Terence Dobson – Norman McLaren Beyond 100

Norman McLaren was somewhat prescient when, as a young man, he said, “That’s it, that’s what I want to do, make movies […] That’s the art of the future” (McWilliams 1990). The question now is, how prescient can we be about the future of McLaren’s own films?

A Guide to the Future

A guide to how Norman McLaren’s films might fare in the future is how they have fared in the considerable time since they were made.[1] Throughout most of McLaren’s working life at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), the distribution emphasis was on his latest film, although compilation and retrospective screenings did occur, particularly as his films became widely known and he won awards. Additionally, the NFB’s distribution network included the provision of film prints for its various regional centres (as well, Canada’s diplomatic missions abroad held NFB collections, items from which were hired out). Social groups and educational institutions could (and did), of their own volition, select and screen films from McLaren’s back catalogue. Neighbours (1952), for example, was continuously in demand throughout this period, so much so that was not just the most screened McLaren film, it was the most popular film in the NFB’s entire repertoire (Evans 1990, p. 70).

Since McLaren’s death in 1987, the distribution and screening process has changed. Video, DVD and digital technology have increased the accessibility to McLaren’s films and has made more of them available. For a while after their death, an artist’s work normally declines in appeal – it tends to be seen as merely redolent of a time (the immediate past), which the present is trying to eclipse. Just the time when McLaren’s work was most vulnerable to this phenomenon, the video/DVD era emerged. McLaren’s films were kept before the public by the NFB’s inclusion of them on various compilation videos and DVDs. Importantly, in 1990, Don McWilliams’s documentary on Norman McLaren, The Creative Process, was released. It received screenings at various film and animation festivals around the world and, in either its long (2hrs) or short versions (1hr), it was broadcast on free-to-air international TV.[2] When the documentary was later released on DVD, it included a supplementary disc containing thirteen of McLaren’s films. The DVD package also included the McWilliams-assembled booklet On the Creative Process, containing McLaren’s own comments and reflections. In 2006, the NFB produced Norman McLaren: The Master’s Edition, a seven-disc DVD box-set containing all of McLaren’s existing films available, each film having been fastidiously restored.[3]  The set also contained fifteen specially-commissioned short documentaries on McLaren’s main filmic preoccupations (e.g., music, dance, surrealism), and an extensive number of tests and outtakes. In 2007, the book, The Film Work of Norman McLaren, was published. The activity continued – for example, in 2010, I was invited to tour New Zealand with programmes of McLaren’s films.

Artistically, a considerable number of films have referenced Norman McLaren’s work.  Two examples spring immediately to mind. For McLaren’s Negatives (2006), Marie-José St. Pierre adapted live-action footage which depicted McLaren to make a remarkable animated-documentary tribute, and Chris Landreth’s Oscar®-winning animated film, Ryan (2004), tells of former NFB animator Ryan Larkin’s predicament and contains due filmic reference to Larkin’s NFB mentor, Norman McLaren. These two films are among many animated films that have referenced or paid artistic homage to McLaren. The 2014 Annecy International Animation Festival provides additional evidence of the scope and frequency of such films. The Festival screened twenty-two further films that referenced McLaren and showcased them in three McLaren-tribute programmes the themes of which, Shapes, Now Dance and Odd Birds, indicate their thematic range while the wide variety of techniques used exemplifies McLaren’s own work. That every decade from the 1960s through to the 2010s is represented is indicative of the frequency of such work (L’officiel 2014, p. 301-11).

In summary, Norman McLaren’s work as well as his filmic ideas, has been kept before the public in this period. Why was this, and will it continue? The NFB has played a major role since McLaren was a very important part of the NFB’s output and profile while he was alive – he won the NFB’s first Oscar®, which brought with it much prestige and recognition for the NFB; and as well, as has already been mentioned, McLaren’s films were amongst the most popular in the NFB’s rental distribution. It has been in the NFB’s best interest to keep McLaren’s films current and promoted.

McLaren has also benefited from being a favoured son of Canada and of Britain (particularly Scotland). These two nations have seen McLaren as their own artist and have taken some pride in his achievements. They have also therefore sought to have his achievements recognized. Norman McLaren’s former colleagues have also been proactive – Don McWilliams and David Verrall at the NFB have both been instrumental in much of the NFB’s work in this area. There have also been special anniversaries, which have been used as a lever and which give a boost to the work in projecting McLaren. With Norman McLaren’s 2014 centenary there has been another burst of activity, with commemorative screenings, workshops and exhibitions from the NFB, in Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK.[4] As well, film festivals as far afield as Melbourne, Australia have included McLaren material.[5] Some of these will not continue indefinitely (colleagues will die out, major anniversaries will become sparse), but the NFB and the national interests will continue to benefit from McLaren’s films, which gives cause for optimism regarding their future distribution and promotion. In this regard, McLaren’s films have a healthy prognosis.

