About Norman McLaren

Norman McLaren was a world renowned film maker, a genius of the moving image famous for his innovative and prolific animated experiments. Many of his short films won International Film Festival Awards, including the Academy Award (Oscar) for 1952’s NEIGHBOURS. He has influenced artists, filmmakers and musicians, from Picasso and Truffaut to Lucas and Linklater.

Norman McLaren © National Film Board of Canada
Born in Stirling, Scotland, on the 11th of April 1914, McLaren went on to study Interior Design at The Glasgow School of Art during the 1930’s; his enthusiasm for film grew as a member of the student Kinecraft Society. After gaining recognition at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival, McLaren was employed by the General Post Office Film Unit where his discipline as a film maker was forged. After a brief period living in New York at the dawn of World War II, McLaren immigrated to Canada where he was invited to found the Animation Department of the burgeoning National Film Board of Canada, itself celebrating 75 years in 2014. His philosophy of animation as an art of personal expression was to have an enormous influence on animation universally. Norman McLaren died on January 26th 1987 aged 72.

Biography of McLaren by Don McWilliams, Filmmaker, Consultant for the National Film Board of Canada and McLaren 2014 Principal Artistic Consultant:



Beginnings in Scotland

Norman McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland, on April 11, 1914. As a high school student, he developed a particular interest in painting. At the age of 18, he entered the Glasgow School of Art to study interior design, but he did not earn a diploma. His enthusiasm for student filmmaking prevented him from completing assignments. Although he was a moviegoer, it was not until McLaren was at the art school and joined a film society and saw the Russian films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin that cinema took a new place for him in the cultural hierarchy. That was 1934.

I thought what a great medium! It was exciting and I said if you can do that, why bother with drawing and painting. They’ve been around for two thousand years at least, but here is a new art, just begun, which is the art of today – and painting is the art of the past.

Norman McLaren

In the same year, McLaren saw an abstract film by Oscar Fischinger, the German animator, which was also a revelation for him. McLaren used to see abstractions in his mind as he listened to music. With film, he realized he could make these abstractions visible. His mind was made up and he joined a newly formed filmmaking club at the art school. He became the mainspring of this club, and he displayed an original and indefatigably energetic talent which, apparently, ran his co-workers off their feet. His student films were mainly live-action; he was fascinated by the movie camera and sought to exploit it to its maximum. His films were Seven Till Five (with Bill MacLean and Stewart McAllister), a documentation of the day’s activities at the art school; Camera Makes Whoopee (with the same duo), an account of the preparation for, and the actual annual student ball; Hell Unlimited (with Helen Biggar), an anti-war film, a melange of live action and drawn and object animation. This film, full of the heat of idealistic youth, became celebrated outside the amateur film community. He also made three experimental films, Polychrome Phantasy, Colour Cocktail and Hand-painted Abstraction (with Stewart McAllister). The last two were first attempts to use film for abstract motion. Hand-painted Abstraction was also McLaren’s first essay into painting directly on the surface of the film stock. He also made five live-action advertising shorts for a local butcher in exchange for the loan of the butcher’s camera. Most of these student films were entered in the annual Scottish Amateur Film Festival. At one of those festivals, John Grierson was a judge. Recognizing McLaren’s undoubted talent, he offered him a job at the British General Post Office Film Unit where, he told McLaren, he would teach him the discipline of filmmaking as well as technique.

London at the GPO 1936 - 1939

McLaren was at the GPO from the autumn of 1936 until 1939, when he moved over to Film Centre, also in London. In those three years, McLaren made “nuts and bolts” documentaries, thereby learning the craft of filmmaking. Two films from that period are significant. The first was Love on the Wing. This was drawn directly on raw film stock frame-by-frame with pen and ink. It demonstrated two discoveries McLaren had made in London. One was the technique of metamorphosis in the films of French animator Emil Cohl. The second was surrealism. Love on the Wing, therefore, is the joyous expression of a young artist, a continuous transforming animation of his subconscious thoughts. And, incidentally, the film promotes the use of the airmail. The second film was one not directed by McLaren. Shortly after going to London, he went to Spain to be the cameraman for Ivor Montagu’s Defence of Madrid. This Spanish Civil War experience left an indelible mark on McLaren’s social conscience and he became a pacifist.

