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Spontaneous frames of movement.


WHEN CANADIAN FILMMAKER Norman McLaren died in 1987, the world of animated cinema lost both its technological pioneer and its conceptual pathbreaker. He left behind sixty films, two hundred international prizes, dozens of innovative techniques and countless audiences over the globe all deeply touched by his universal language of movement, image and sound.

"I never use speech in my films," he said. "I'd feel it an intrusion of an alien kind." Indeed, it was McLaren's genius to give pure abstraction--lines, squiggles, smears and splashes--a human face, to turn the non-objective image, whether a dancing red dash or a blushing blue dot, into a living being with instantly recognizable feelings and values.

Born in Scotland in 1914, McLaren moved to Canada at the age of twenty-seven to found the Animation Department at the National Film Board, that unique federal institution charged with "interpreting Canada," in the widest creative and communicative sense, to both Canadians and foreigners abroad. There is no doubt that McLaren was successful, for his name still comes up when people from Montreal to Monterrey and Mendoza talk about Canadian cinema.

McLaren proved so adept at communicating across cultures that he was invited by UNESCO to design simple teaching materials for health and sanitation projects in China and India. Throughout his life, whether making instructional films about cooking with gas, buying savings bonds, or mailing early for Christmas, he could always be counted upon to cast an aesthetic eye upon the merely mundane. The complete antithesis of a big organization man like Walt Disney, to whom he was often mistakenly compared, McLaren eschewed extensive planning, fancy equipment, and assembly line production in favor of spontaneous creativity, simple tools and intense collaboration. Some of McLaren's greatest films run barely three minutes, made at a single workbench without camera or microphone.

From the earliest age McLaren was moved by the principles of synaesthesia, the experience of all the senses melding into one. As a boy he listened to music on the radio and, closing his eyes, imagined forms and colors "jumping, leaping, wobbling, squirming." Later he collected smells by filling test tubes with odoriferous tinctures and setting them in specific sequences in order to simulate melody.

At the Glasgow School of Art, he painted visual interpretations of Debussy's musical suite "L' Apres Midi d'un Faun," itself based on the Mallarme poem. However, he opted to major in interior design because it allowed him more room to innovate--one of his projects was for a synaesthetic cocktail bar where colors, tastes and odors blended into one coherent experience.

While in art school he first saw films by the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, known for his dreamlike intercutting between multiple points of view, as well as the trick and animated films by the early French experimenters Emile Cohl and George Melies. McLaren soon switched his creative energy to cinema--the only art form other than dance, with which he was equally smitten, which combined sound, movement, image and color. Later attempts to bring scent into this equation met with humorous failure.

A talented painter and draftsman himself, McLaren felt conventional painting and drawing were dying arts, although he continued to practice both and revered the immediacy of their creative act. About his frustration with filmmaking's inherent delays, he said, "it's all a matter of not letting the complexities get you down. I try to maintain in my relationship with the film the same level of intimacy as exists between a painter and his canvas."

Without a camera or money for fresh film stock, for his first project he bought a worn-out 35mm print from a local movie house, washed off the color emulsion in his bathtub, and hand painted color abstractions directly onto the celluloid--an immediate, tactile approach he employed time and time again. "If I don't like what I've done," he explained, "I can wipe it out with a damp cloth and begin again."

"Handmade cinema," McLaren said, "is like watching thought, if thought could be seen." But he also credited spontaneous inspiration for his best work, claiming that he never planned more than five seconds ahead. If one of my images is a failure," he explained, "I know my consciousness entered into it and messed it up." When asked the purpose behind his films, he replied, "To give the intellect a rest."

Even technical mistakes and serendipitous accidents became a source of inspiration for this master of the improvised. Light flashes caused by an improperly closed camera, scratches made by an ill-adjusted projector, a freshly painted film strip speckled with dust when dropped on the floor--for McLaren, all were opportunities rather than disasters.

His first student film, "Seven Till Five," a day-in-the-life study of his art school, was followed by "Camera Makes Woopee," about a school dance orchestra with self-playing instruments. For this he used a stop-action animation technique, in which the camera shoots an object one frame at a time. Between shots it is ever so slightly moved, to give an impression of self-propulsion.

Fellow Scotsman John Grierson, a founding father of documentary film, saw McLaren's early work and invited him to join the British Post Office's Film Unit. There he had access for the first time to experienced mentors and good equipment. Even though he was ordered to make informational films about such ordinary things as the telephone directory and airmail service, he still found ample room for experimentation.

His airmail promotion film, entitled "Love on the Wing," had whimsically handpainted images--a lock and key, fork and spoon, and moth and flame--dance suggestively together through a landscape inspired by McLaren's favorite surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. The British Postmaster General found the work "too Freudian," so "Love on the Wing" was not widely seen until it later became an underground landmark.

