Memories of Norman McLaren

On April 1, the Canadian High Commission in London paid tribute to Norman McLaren, one of the world’s great animators, who died earlier this year, writes Brian Sibley.

There was nothing surprising in this, since McLaren’s innovative work for the National Film Board of Canada not only received international acclaim, it achieved a far- reaching influence on the art of animation.

What did surprise me, somewhat, was the choice of wording on the invitation: ‘An Evening with Norman McLaren’. That, however, was what it turned out to be, with many of McLaren’s friends and colleagues gathering to remember a gentle man with an extraordinary genius for communication through movement, sound and colour. There was also a selection of some of McLaren’s finest film work, including: Boogie Doodle, Hen Hap, Begone Dull Care, The Blackbird, Pas de Deux and the 1952 Oscar-winning Neighbours.

Norman McLaren with Grant Munro.

It was most appropriate, therefore, that the evening’s special guest was Grant Munro, the animator and filmmaker who also played one of the two hostile neighbours in McLaren’s simple but powerful allegory on war.

Munro had first met McLaren in 1944, when an interview was arranged for him by a college tutor. McLaren offered Grant Munro a job with the Film Board as a title artist. At first Munro was reluctant to accept what he assumed would be boring, repetitive work. He told McLaren he could do lettering, but he didn’t want to make it his career. McLaren could have been forgiven for having terminated the interview, but instead he attempted to fire the young Munro with enthusiasm, suggesting he might care to animate titles in clay or pipe-cleaners or sand… ‘Or salt?’ asked Monro. ‘Or salt!’ replied McLaren.

A synthetic sound track - there are two notes side-by-side. The note nearer the sprockets is higher.

So Munro joined the NFBC and the second film for which he designed the titles was entitled Salt from the Earth, the letters of which he carved from a block of rock salt.
Munro had several memories of McLaren’s lack of knowledge in worldly affairs. When Neighbours won an Oscar, McLaren was in Brazil and so was notified by telegram. Back came his simple reply: ‘What’s an Oscar?’

On another occasion, McLaren was due to attend an event at which he would meet Mr and Mrs Arthur Miller and couldn’t understand why so many people seemed to be showing interest in this forthcoming meeting. Finally, someone explained:

‘Norman, Mrs Arthur Miller is Marilyn Monroe!’ ‘Oh, I see,’ replied McLaren, understanding at last, ‘A relative of yours, Grant?’

Speaking of Norman McLaren s recent death, Grant Munro said how moved he and his colleagues at the NFBC had been by the tributes that had poured in from animators all over the world, and quoted the telegram received from Marcus Magalhaes of Brazil (who studied under McLaren at the NFBC):

‘Norman McLaren you are alive. Your heart is beating 24 times each second. To teach us how simple and beautiful an illusion life can be. We will be listening to you for ever.’

How appropriate then that they had called it ‘An Evening with Norman McLaren’.

Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)