An exemplary modernist, Norman McLaren was at once a practitioner and a theorist of animated art. His ambition was to make filmmaking “as simple, intimate and exciting a form of artistic expression as the traditional fields of drawing, painting and sculpture.”  Not only he created his own imagery, he also made his own music by drawing, etching and photographing patterns directly onto the sound track area of the film, but also he became one of the pioneers of electronic music in the 20th century, long before the invention of the synthesizer.



All of McLaren’s films may be considered as filmic adventures in-between, both in the sense of intervening between frames in unexpected ways, and in treating the film strip, that physical thing that ordinarily mediates between camera and projector. “Animation is manipulating the difference,” – Norman McLaren said. With this motto he has created all of the movies.


A central McLaren belief was that in film “how it moved was more important than what moved.” And so was born an NFB tradition conviction – that animation should be personal, experimental and diverse in technique.

McLaren refused to accept the simple narrative that claimed cinema had been invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. The animator had opinion that the art form had yet to fully come into its own, and that research and experimentation were the natural ingredients of artistic creation. He thus emerged as a pioneer of countless techniques that have become hallmarks of animation: drawing and engraving on film, cross-dissolves, pixillation, synthesized sound, and many others. Pre-existing methods and formulas had no place in his approach. Uncommon boldness and originality were the creative sources for all his work.


Beginning of the career

As a teenager in Scotland, McLaren paid a lot of attention to the music. The type wasn’t matter. He would lie back with his eyes closed, listening to music on the radio and watching dancing shapes projected by his mind. From this music love the career of animator started. Norman McLaren started making films, always with “a musical script” instead of dialogue, attempting a “visual translation of the music”. McLaren was a good translator. The visuals of Colour Cocktail, the amateur silent short that led to his discovery by documentarist John Grierson, were so well matched to a gramophone record that people were convinced the sound and image had been pre-synced.

In his early 20s, while working at Grierson’s British GPO Film Unit, McLaren noticed that knife marks on a film’s soundtrack played back as interesting sounds. McLaren scratch-composed a soundtrack for a film but it was rejected by his producer. A few years later, having emigrated to New York, he animated both the images and sounds of his vibrant handmade shorts for the Guggenheim, including Dots (1940) and Loops (1940), in order to avoid paying for music rights.


Animation studio

Soon after, McLaren relocated to the National Film Board of Canada, where he spent most of his career. During his first years there, he founded the animation studio and oversaw a series of proto-music videos set to folk songs. Later, he would work with musicians as diverse as Pete SeegerOscar PetersonRavi Shankar and Glenn Gould but from early on he told friends of his plans “eventually to be able to compose my own music… I’ve had no formal training – but I know I could compose.”

So, he composed for the instrument he knew best: actual physical film. He used animated sound, an innovative sort of electronic, optical-graphical music predating Moog’s first experiments and sounding. In McLaren’s words, like “a small orchestra of clicking, thudding, buzzing and drumlike timbres”. These seemingly magical techniques literally produced sound out of drawings.


Music and Inspiration

McLaren was gifted with a synaesthetic imagination: music produced a flow of images and colours in his mind’s eye. At the Film Board, McLaren both inspired and was stimulated by like-minded musicians. Maurice Blackburn invented some methods for each McLaren’s film. Louis Applebaum experimented on what we would now call a synthesiser. McLaren was invited to join the national composers’ association and to lecture at Juilliard and the Acoustical Society of America. John Cage played McLaren’s music at his New York concerts.

With filmmaker Evelyn Lambart, McLaren developed a deck of pitch cards, a ‘keyboard’ that allowed the exact musical pitches of a piano to be photographed on to the soundtrack. He first used his cards for Now Is the Time (1951), a 3D film boasting a parallel multidimensional audio system of independent speakers that wrapped around the audience.



He used the same cards for the Cold War allegory Neighbours (1952), his most famous film. Neighbours is a stop-animated piece in which two men go to war for the right to possess a flower that springs from the soil. This Oscar winning anti-war parable without words has been described as both the very best and the very worst of McLaren’s films. McLaren himself, who worried much about the “narcissism” of his more abstract art, claimed to value Neighbours above all his other films.


His friend, John Grierson, decried it as hopelessly “naïve”, proof that McLaren should be content with the stuff of fancy. It is possible, however, that the very naivety of this film is the source of its strength and pathos. Sensitivity to the beauty of a flower – that is, transcendence of self – leads to war – that is, to the murderous assertion of self. The flower is soon crushed underfoot; picket fences are converted into deadly weapons; house, family, and the two men themselves are inevitably destroyed, but each ends up with the coveted prize pinned to his chest, as deathbeds becomes flowerbeds.


