London International Animation Festival 2014: Celebrating master animator Norman McLaren

The 2014 edition of LIAF launched this weekend with a rousing programme devoted to the famed Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren. Aside from screening (from physical film) a series of well-known works from McLaren, the programme also also ran a set of short animated films from filmmakers inspired by McLaren.

Norman McLaren built a revered career as a filmmaker and animator over the course of 50 years. McLaren was actually born in Stirling Scotland in 1914 before moving to Canada later in life. Interested in painting from an early age, he entered the Glasgow School of Art to study interior design, but became enthused with filmmaking instead, joining a film society and consuming the films of the Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin. He became increasingly interested in abstract films, seeing abstract shapes in his mind when listening to music. These interests in the abstract, and linking abstract animation to music, run through his later animated works.  

Joining a film club at the college, he put together a series of experimental, abstract films using live action and animation, in some cases painting onto the celluloid. This talent got him a job working for the famous documentarian John Grierson at the General Post Office Unit in London, where he worked from 1936-39 and where he learned the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, a well as becoming a committed pacifist (following a stint fillming the Spanish Civil War) and developing an interest in surrealism and techniques of metamorphosis.

1939 saw McLaren moved to New York City, where me made more short, in some cases hand drawn films, experimenting further with drawing onto the actual film soundtrack area on physical film - an early form of 'electronic music'. McLaren would continue to 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. 

In October of 1941, McLaren immigrated to Canada to rejoin John Grierson at the recently founded National Film Board of Canada, of which Grierson was the head. Apart from making more hand drawn films, some for the war effort, he was also asked to found an animation department. The Canadian National Film Board site quotes his philosophy of animation, as taught to his students, as: 

"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."

The view of animation as an art of personal expression was to have an enormous influence on animation universally, as was the work of the National Film Board overall.

At the NFB as animation head and maker of films for the war effort, Mclaren still was able to make films of a more personal nature as well as refining his techniques and exploring new ones. Amongst his many interests were manipulating celluloid by hand, including scratching and painting on it, directly working on the soundtrack sections of his films, in some cases to create a 'what you hear is what you see' effect, and working with both live action and hand drawing techniques.

His work ranged over a variety of techniques: he would use paper cut outs, superimpositions, painting directly onto celluloid, and in films like his live action 'trick' film Chairy Tale he manipulated a chair with strings as though it were a puppet. In hand-painting McLaren also was willing to do things like ignore the frame line: his film Begone Dull Care is an almost totally frameless film – an explosion of colour set to the piano jazz of Oscar Peterson; music accompaniment and creation being another important concern of McLaren throughout his career. His Academy Award-winning film Neighbours, where two neighbours fight in fantastic ways (McLaren animated the human cast frame by frame like cartoon characters, he called this stop-motion technique 'pixillation') over a flower that sits between their two houses, also displayed his continuing commitments to pacifism and making politically aware works.

You can read a fuller biography of McLaren, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada, here.

The NFB also has his filmography here.

For the full LIAF 2014 programme, see here.

The McLaren films shown by the Barbican at the LIAF launch included:

Blinkity Blank
An example of McLaren’s cameraless animation style, with a striking soundtrack. An exercise in intermittent animation and spasmodic imagery, which involved engraving pictures on blank film.

Canada 1955 Dir Norman McLaren 5 min 16

An academy award winner, and one of McLaren's declared favourites of his own work. Neighbours showcases McLaren's stop-motion 'pixillation' animation style, painstakingly used to create a captivating, funny, and polemical tale of escalating violence, all for the sake of a daffodil.

Canada 1952 Dir Norman McLaren 8 min 7

Pas De Deux
A dreamy delight that showcases McLaren's ability to create multiple images. Here the figures of two dancers are mirrored repeatedly until the screen is full of kaleidoscopic, strange patterns.

Canada 1968 Dir Norman McLaren 13 min 22

Be Gone Dull Care

 An almost totally frameless film – bolts of colour moving to the piano jazz of Oscar Peterson.

Canada 1949 Dir Norman McLaren 7 min 49


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.