Ravi Shankar & Norman McLaren  © National Film Board of Canada

The New York Period

In late 1939, he immigrated to the USA. In New York, McLaren found life economically difficult; yet artistically it was fruitful. He made nine short hand-drawn films. The first, shortly after his arrival, was a moving Christmas Card from NBC Television to its viewers. Baroness Von Rebay, the perceptive curator of the Museum of Non-Objective Art (later the Guggenheim) took McLaren under her wing and subsidized the making of some of these films - Dots, Loops, Scherzo, Stars and Stripes and Boogie Doodle. For the first three, the sound was also hand-drawn over a range of three octaves. McLaren had experimented with hand-drawn sound at the GPO. He had found accidentally that by making marks with pen and ink on the soundtrack area of the film, he could make music. The placing of patterns on the soundtrack area was one of the earliest methods of making “electronic music”; and Norman was only one of several such pioneers in several countries. He would assiduously pursue this method of making music (which he called animated sound) and developed two systems, one by drawing or scratching directly on the film; and the second by photographing patterns onto the soundtrack area. He would, with great sophistication, use this musical system right up until the end of his career with the 1983 film Narcissus.

Three other New York films were NBC Valentine Greeting and Happy Birthday for Solomon Guggenheim and Spook Sport. The first was made “on spec,” but NBC did not buy it. The NFB released it for its historical interest in 1985. The second was a hand-drawn greeting, which was projected as part of the celebration of Guggenheim’s 80th birthday. Mary Ellen Bute, the American animator, saw McLaren’s hand-drawn films in New York and she hired him to execute the animation by the direct-on method for her film Spook Sport.

McLaren Comes to Canada - The War Years

In October of 1941, McLaren emigrated to Canada to rejoin John Grierson at the recently founded National Film Board of Canada, of which Grierson was the head. Shortly after arriving, he did a hand-drawn publicity film, Mail Early. During the remainder of the war, McLaren made five films directly related to the war effort, all but one, Keep your Mouth Shut, drawn directly frame-by frame. In these films—V for Victory, Five for Four, Hen Hop and Dollar Dance—he refined his hand-drawing technique. Dollar Dance is notable for its sustained, metamorphic line animation; Hen Hop is a grand solo performance by the creature that became a McLaren trademark; V for Victory is probably McLaren’s simplest film graphically. It is centred on a marching stick figure and probably epitomizes best McLaren’s ability to make his hand-made films appear simple enough for anyone to do.

A year after his arrival in Canada, McLaren was asked to found an animation department. This he did and taught his young recruits his philosophy of animation.

I have tried to preserve in my relationship to the film, the same closeness and intimacy that exists between a painter and his canvas… and so my militant philosophy is this: to make with a brush on canvas is a simple and direct delight – to make with a movie should be the same.

Norman McLaren

The view of animation as an art of personal expression, even within the context of an institution, was to have an enormous influence on animation universally. It is no exaggeration to say that the National Film Board, through the vision of Grierson and McLaren, has played no small part in the worldwide development of both documentary and animation cinema.

His responsibilities as animation head and maker of films for the war effort did not stop McLaren making films of a more personal, non-war related nature. In Là-haut sur ces montagnes, he used for the first time a chain-of-mixes (chiaroscuro) on a pastel-drawn landscape. The idea for such a technique had been planted by seeing Alexandre Alexeieff’s Night on Bare Mountain in the late thirties. McLaren also made C’est l’aviron in a technique he invented, the travelling (overlapping) zoom, which gave the impression of always travelling down a river. Other filmmakers took up this technique, most notably Stanley Kubrick in the Stargate sequence of 2001. Là-haut and L’aviron were folk songs and part of a series of such films that McLaren had initiated at Grierson’s behest. He also made, with René Jodoin, his first essay into paper cut-outs, Alouette, as part of that series.