McLaren’s inventions

McLaren’s solution was to restrict his drawing to clusters of four or five successive frames leaving blank the stretches of a dozen to 20 frames between the clusters. The resulting film, Blinkity Blank (1955), is a stroboscopic explosion of delight. In Blinkity Blank, granular forms, abstract shapes, fruits, trees, planets, the ever-recurrent chickens, blink in and out of existence, sometimes erasing each other, sometimes modulating each other, sometimes giving way to a momentary void. In this hand drawn film, McLaren experiments with intermittency, leaving many frames blank. He described this as “sprinkling on the empty band of time”.


Reflecting on the uses of abstraction in films of this kind, McLaren commented: “If you looked at a single frame of film you’d say that doesn’t mean anything there, there’s no images there, but once the thing goes into motion, the things that are there, no matter what kind of shape they may be, can behave in a human or animal way, which echoes something quite human in a person.”

Once things begin to move the difference between figuration and abstraction concerns not only distinctions between shapes, but also distinctions between kinds of movement. He observed that, perhaps through a subconscious awareness of gravity, horizontal moving lines engender a completely different kinaesthetic response. So, for his next film McLaren simply rotated each frame of Lines Vertical (1960) through 90 degrees (using a prism and an optical printer). He also changed the colours from muted to strident, swapped the calm sounds of Maurice Blackburn’s electronic piano for the dynamic strumming of Pete Seeger’s music, and he had Lines Horizontal(1962).


Tools and methods

McLaren quickly found ingenious shortcuts. Take colour. McLaren drew in black in clear film and had colour added in the processing lab. If a negative was also made and processed in a different colour the overlay of the positive and negative gave two colours.

He marked up a filmstrip’s soundtrack with an array of pencils, pens, brushes, razor blades and other tools. Often, in a freehand improvisational style, his tools hovered and danced on the film as it fed through the Moviola. McLaren controlled tone through shape, volume through thickness and pitch through the number of his slashes. One result was the Morse code-like percussion of Mosaic (1965): when McLaren found the Hollywood-recorded soundtrack he had commissioned “totally unacceptable”, he simply decided to “engrave one on the film myself using a penknife”. He started out making images from sounds; now he created sounds with images.


‘Pas De Deux’

As he got older, McLaren turned increasingly to manipulating machines rather than a pen. For his film Pas de deux(1968) he used the optical printer when he repeatedly superimposed delayed image after delayed image of two dancers, the effect being an enhancing of the movement and an enrapturing of the viewer. Pas de deux effects a kind of reversal of the usual procedures of animation: live footage of a ballet is transformed in an optical printer, allowing several phases of movement to appear simultaneously on each frame. The dance is thus translated as a continuously unfolding flower of movement. The piece is composed in two halves: in the first, a ballerina dances “narcissistically” with herself; in the second, a male dancer is introduced and the two play out their dialogue in a time that visibly imprints and erases itself in the medium of space.


Moving kaleidoscope

Synchromy (1971), the last of McLaren’s many abstract films, was the apex of the card system and the culmination of McLaren’s union of sound and image. It’s a rainbow seismograph, a radical animated short in which you see what you hear.


The moving kaleidoscope on screen is actually the sound track, the part of the filmstrip that contains the audio. McLaren coloured, multiplied and reorganised it for our viewing pleasure, the catchy, nearly-neon colours paralleling the cheeky boogie-woogie of McLaren’s score. Filming him writing the ‘perpetualmotion’ tune on a piano for Synchromy, photographing pitch cards to match it and finally transforming the soundtrack into visuals, the BBC documentary The Eye Hears, the Ear Sees (1971) explains that “this man is doing something that no one in the world has ever done before: he’s writing a film on the piano”.

As a musical instrument, film was cheap, ensured a tidy sync between image and audio and allowed instant replay. Such advantages are now offered by computers; one piece of Mac software, Metasynth, creates soundscapes out of graphic designs. Like many of McLaren’s films, Synchromy looks and sounds as if it were made on a computer; his work would be at home in a new-media gallery, scoring a video game or mixed into an electronica dance track. But it isn’t made obsolete by the digital age; it heralds its spirit at its best.

“A basic quality of us human beings, and in fact all living creatures, is that we are always moving,” – McLaren once wrote. “It is this motion that is the heart of cinema.” Beating through the synthesis of sound and image of McLaren’s animations is the spontaneity – and movement – of life.

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