1) Time Specificity

Being widely recognised in its own time gives McLaren’s work historical value, but will it continue to resonate for its intrinsic values?  What factors would be likely to restrict an appreciation of McLaren’s films to their own era?

2) Technology

One of the major aspects of McLaren’s work that makes it time-specific is the technology he used.  Moreover, McLaren’s use of the film technology available to him is a defining characteristic of his film work. Indeed he used these technical challenges as catalysts in his film making. For example, the problem of keeping his clear film stock free of unwanted dust when he drew directly on his film stock, led directly to his use of intermittent images in Blinkity Blank (1955). He therefore decided to use black film stock so that dust marks and fingerprints would not show.  But the black film hid the frame boundaries so registering images from one frame to the next became almost impossible. McLaren’s solution was economical in the extreme: he decided to use only clusters of frames of say, four or five related images followed by a dozen or so blank (black) frames before another related cluster of images was used, and so on. That is how, and why, the stroboscopic movements of Blinkity Blank were produced.[6] Although being aware of this technical process in the film’s gestation can improve the understanding of the film, being unaware of this technical inspiration does not entail any diminished perception of the kinetic energy of this film. When I first saw Blinkity Blank I was, as most people, unaware of this technical aspect in its creation, yet I was still captivated by its almost bewildering, explosive succession of images. One could also talk about astounding accounts on the origins of Mosaic (1965) and the same conclusion would apply.[7] An ignorance of the other technical catalysts and methods in McLaren’s films does not necessarily reduce their aesthetic impact.

3) Themes

In some of his films, McLaren addressed specific issues of his day. A Chairy Tale (1957), for example, looks at exploitation; Neighbours was instigated by the Korean and Cold Wars; and Blinkity Blank has a theme of racial/cultural bigotry. However, McLaren expressed these issues in allegorical form. In A Chairy Tale, the exploited is simply a white chair that resists being sat upon,[8] while the escalating conflict in Neighbours is not between battalions of armed forces but between two men who are next-door-neighbours. One of the reasons for his use of allegory was to increase the intercultural understanding of his films, and indeed they were understood internationally. The allegorical form also enables such McLaren films to shed specific time placement. I can offer anecdotal evidence for this. A year or so ago, the Annecy Animation Festival screened a programme of animated films that espoused social themes. Judging by the paper darts flying around the auditorium, the audience was mainly of students (of animation, one presumes). They appreciated all the films screened, but, uniquely, at the conclusion of Neighbours the hall reverberated with enthusiastic and knowing applause – and Neighbours has more time specific cues than other McLaren issue-based films:  the neighbours’ clothes, hair styles, and pipes are redolent of western fashions of the early 1950s. Yet the allegory is so simple, direct and moving that its universality of space and time overwhelms the specificity of these cues. The type of chair in A Chairy Tale was also selected, by audition, to be culturally neutral, which means it is also less time specific. McLaren’s other post-World War II allegorical films such as Blinkity Blank, Pas de deux (1968) and Narcissus (1983), also deny cultural and therefore time specificity.

4) Music

In Norman McLaren’s films the aspect of music in a film’s durability is particularly important because of the central role music plays in his film work. McLaren often conceived his films in musical terms – the structures of his films frequently being borrowed from the musical form and as well, the music invariably provided not only the impetus but also on occasions was used as the source of the visuals. For McLaren, music was never an afterthought but always a considered and essential part of his film work, the sound image relationship being an element for McLaren to continuously exploit. Not only is music important, but it is also particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time. There are a number of reasons for this.

The fidelity of recording for film has improved immensely since McLaren first began making films. However, the ability to restore or re-engineer the sound track to current standards is possible, thus there remains only the aesthetic/moral decision of whether or not to re-engineer to what it is thought the original musical intention was. In this respect McLaren’s work is as exposed to the decisions of the restorer as any other recording of its era.[9]

Changes in musical taste are as inevitable as they are frequent. McLaren’s film work is somewhat protected by the immense musical range he adopted for his more than fifty films. The films vary from jazz to romantic, from improvised to cut-and-paste, from Indian to Bach, from folk to semi-aleatoric, from synthetic to orchestral. Within this range, some of McLaren’s musical genres will, in the future, be coming in as others are going out of vogue. For example, as lush orchestral scoring of works like Now is the Time (1952) loses favour, so the sparser music of films such as Lines: Vertical (1960) comes into favour. McLaren was not only protected by the wide range of musical styles and idioms that he used. The high calibre of the musicians and composers that supplied music for him provided a second insurance for McLaren. They represent the pinnacle of their respective areas: for instance, Jazz performer Oscar Peterson, Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, folk artist Pete Seeger, pianist Glenn Gould and of course the NFB’s own in-house composer Maurice Blackburn.