Right at the end of the war McLaren made another metamorphic pastel film, A Little Phantasy on a 19th Century Painting. He had been asked to make it for inclusion in a documentary related to the war. When the war ended, that documentary was shelved; but McLaren’s contribution was released in 1946.

1946 - 1949

Once the war was behind him, McLaren flung himself into his personal filmmaking. Between 1946 and 1949, he completed four films. Hoppity-Pop was another direct-on film in which he treated the film frame as a triptych. With Fiddle-de-dee, however, McLaren broke new ground. He returned to his experiments begun at art school where he used the clear film stock as a canvas to paint on. In all his hand-drawn films, McLaren had developed simple imagery frame-by-frame. In hand-painting, he ignored the frame line. Fiddle-de-dee is a frameless painting with some frame-by-frame drawing, inspired by fiddle music. Begone Dull Care is, however, an almost totally frameless film – an explosion of colour moving to the piano jazz of Oscar Peterson, and it stands as one of McLaren’s masterworks. La Poulette Grise is another metamorphic pastel film, but the first that McLaren did in colour. It is drawn to an old French lullaby and again features a hen, this time a peaceful one, unlike the spuddling character in Hen Hop.

In 1949, McLaren went to China for UNESCO to teach audiovisual methods to Chinese artists and witnessed the revolutionary change to a communist regime.

Norman McLaren filming Neighbours © 1952 National Film Board of Canada

The Fifties

Immediately after his return from China in the summer of 1950, McLaren was asked to do two 3-D films for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Around is Around was based on imagery filmed by Chester Beachall from an oscilloscope, and Now is the Time was a combination of a hand-drawn figure in a world of paper cut-out clouds. Now is the Time had a card photographed music track, which was presented in eight-track wrap-around sound at the Festival. This was the first time McLaren has used his method of photographing patterns directly onto the soundtrack area. This new method gave him a chromatic range of five octaves and more tonal possibilities.

Neighbours, 1952, was a direct consequence of McLaren's experiences in China and his feelings about the Korean War. The film was made in the technique McLaren called pixillation and which he had first seen used in French trick films from the early days of cinema. McLaren took the technique to new levels of virtuosity. Human beings were animated frame by frame like cartoon characters and performed impossible feats. This anti-war parable about two men who fight over a flower became McLaren’s most celebrated film and won an Academy Award (Oscar) in 1953. Its soundtrack was card-animated music. McLaren quickly released a further little pixillation film, Two Bagatelles. In the same year, 1952, McLaren completed Phantasy, which was a combination of additive-subtractive pastel animation, metamorphic pastel chain-of-mixes and cut-outs. This film had been begun prior to leaving for China. The music was composed by Maurice Blackburn and was a combination of saxophone and photographed animated sound. In 1953, McLaren went to India to teach audiovisual methods for UNESCO. In 1955, McLaren returned to hand-made cinema with Blinkity-Blank; but this time not by drawing or painting on clear film. He scratched the images with razor blades and needles on to black film and then hand-coloured the resultant “etching.” The music was again by Maurice Blackburn – semi-improvised, to which McLaren added some hand-scratched rhythms.

In 1959, McLaren made three more etched films – the mostly figurative Short and Suite, the totally abstract Serenal on 16 mm film (with an electric vibra-drill) and Mail Early for Christmas.

During the second half of the fifties, McLaren would also do three films with paper cut-outs. Rythmetic (with Evelyn Lambart) was an arithmetic game film for children; Le Merle, a folk song, featured the only white blackbird in creation losing and regaining his body parts on a travelling colour-pastel background; Wonderful World of Jack Parr (with Evelyn Lambart) were the titles and credits for a NBC television program.