But whimsy was just half of McLaren's personality. Social consciousness was the prominent other. He had first flirted with communism while in his teens and visited the Soviet Union for an arts festival, where he was smitten by the social idealist aims of abstract constructionism. He eventually evolved into a staunch pacificist, however. This tenet underscored, subtly at times and other times quite directly, everything in his life and work to come. "I have sympathy for things that are sat upon," was his succinct rationale.

His 1936 independently produced film "Hell Unlimited," an Eisenstein-inspired critique of the world armaments trade, was shown in churches to promote the pacificist cause. In November of that year he worked as cameraman on "Defence of Madrid," a newsreel documentary about the Spanish Fascist bombing of loyalist civilians, which helped raise money for the International Red Cross.

Seeing the approach of World War II and fearing an order to turn out pro-British propaganda films, in 1939 McLaren emigrated to New York. There he made seven short abstract films commissioned by the Guggenhiem Museum which earned him $100 apiece. On these he perfected his cameraless technique in which, lengthwise across frame lines, he color painted onto clear film or engraved white scratches onto black coated film. Alternatively, he would sketch repetitive, slightly altered pen-and-ink miniatures frame-by-frame.

Since film projectors run at 24 frames per second, this latter method required more than 4,000 separate 3/4" x 5/8" sketches just to make a three minute short! Such an invisible level of effort, unappreciated by all but film professionals, perhaps stood behind McLaren's philosophy to "keep it simple, fast and tight--the shorter the better." Francois Truffaut agreed, calling one of his four minute films "an absolutely unique work bearing no resemblance to anything achieved in sixty years of cinema history."

Unable to pay for conventional sound tracks on his New York films, McLaren was forced to "manufacture"--compose, play and record in a single act--his own microphoneless music by drawing dots and dashes onto the film's audio strip. When run past the projector's sound head, these handmade marks were heard as staccato electronic clicks, beeps and pops.

He later refined this so-called "synthetic sound" technique by photographing sequential index cards marked with specific soundwave patterns--looking like broken teeth in a comb--and printing them directly onto the audio strip. This culminated in his 1971 film "Synchromy," whose sole imagery are the same visual patterns heard simultaneously as sound--five octaves in four-part harmony, echoing the spooky drones and high horns of an electric organ.

By 1941 McLaren had moved to Canada to take his job at the National Film Board. The Board remained his professional home the rest of his life, having turned down one Hollywood job offer after another. During these first years he could not escape the long reach of the war, however, and was soon making films about the dangers of heeding war gossip and the benefits of buying war bonds.

But McLaren's whimsical approach made even these films into much admired classics. When Picasso saw "Hen Hop," a frenetic study of line-drawn chicken scratch movements with a savings bond appeal tacked to the end, he reportedly exclaimed, "finally, something new in the art of drawing." Little did he know that in order to draw the film McLaren had spent days in a large chicken coop trying to capture "the spirit of henliness."

McLaren's war effort films were followed by a touching series of innovative short pieces set to French-Canadian folksongs. These folksongs' simple, native melodies could not have been more different from his avant-garde electronic sound tracks, yet he found in them the same rhythmic qualities which permitted his imagination to soar.

"C'est l"aviron" used a traveling zoom--a special effect McLaren invented in the 1930s and Stanley Kubrick later perfected in "2001: A Space Odyssey,"--which gave the impression of headlong movement through infinite depth. "La Poulette grise" featured McLaren's "chain of mixes" technique, which involved shooting frame by frame a still pastel image and making gradual additive or subtractive changes to the drawing between shots, thus creating a perception of fantastic yet wholly organic transformation.

Perhaps the best of the folksong series, "La Merle" illustrates the story of a blackbird, depicted on film as a white paper cut-out against a blue sky, who looses his beak, eyes, wings and tail in each consecutive verse, but which then are restored to him in odd ball rearrangements. The bird's ingenious animation has been described as a cartoonish cross between the wild pratfalls of Buster Keaton and the dignified mime of Marcel Marceau.

In 1949, McLaren returned to the roots of his first handpainted experiment with his highly charged "Begone Dull Care," a fast-paced visual abstraction set to the barrelling jazz piano of Oscar Peterson. For this film, McLaren and longtime collaborator Evelyn Lambart took turns painting fifteen-foot long test strips of clear 3/4" wide film and then checking them against the music.

Whichever film strip--echoing in turn either Japanese water colors, Australian aboriginal sand painting, or prehistoric cave art--seemed to synchronize best with the piano's pitches, tempi, and dynamics was then spliced into place. "Some segments we hand rolled along a long wooden plank, others we painted or etched onto the film as it ran through the moviola in time to the music," recalls Lambart. "We invented nearly everything as we went along."

"Animation is not the art of drawings that move but rather the art of movements that are drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame," said McLaren by way of explaining his larger concept for a handmade cinema. "The basic substance of the cinema is movement--at its lowest physical level, the movement of lightwaves and soundwaves . . . it is the motion that speaks to us."

