Norman McLaren

One of the biggest names in the history of documentary filmmaking was John Grierson (1898-1972), a Scotsman who championed film as mass communication with a high potential for social education. Grierson founded two major national organizations for film production: the Empire Marketing Board film unit in Britain in 1930 (later called the General Post Office film unit) and the National Film Board of Canada in 1939. Both of these organizations went on to produce landmark documentaries and short films for many years.

One of the filmmakers Grierson invited to join the NFB was a fellow Scotsman, Norman McLaren (1914-1987). McLaren had been an art student who had made his first film at the age of 19; Grierson had initially hired him for the GPO, where he specialized in creating animation. At the NFB, McLaren eventually formed an entire animation studio that produced some of the most acclaimed experimental works of the following decades.

Thankfully, Milestone Films has recently released a restored collection of 14 McLaren short films in a handsome 2-disc DVD set that includes the feature-length documentary Creative Process: Norman McLaren (1990) as well as an informative 100-page booklet that contains a thematic breakdown of the documentary, additional quotes, and technical notes for each of McLaren’s works. He utilized a wide range of techniques, including traditional cel and paper animation, cutouts, object animation, pixillation, and even “cameraless” works drawn directly on film. (And like the Criterion Collection’s release of Stan Brakhage’s work, the DVD medium offers a particularly useful opportunity for frame-by-frame analysis of these films.) Although a more comprehensive DVD set of McLaren’s career is reportedly being released soon in Japan, this North American release provides an excellent introduction to his work. The Milestone set (which can be ordered directly from them) has also been released in the UK by the British Film Institute.

Watching the collection is a tremendously varied and engaging experience, from the abstract and playful color antics and jazz score of Boogie-Doodle (1940) to the “live-action” story of a man attempting to sit in a reluctant chair in A Chairy Tale (1957) to McLaren’s “line” films (1960-’62) composed of moving lines that oscillate back-and-forth across the screen in rhythmic patterns.

In the documentary, McLaren comes across as a soft-spoken and reflective artist, dedicated to spending weeks in his studio exploring new graphical directions and effects. He was highly influenced by music and dance and his musings are sprinkled with cinematic references, like these two:

In any art movement, the art has to move into a new phase–a filmmaker has a desire to make a film that is not like a previous film. Film is changing, and it can’t help but keep changing. I don’t know whether it ever comes back to the same thing; it does return to the spirit of a previous period in some way, but it’s different, it’s new. Take a film of Jacques Tati like Mon Oncle which has something quite new–for me, unique–in it. So people will come along and do new things and sometimes return to the spirit of an earlier age. The process of art evolving is always one which has fascinated me. (1970)

I like black and white films. I don’t exactly know why–probably because there is a stylization which is removed from actual life, unlike a color film. Unless it’s done superbly, as in the Japanese film Gate of Hell, color can be a very distracting element. (1971)

Although McLaren’s career was much more experimental than Grierson’s, he maintained a dialectic between social responsibility and self-absorption. His film with his most direct social content, Neighbors (1952), won an Academy Award for its parable-like depiction of two men fighting to the death over a flower that appears directly on the border between their two properties. In 1954, he wrote, “The good moral work of art should have all the qualities that a good amoral work of art should have, such as formal unity, balance, contrast, and a sensitivity to the material out of which it is made. But it has, in addition, an even more precious quality–a consciousness of the human intelligence, the human spirit and that man is a social creature.”