In 1957, McLaren and Claude Jutra made Chairy Tale, which was another live action trick film. Technically more sophisticated than Neighbours, it also included manipulation of a chair with strings (as though it were a puppet). McLaren introduced the then strange Indian music to a larger Western public by having Ravi Shankar, Chatur Lal and Modu Mullick improvise music for the soundtrack. McLaren (with Arthur Lipsett) made another trick film – Opening Speech in 1961, in which he himself welcomed the audience to the Montreal Film Festival despite a recalcitrant microphone. A year later, McLaren, Jodoin, Ron Tunis and Kaj Pindal made a silent film, New York Lightboard, which was shown on a large open-air electric signboard in Times Square and which invited tourists to visit Canada. New York Lightboard Record was just that – a record of New York pedestrians’ reaction to the highly original hand-drawn, flip book and cut-out animation.

The Sixties

In 1960, with Evelyn Lambart, McLaren created Lines Vertical. In this, vertical lines only were animated by engraving directly with a stylus and a ruler onto black film; in 1962, these same lines were turned optically 90o to become Lines Horizontal. In 1965, Mosaic was produced from a combination of Vertical and Horizontal; white-line-on-black background copies of both films were printed in contact with each other, revealing only small dots at the intersections of the moving vertical and horizontal lines. McLaren and Lambart then coloured the dots optically. McLaren also exploited flicker, which he had first tried in the wartime film Keep Your Mouth Shut. McLaren’s animation had almost always had an animal-like quality in its motion, regardless of the degree of abstraction. The Lines films and Mosaic were McLaren’s stepping into pure movement and minimalist animation– free of any animalistic references. Each film was coloured and scored differently. Blackburn improvised for Vertical on an electric piano; Horizontal was composed and performed with over-dubbing by Pete Seeger, the American folk musician, on twelve instruments. For Mosaic, McLaren did the music himself by engraving directly onto the soundtrack area and with Ron Alexander, the sound mixer, manipulated the sound with reverberation in the re-recording.

In 1964, McLaren and Grant Munro made a semi-didactic movie about music. This was Canon, a partly animated, partly live-action film on the principles behind a musical canon. NFB composer Eldon Rathburn provided the canon for two of its three sections.

In 1969, McLaren released Spheres, which had been originally shot in 1948. He and René Jodoin had animated metal cut-outs superimposed on panning and travelling pastel backgrounds.

Norman McLaren filming Narcissus © 1983 National Film Board of Canada Photo Credit:Ron Diamond

1970 - 1983 

Synchromy, 1971, was the logical conclusion to all McLaren’s experiments in animated sound. He photographed sound card patterns onto the soundtrack area; and the visuals were the same patterns, multiplied and coloured. This meant that one sees what one hears.

Pinscreen, 1973, was a documentary of Alexandre Alexieff and Claire Parker demonstrating the use of their unique pinscreen for animation in chiaroscuro. The occasion was the presentation by Alexieff and Parker of a pinscreen to the NFB. Alexeieff and Parker had made Night on Bare Mountain on a pinscreen. During the years 1974 to 1978, McLaren and Munro made five films for students in animation. These films demonstrated the principles of Animated Motion.

Between 1967 and his retirement in 1983, McLaren made three films with ballet dancers. Pas de deux, 1968, employed a multiple image technique to tell the story of a young woman’s awakening to love; Ballet Adagio, 1972, was a slow motion study of a pas de deux, and in Narcissus, his swan song, McLaren, with three dancers and many optical effects, recounted the Greek myth. Pas de deux, Neighbours and Begone Dull Care were McLaren's three favourites amongst his films.

McLaren in Retirement 

Following his retirement from the NFB in 1983, McLaren turned away from filmmaking. He did, however, completely revise the technical notes for his films. During his career, McLaren received continuous inquiries from the public and other filmmakers about his films and his techniques. So he got into the habit of writing technical notes and these were an efficient and speedy method of replying to these questions. McLaren asked me to write this career biography to accompany the revised technical notes. His only other filmmaking activity was his appearance in 1986 as interviewee and performer in Creative Process: Norman McLaren, which I directed. Aside from gardening, swimming and reading, McLaren's main retirement activity was the rekindling of an interest of the 1940s: stereo painting and drawing. He made several experiments for large-scale colour stereo works, primarily with cut-outs; and had an enthusiastic correspondence with stereo artists in California. McLaren died on January 27, 1987 at the age of 72.

Donald McWilliams