Tribute to Norman McLaren

Internationally renowned animator Norman McLaren, who died on the 27th January 1987 at the age of 72, firmly believed in the efficacy of a limited budget to stimulate the imagination, writes Ken Clark.

Norman McLaren scorned the big budgets of more conventional productions, preferring the stripped down simplistic style he so ably exploited in his film Blinkerty Blank (1955), which consisted of one of the greatest number of totally black frames ever to form part of a visual entertainment.

He was innovator supreme; mime, motion and imagery a way of life. Not in similar fashion to Walt Disney who concentrated on the perfection of the eel-animated entertainment film, instead, McLaren returned to basics with a virgin strip of 35mm movie stock, exploring fresh possibilities with pen, Indian ink, razor blade, sewing needle, scraper, transparent inks on a sponge, roller or coarse woven cloth and a variety of stop-motion photographic effects, extending the boundaries of audio, visual and sensory perception.

Pas de deux.

There have always been innovators, but when you flip through the pages of Russett and Starr’s illustrated anthology of Experimental Animation, wherein McLaren merits a section to himself, many other celebrated exponents pay tribute to McLaren’s influence and to his versatility. Had he been lucky to be offered a position with the renowned GPO Film Unit? or, lucky to have been given so much freedom under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada? I think not! It took more than luck to attract the confidence of two such prestigious enterprises, McLaren had talent and drive.

Born in Sterling, Scotland in 1914, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art. At the age of 19 he became interested in cinematic abstraction, devoting all his spare time to film-making and organising film showings for a newly formed art school cine club. This gave him the opportunity to make his first live-action film Seven Till Fit’e, shcwing an art school day. The film proved a success making it easier for him to attract the backing he needed for a more ambitious production Camera Makes Whoopee, showing preparations for a student ball, in which he exploited all the known camera tricks together with many complex optical effects. Colour Cocktail shot on Dufaycolor marked his first real full-length abstract short.

Lack of money made him beg a worn-out 35 mm commercial print, he removed the emulsion and painted directly on to the clear celluloid with brush and coloured inks. On projection, the richly coloured abstract pat-terns took on a lively and fascinating new lease of life. It was McLarcn’s introduction to the ‘cameraless’ technique! The film was aptly titled Hand-Painted Abstraction.

A meat retail chain store commissioned him to make 5 x 200 foot live-action commercials for screening in shop windows, payment being the loan of the butcher’s camera. Helen Biggar teamed with him to work (in an anti-war film, a thought provoking amalgam of symbolism, actuality and animation.

His remarkable approach to film-making caught the eye of John Grierson when Seven Till Five and Camera Makes Whoopee were shown at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival, and McLaren accepted an open invitation to join the General Post Office Film Unit.


He began at the GPO Film Unit in late 1936, as an apprentice serving alongside Cavalcanti and Evelyn Cherry. He was with the group until 1939, rubbing shoulders with Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden and more significantly, Len Lye. Although he never actually worked with Lye they had much in common, they ran their colours and their hand-drawn cameraless animation the length of a strip of movie film, Lye with Colour Box and Trade Tattoo, McLaren in his publicity fantasy Love On The Wing.

Love On The Wing sported hand-drawn visuals using ordinary pen and ink, superimposed on backgrounds of photographed miniature model sets. Shot on Dufaycolor to the music of Jacques Ibert’s ‘Divertissement’, this half-reeler in particular, made him realize the advantages and the potential of its cameraless technique.

Between times, he was cameraman for Ivor Montagu’s Spanish Civil War documentary en titled Defence of Madrid.

Before leaving England he had begun to experiment with hand drawn sound. Another British filmmaker, Jack Elliot, had dispensed with photographic sound back in ‘33 drawing directly on to the film sound track. McLarens own tests produced a range of semi musical sound effects.

He directed his last British film, part animated part live-action, titled The Obedient Flame for the London Film Centre before moving to New York in 1939, where he made a short movie Christmas Card for NBC Television.

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