In many films – Dots (1940), Loops (1940), Neighbours, Rhythmetic (1956), and Mosaic (1965) are prominent examples – McLaren generated his own sound by making marks or photographing striations on the optical sound track of his film stock. The sounds produced, while possessing such traditional qualities as pitch and dynamics, have a timbre the like of which had never before been heard. The newness of these sounds gave them a fascinating uniqueness. However, in the years since McLaren first used these sounds, other methods of generating similar extraordinary sounds have been developed – these methods are typically electronic. Consequently, McLaren’s sounds no longer possess the complete lack of association that they originally did. Nevertheless, they remain apart from sounds generated by traditional musical instruments, including the voice. A further factor allows McLaren’s sounds to retain more than a degree of distinctiveness. We have become accustomed to seeing science fiction and space imagery accompanying these electronically-generated sounds. McLaren’s synthetic sound films differ. McLaren’s visuals that are associated with these sounds are distinctive and they are remote from the “science-fiction” imagery. They may be abstract hand-drawings, pixillated people, rebelling numbers or moving kaleidoscopic coloured points. The close relationship that McLaren gave to the visual and aural components of his films also works to his advantage. His music is thereby given a prominence, highlighting them and emphatically associating them with McLaren’s own visuals. The overall conclusion is that McLaren’s self-generated sound is thus able to retain much of its impact and is likely to continue to do so.

5) Mode

During his film making life, McLaren denied any connection between his films and static art. Despite this he later observed, “It is very difficult for the artist to escape the effects of the art that is going on around him. He’s usually part of the movement” (McWilliams 1990). That McLaren’s films are imbued with the spirit of their times is immediately evident on comparing the splashes and marks of 1949’s Begone Dull Care with the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock of the same era, or the hard-edge minimalism in Lines: Vertical with the geometric formalism of Robin Denny or Frank Stella, or the shimmering, eye-popping explosions of Mosaic with the contemporary optical vibrations of Brigit Riley’s canvases.

Norman McLaren’s films speak in and of their time of course, and as such are historical works, but do they have the ability to speak now and into the future?  I have regularly screened Pas de deux over some decades. Each time the audience, captivated by the flowing movement of overlapping imagery, sits in motionless silence until the last note dies away. The affect of the film is drawn invariably one of drawn breaths and goose-bumps. The conclusion is that McLaren’s films continue to speak and are readily appreciated. If they have this quality to move people, what would cause some future non-appreciation of this ‘reverberation’?  Elements of his films, such as shape, colour, and line, are made subservient by McLaren to what he believed was film’s most important quality: movement. He thus achieved his artistic ends primarily by his manipulation of movement.  This elemental kinetic appeal is the intrinsic quality possessed by McLaren’s films. In the course of movie history, audiences have become better able to comprehend and accept fast visual change through editing, and of movement within the frame.  Most of McLaren’s films engage in fast movements. It could be argued therefore, that his films would be better understood and appreciated in such a perceptual environment.  In many films including his slower-tempo ones, McLaren presented movement with an additional, intriguing twist which initially may disrupt but always ultimately enhances the movement – for example he used a blur, a multiplication, a metamorphosis, zoom mixes or intermittent imagery.  With greater empathy or understanding of pace and movement, the perception of McLaren’s fast films can be enhanced while his slow-paced films have additional enhancing visual elements.

6) Newness

Norman McLaren wanted his art to be fresh, new. These were for him, attractive features. That his films were fresh and new when he made them is undeniable. Through repeated screenings of his films and as others adopted his innovations, these qualities of freshness and newness may be expected to be diluted. Under these circumstances would McLaren’s works retain their value?  This can be gauged by his films’ ability to in fact withstand the decay caused by repeated viewings. The freshness in a McLaren film would be evident on the initial viewing, but after seeing the film a few times, this freshness would be expected to diminish. Does the film retain a wonder or interest?  In other words, do McLaren’s films engender a wish to see them a second time? Increased familiarity with the films may cause the newness to fade, the surprises to diminish, but another quality is introduced, that of anticipation. An example that springs to mind is the change from the penultimate and slow section in Begone Dull Care to the frantic, frenzied movement of the final section. Knowing, and anticipating this thrilling moment in the film is an added pleasure. In Neighbours, although the shock is reduced, the horror at the families’ fate is increased by being aware of what is about to unfold. Newness may fade but for McLaren’s films, an added quality of anticipation emerges in its place.

