The year 2017 marks three decades since the death of Norman McLaren, an artist who never made a feature-length film but received an Academy Award, a BAFTA and a Palme D’Or during his 50-year career. The diverse and extensive body of work that he left behind remains a masterclass in experimental cinema: McLaren utilised just about every form of animation available to him, and even invented some new ones too. Unconventional but playful, rarely has the avant-garde been so joyful to discover.
Trained at the Glasgow School of Art, McLaren was mentored by legendary documentary producer John Grierson, who brought him to the newly established National Film Board of Canada. There, he headed up an animation workshop and set about quietly revolutionising the medium. Some of the films were specific commissions — to remind Canadians to mail early for Christmas, for example, or to advertise war bonds — whereas others were simply abstractions of colour and sound. In every film, though, there is a signature freewheeling exuberance that identifies its maker beyond a doubt.
What characterises the McLaren touch? I can roughly highlight three aspects. First of all, there’s his painstaking analysis of the formats that he was working with. These include 2D animation, puppetry, dance, documentary and stop-motion. He even made films without using a camera — instead painting and drawing directly onto the film strip. Instead of producing a refined version of what had been done already, McLaren pushed the horizon of innovation further afield: his purpose was to exhaust the possibilities of each of these modes.
Consider the technique of pixilation, whereby live actors are filmed frame by frame as if they were stop-motion puppets. McLaren pioneered this technique with his masterpieces Neighbors and A Chairy Tale — both satirical tales that use pixilation’s whimsical register to disguise dark commentary on the nature of conflict. Pixilation bridges the gap between live-action filmmaking and animation — and even today, it still holds a sense of magic precisely because of this uncanny opening between the manufacture of the effect and how it’s received. In other words, there is a sense of watching the fantastic — a man flying, or changing clothes instantly, or producing objects from thin air — that it is possible, with observation and thought, to work out how the trick is done.
CGI has facilitated practically boundless worlds of marvel, but the mechanics of its construction remain a mystery to the majority of moviegoers. The process of the image is put at a remove, so while digital photorealistic landscapes may be rousing, they are rarely truly astonishing. McLaren’s technique draws upon the legacy of magicians like Georges Méliès, who saw cinema as an opportunity to bewilder precisely because the technology is conceivable and not in a sphere of inconceivable magic. The making of the film is in a relationship with its viewing; you’re supposed to “see the strings” and reflect upon process as well as product. This is the power of McLaren’s pixilation films: the impulse after watching them is to try making one for yourself.
Secondly, McLaren explored the relationship between sound and image on film in exhaustive terms. 1940s shorts like Hen Hop and Boogie Doodle are essentially animated dances to recorded music. Geometric shapes fly around the frame and temporarily morph into recognisable figures like chickens or love hearts. The 1949 masterpiece Begone Dull Care takes the same approach and hits upon a rapturous middle ground between precision and spontaneity. It uses a jazz piece by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and to make the film, McLaren would listen to the music and then draw his mental images onto the film strip. The speed of the images — frame by frame, note by note — replicates the interior experience of listening to jazz. Images flash by almost faster than one can consciously make sense of them, yet the rhythm and tempo of the piece unify it seamlessly.
Begone Dull Care is a scrappy experiment in visualising music, and it wonderfully debunks the myth that animation is a glacial, laborious process that eliminates accident or spontaneity. It’s made of blotches of paint and knife scratches — impulsive movements with an improvisatory materiality to them. To watch it is to be caught up in the subjective experience of sound and colour. It is a free-hand artist’s rendition of the sublime.
As well as visualising recorded music, McLaren experimented in “optical sound” — the process of drawing on the audio part of a film strip, so that original sounds can be generated in the same manner as the drawn visuals. These experiments culminated in Synchromy (1971), the most audacious and perfectly formed of McLaren’s films. It comprises shots of cards, the various sizes of which affect pitch and volume. The same cards are photographed onto the soundtrack strip of the film reel and onto the frame itself, so that sound and image are exactly reflective of one another. They are put together to create a melody, so that essentially McLaren is using the film material as a musical instrument. This is the sound/image experiment at its “purest” — there is no separation between the two, because one could not exist without the other.
Finally, there is the aspect of universality that underlines all of McLaren’s work. The films are, of course, accessible — the credits are often in several languages, and rarely rely on written language at all — but beyond this, there is a positioning of rhythm and movement as phenomena that don’t recognise cultural boundaries. McLaren’s desire to explore “pure” movement in animation didn’t lead him to the obscure alienation that typifies much of the avant-garde, but instead towards an attempt to speak the inclusive, international language of cinema. As a result, his films are playful and sometimes childlike in their structure.
This is why, in films like Canon (1964), the basic rules of musical structure can be simply laid out with actors and then anarchically toyed with to create humour. It will land with all audiences at a level that is no less sophisticated for being broadly resonant. McLaren was infinitely generous as a director. The technique is always transparent, and is therefore instructional — the audience is included in the experiment as observers. McLaren famously said that in the movie theatre, he would often find the scratches on the reel more interesting than the film’s story; he shares this fascination by opening up his interior responses to movement to see what he shares with viewers.
McLaren’s influence will continue to spread as long as filmmakers are willing to explore technologies in the spirit of curious generosity, as evidenced by Paul Johnson’s remarkable digital remake of Begone Dull Care. That film and others remain an inspiration for artists who aim to represent the subjective experiences which are common to everyone but exist beyond (or before) the purely figurative. A telling example is Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007). Pixar has helped shape the dominant animation style of our age, essentially affixing it to the conventions of live-action cinema. But when, in Ratatouille, the protagonist Remy describes his experience of tasting food, the use of music, colour and abstract shapes that appear on screen quite clearly pays homage to McLaren. It’s the perfect reflection of McLaren’s cinema: a shared non-visual experience rendered in a visual medium, at once incredible and deeply familiar.
Joel Blackledge is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in the UK. Say hi on Twitter at @thegreatdamfino.