"What happens between each frame" is a good way of describing the technique of pixillation, used by McLaren in his 1952 Oscar-winning "Neighbors." Pixillation is like stop-action motion, only using actors rather than objects. Comic puppet-like motions result, making the humans seem moved by some unseen larger-than-life force, which is perhaps the reason this gruesome anti-war parable has proven so meaningful to church and school audiences worldwide.

McLaren made "Neighbors" while the Korean War was in full swing, having just returned from his UNESCO work in China and knowing first-hand that communism then was not the menace it was portrayed to be. The film opens with two men sitting side by side in lawn chairs, divided by an invisible property line, reading their newspapers--both their headlines saying WAR CERTAIN IF NO PEACE--and enjoying the other's company on a fine day. A flower springs up midway between them, and with escalating threats each claims it as his alone. The flower is soon crushed under foot, but their irrational struggle continues. They build a fence, they tear it down to beat the other with its wooden posts, they murder the other's wife and child, and finally kill themselves. Before the final fade, another flower sprouts between their twin graves as hope springs eternal.

"Neighbors" was McLaren's favorite film and stands apart from the rest of his oeuvre with its pointed social concern and extreme violence--so much in fact that the family murder scenes had to be censored. But its cautionary message during the Cold War's dark days was like a ray of light for the peace camp. One critic even noted that its eight minute, five second length was exactly the time it took a sunbeam to reach the earth.

McLaren was a shy man and rarely set his inner-most thoughts into words on paper. But a striking self-portrait of pen-and-ink doodles on a head x-ray says much about what was then on his mind and how he saw himself as both filmmaker and human being. It is only a bit ironic, however, that a filmmaker's most autobiographical statement would come as a still image. From his eyes, a line of arrows metamorphosing into hearts runs down his vertebrae, while towards the top of his skull an unwinding film strip is atomized into postal letters. The hearts signify his struggle to make his art more emotionally significant, to move beyond the purely technical displays of virtuosity in order to engage the soul. The film unspooling into letters indicates the correspondence he received from audiences all over the world. A rising stairway of celluloid, ending in an exploding bomb from which a bird escapes, shows his enduring concerns about war and peace. Clocks, numerals, and a game of tic-tac-toe recapitulate the key elements of his art--moving time, counting film frames, and solving puzzles with a straightforward elegance.

Solutions to some of the biggest puzzles were found for his instructional dance films "Pas de deux" and "Ballet Adagio," in which he pioneered a painstaking printing technique called multiplied imagery. For this, a slow-motion sequence is superimposed upon itself in a single frame by printing separate still images staggered by splitseconds. The moving stroboscopic effect thus makes visible each discrete stage of the dancer's movement. Although intended as practical lessons for ballet students, the films' aesthetic value becomes paramount.

Dance was an enduring theme throughout McLaren's entire life. In many ways he considered himself a dancer, and freely admitted it was just by chance that he entered art school rather than a ballet academy. "A basic quality of us human beings, in fact of all living creatures, is that we are always moving," he wrote. "There must be movement somewhere, somehow."

And just as the question "how can we tell the dancer from the dance?" might draw undue attention to the former, so too did McLaren the filmmaker contemplate the dangers of displaying excessive ego in his own work. Narcissism, he felt, was a sin because it separated human beings from one another. Yet without such self-absorption, he asked, how could art be made?

This dilemma stoked the creative fires of McLaren's last film, a ballet interpretation of Narcissus, which offers a somber coda to a long career of experimentation and pyrotechnics. Even the muted special effects fit the film's wistful and introverted mood, a feeling of private turmoil and unmatched longing. Running over twenty minutes, almost ten times longer than his typical animations and twice that of his other ballet films, this one seems in no hurry to conclude, as if the filmmaker was reluctant to face Narcissus' final choice--rejecting others to dance only with his imprisoned self. But the film was also a personal exorcism of sorts. By refusing a similar fate for himself, McLaren had this to say--however much in love with his own gifts an artist may be, he can also serve society by passing on important moral tales to raise consciousness.

As if to offer wry commentary upon "Narcissus" and the very notion of artistic immortality, McLaren's last appearance in front of the camera, in a backyard film shoot among friends, was as a dancer himself. Dressed like a ghost in white from head to toe, he lets the camera eye blur, multiply and freeze his languid solo steps.

But unlike the virile Narcissus, McLaren here is unsteady with age and visibly ill with the heart condition that shortly after ended his life. Nonetheless, this final film portrait of a seventy-two year old man dancing for pure joy gives added poignancy to the words by which he lived and made his films, "My whole mind thinks in terms of movement rather than specific images. It's movement which captures my imagination first."

Louis Werner, who resides in New York City, is a freelance writer and independent producer/director of documentary films.
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Title Annotation:Canadian Norman McLaren's work
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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