a position he held for many years.
McLaren went to India in 1953 to teach audio-visual techniques for UNESCO. Indian music featured in his Chairy Tale (1957) with a sound track composed and played on a sitar by Ravi Shankar.
The Sixties saw a series of experiments with lines engraved directly on film with a stylus and ruler. Lines Vertical (1960) was followed by Lines Horizontal (1961). Mosaic (1965) combined both Vertical and Horizontal films in a printer with the resulting copy consisting of white dots where the lines crossed each other.
Ballet dancers were filmed by McLaren for Pas de Deux (1967), using a multiple image technique. He made two other ballet films, Ballet Adagio (1972), a slow motion study, and his final film before retirement in 1983, Narcissus, which tells a Greek myth with three dancers and numerous optical effects.
The National Film Board of Canada can be justly proud of their carefully nurtured fledgling who, in his lifetime, repaid their trust by defying conventional methods and initiating experiments more suited to the dawn of cinematography, rather than 50 years-on in the era of colour and sound. By turning doodling into a fine art, each new technique prompted the startled response, “Why didn’t I think of that?”, and for that reason alone, if for no other, Norman McLaren’s work is worthy of study by every serious amateur film-maker, and every perceptive professional. ‘While establishing his own tradition, he laid the foundation for the home of experimentation, the National Film Board of Canada. Long may it continue and long may Norman McLaren be remembered.
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Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)