Conclusion

Institutions around the world such as the British Film Institute, the USA’s Iota Center and the Center for Visual Music, as well as the National Film Board of Canada, will help to ensure that McLaren’s films will be preserved and will be distributed and seen in future years. Developments in technology are likely to further enable individual viewers to avoid the restrictions entailed in cinematic or television distribution. With this freedom though there exists the problem creating a general awareness of the existence of McLaren’s films. In this, there is a further encouraging sign. At the first Society for Animation Studies conference in Los Angeles in 1989, I delivered the one and only McLaren paper. I was also the only presenter on McLaren the following year in Ottawa. At the Society’s 2014 conference there were no fewer than ten papers on McLaren presented.[10] Even allowing that 2014 celebrates the McLaren centenary, this wealth of papers is a strong indication that McLaren’s work will also thrive as critical entities. The growth in Animation Studies, and the recognition of figures such as McLaren who are being seen as the core of the medium’s canon, are among the reasons for the wealth of work on McLaren.[11] This in turn will help to keep McLaren’s films on the curriculum of educational institutions, and in the minds of Film and Animation Festival curators. These are logical and evidential reasons for seeing a healthy future for McLaren’s films.

To conclude, let us go back to the future. At the age of 18, McLaren wrote an essay on how art would be in 2066. He envisaged it would be “gloom proof.” Of his own films he said: “Well, I don’t know, I just would like to be remembered for having made some films which have touched people greatly, or melted them or moved them in some way, or excited them” (in McWilliams 1991, p. 54).  If McLaren’s films are future-proof and are still around and being seen, as this paper has suggested they will be, then life in 2066 certainly will be a lot less gloomy.

Dr. Terence Dobson teaches film animation in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and researches the relationship between film, visual art and music.

References

The Animator: The 26th Society for Animation Studies Annual Conference, (2014) SAS: Toronto, July.

The Creative Process: Norman McLaren. (1990) Dir. Don McWilliams, NFB.

Dobson, Terence. (2006)  The Film Work of Norman McLaren. John Libbey: Eastleigh.

—. (2014) “Norman McLaren: a late great animator now drawing applause.” The Conversation, Melbourne, June. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/norman-mclaren-a-late-great-animator-now-drawing-applause.

—. (1990) Personal Interview with Evelyn Lambart, Sutton, Quebec,  31 October.

Evans, Gary. (1990)  In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada, 1949-1989. Unpublished manuscript.

L’Officiel: Festival International du Film Animation. (2014) Annecy France: CITIA, June.

McLaren, Norman. (1977) “Interview.” Norman McLaren: Exhibition and films. Scottish Arts Council: Edinburgh.

McLaren 2014. (2014) Edinburgh: Centre for the Moving Image/NFB.

McWilliams, Don, ed. (1991)  Norman McLaren On the Creative Process. NFB: Montreal.


NOTES

[1] As of 2014, it has been 33 years since Norman’s last film was released, 75 years since his first professional film was completed and over 80 years since his first films were made.

[2] For example, it was broadcast in Canada by the CBC, in Britain, the BBC, and in Australia on SBS.

[3] These are the 3D films, Around is Around (1951) and Now is the Time (1951), which required special viewing conditions. To these could be added Ivor Montagu’s Defence of Madrid (1936) for which McLaren was cameraman, but the copyright of which was not held by the NFB.

[4] Both Canada and the UK even issued commemorative McLaren postage stamps in 2014. The UK honour was particularly apt as, at the beginning of his career McLaren had worked for the GPO (British Post Office) Film Unit making the air mail fantasy film Love on the Wing (1938). The Centre for the Moving Image in partnership with the NFB set up “McLaren 2014,” which organized McLaren exhibitions in Stirling and Edinburgh, and also McLaren screenings and workshops in most major UK cities during 2014. See: McLaren 2014, Edinburgh: Centre for the Moving Image/NFB, 2014.

[5] See Terence Dobson (2014).

[6] McLaren (1977) describes this process in “Interview,” p. 32

[7] See Terence Dobson, The Film Work of Norman McLaren Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2006, 178-181.

[8] It was probably NFB producer Tom Daley who commented during the making of A Chairy Tale that making the exploitation theme too specifically-aimed by painting the chair black would not be a good idea. Evelyn Lambart, personal interview (1990), Sutton, PQ, 31 October. McLaren had of course already chosen, for artistic and internationalist, reasons to make the chair white – black was necessary as a background to ensure that the lines moving the chair would be less visible, so foreground objects, people or objects, would therefore be white, and white was seen as a common colour of dress internationally.

[9] The 2014 sound restoration of McLaren’s 3D films Now is the Time and Around is Around may serve as a model – the sound is clear yet has retained its original 1950s qualities of a rich vivacity and swing.

[10] See the programme book for the Society of Animation Studies 26th Annual Conference, The Animator: The 26th Society of Animation Studies Annual Conference Toronto: SAS, June 2014, 22.

[11] There are a number of further books on McLaren in preparation. We are looking forward to seeing a book on McLaren from the Scottish perspective by Nichola Dobson, on McLaren and movement from Alanna Thain and one on McLaren’s context from Crystal Chan.

© Terence Dobson

Edited by Amy Ratelle

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