One of the aims of the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Film Club is to encourage you to see films that you would not normally buy a ticket for. This weeks screening was one of those occasions, Norman McLaren Centenary Film Tour (2014) is a film I would have not seen had it not been for the Film Club. To start with I was not familiar with Norman McLaren’s work and the description in our programme did not really draw me in – but how wrong could I be? The programme of shorts, mostly made in Canada for their National Film Board between 1938 and 1971, were in the main intriguing, inventive and entertaining and the eight people that came to the screening were all of the same mind.
Introducing this delightful series of short films was Film Club regular Rachel Findlay who had already taken her two young boys to sample the apparent pleasures of the McLaren Animation Workshop also at the RBCFT where children and adults could not only learn about the filmmaking techniques of this award winning animator but could produce their own animated films using an app created by the NFB of Canada. We were shown some of the work that her boys managed to master in 45 minutes on their iPad!
Rachel then gave us a short résumé of Norman McLaren’s life and work, which I reproduce as follows:
Norman McLaren was born in Stirling 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 his enthusiasm for student filmmaking prevented him from completing his assignments, and he never finished his diploma. His student films were mainly live-action but at this time he also made three experimental films including his first film where he painted directly on the surface of the film stock. Most of these student films were entered in the annual Scottish Amateur Film Festival, and as a result he was offered a job at the General Post Office Film Unit in London. He was there for three years, where he made “nuts and bolts” documentaries, thereby learning the craft of filmmaking.
In late 1939, he emigrated to the USA. Whilst in London he had found quite accidentally that by making marks with pen and ink on the soundtrack area of the film, he could make music, and this is something he pursued further in New York, and indeed continued with right up until the end of his career. In October of 1941, he emigrated to Canada to work at their recently founded National Film Board. During the remainder of the war, McLaren made five films directly related to the war effort, and all but one were drawn directly onto the film frame-by frame. Once the war was behind him, McLaren flung himself back into his personal filmmaking. He returned to his experiments begun at art school where he used the clear film stock as a canvas to paint on, now ignoring the frame lines altogether. In 1949, McLaren went to China for UNESCO to teach audio-visual methods to Chinese artists.
Throughout the rest of his career McLaren worked using various techniques including paper cut-outs, live action trick film, minimalist animation and further experimentation with engraving directly onto the soundtrack area.
Between 1967, and his retirement in 1983, McLaren made three films involving ballet dancers one of these, Pas de deux, is in tonight’s programme. Following his retirement from the NFB in 1983, McLaren turned away from filmmaking. He did, however, completely revise the technical notes for his films, and also appeared in a lengthy documentary about his work and techniques. Aside from gardening, swimming and reading, his main retirement activity was the rekindling of his interest in painting and drawing. He made several experiments for large-scale colour stereo works, primarily with cut-outs. Norman McLaren died on January 27, 1987 at the age of 72.
Following this introduction we were treated to 13 varied short films, some of which were exceptional and others not quite as good but all were imaginative and not to long. Probable the easiest way to describe each one is to list them separately.
Opening Speech (1961). Norman McLaren attempts a welcome speech at the Montreal Film Festival where a microphone, which has a life of its own, frustrates his efforts. This entertaining wee film raised quite a few laughs.
Blinkity Blink (1955). Features quite obscure images engraved directly onto film scratching the images with razor blades and needles on to black film and then hand-coloured the resultant “etching” against a soundtrack combining improvisational jazz from composer Maurice Blackburn alongside sounds created by McLaren scratched on to the films optical soundtrack. The films background was blank.
Le Merle (1958). To me this film could be the forerunner of music video. The simple white cut outs, representing a bird, played out on a pastel sky looking background against a old French-Canadian folksong ‘Mon Merle’ sung in French by the Trio Lyrique of Montreal.
Pas De Deux (1968). We have a screen with no defined borders on which a ballerina (Margaret Mercier) dances with the images of herself before being joined by a male dancer (Vincent Warren) to perform the pas de deux. The dancers appear to form silhouettes against the black background. All choreographed to music by the Romanian Folk Orchestra. This short film received 17 awards including the 1969 BAFTA Award for the Best Animated Film along with an Academy Award nomination.
Synchromy (1971). Again images to music but this time synchronised to piano rhythms, which was a 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. “To make this film, McLaren employed novel optical techniques to compose the piano rhythms of the sound track, which he then moved, in multicolour, onto the picture area of the screen so that, in effect, you see what you hear”. Definitely a sixties look about this short.
Lines Horizontal (1962) is actually what you see for six minutes! Described as ‘an experiment in pure design’ McLaren and Evelyn Lambert drew the lines directly on the film and they go up and down to the especially composed music of folk musician Pete Seeger. Reminds me of getting my eyes tested!
Neighbours (1952). This is McLaren’s best-known work and it won an Oscar in 1953 for Best Documentary-Short Subject. This anti-war film was a direct consequence of McLaren's experiences in China and his feelings about the Korean War. It uses a technique known as pixilation an animation technique using live actors as stop-motion objects animated frame by frame like cartoon characters and performing seemingly impossible feats. McLaren created the soundtrack by scratching the edge of the film, creating various blobs, lines, and triangles that the projector read as sound. The story involves a wee flower that grows between two houses. The two pipe smoking men who live in the houses are happy at first to share the single flower. But after a while they begin to argue over the plant and a white picket fence goes up between the two houses. The men begin to physically fight over who owns the yellow flower. We witness how man is turned into a ‘war like savage’ with little regard to what started the fight in the first place! It gets steadily worse with each man wrecking the others house and thereafter killing each other’s wife and child. At the end we get left with two large graves and a notice that reads ‘love your neighbour’
La Haut Sur Ces Montagnes (1945) (The Top of these Mountains) Simply a song sung over the images of changing mountain scenery that includes some Christ like images. 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.
V is for Victory or Buy my Bonds (1941). The V for victory sign via a stick man is animated to music by drawing directly onto 35mm film stock and synchronized to some stirring military music by Sousa. Made for the war bond campaign.
Love on the Wing (1938). Said to be one of the weirdest advertisements ever made for a public utility – Empire Air Mail. The Postmaster-General thought it to be too erotic and too Freudian. The opening credits say that it stars a Hero, a Heroine and a Villain and that the music was by French composer Jacques Ibert. McLaren used a pen and black Indian ink to draw the animation over a complex coloured background. (Click on link to see it on You Tube).
Hen Hop (1942). Experimental drawing on 35mm film stock with an ordinary pen and ink. This ‘made without a camera’ short film features a jolly dancing hen that became a McLaren trademark, to what sounds like Cajun music.
Begone Dull Care (1949). This cleverly crafted animation works really well with the jazz music played the Oscar Peterson Trio. In partnership with Evelyn Lambert, McLaren painted colours and shapes directly onto filmstrip and the following comment by Donald Williams sums up this extraordinary psychedelic experience. ‘For me, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying jazz film - in this case, a marriage of hand painted improvisations to the piano improvisations of a young Oscar Peterson’
A Chairy Tale (1957). Back to the human form and similar to Opening Speech but involves a man, co-director Claude Jutra, trying to sit on a chair which seems to be totally against the idea. It’s all played out to the music of Ravi Shanker and Chatur Lal and works extremely well with a ‘sat happily ever after’ ending.
As I said at the start of this ramble Norman McLaren’s body of work was a very pleasant surprise and the discussion following the screening underlined this fact. I would expect that each of us who saw these short films would have there own personnel favourites. Mine in no particular order are Began Dull Care, Hen Hop, Pas de deux and the anti war film Neighbours. Click on the link to see each one on You Tube and I am sure that you to will be pleasantly surprised.