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The Craft of Norman McLaren: Notes on a Lecture Given at the 1961 Vancouver Film

Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, With a Special Survey: Our Resources for Film
Scholarship (Winter, 1962-1963), pp. 17-19
Published by: University of California Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 25-10-2018 02:15 UTC

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the familiar
MacLaren is tall, spare, shy, with an almost multitude of languages. We all fin
this little
gawky air; he hides behind sunglasses but film
this absolutely disarming; and after
does not connote the usual veilitof
hostility;relaxes and begins to speak.
they seem to be mostly something tois be
the essence
doing. of animation? It is what
He takes them off and puts them between
on. He iseach frame of film-this is
introduced, and the applause is what
warm is all-important."
and per- He turns to the black-
board, and his airof
sonal: this man is the greatest film-maker becomes slightly professorial;
Canada, and his films have brought he draws
honortwo spots,
as A and B. ("Is that drawing
well as delight to their Canadian bold enough for you to see?") And he proceeds
He apologizes for not being toa give practiced
a sort of quick sketch of the elements of
movement. lecture.
speaker; this is in fact his first formal
He relates the story of how he had, Tempo, in which
a mo-can run a gamut from instan-
taneous movement
ment of weakness, agreed to introduce last to imperceptibly slow move-
ment. Modulation,
year's Montreal Film Festival; finding that he or as a scientist would say,
was actually expected to make an acceleration,
appearance, which can be zero (if the move-
he made a film instead; and he has ment
the is film
at a constant
run speed), or positive (if the
now. In it he appears on a stage, movementbefore increases
a in speed), or negative (if
microphone; he fidgets, coughs, the and
movement decreases in speed). By manipu-
begins, "Mesdames et messieu lation
. . ." of
theone implies the nature of a
drawn and
microphone leaps away from him; situation
thusand reactions to it; these are
begins a 3-minute struggle withbasic
thegraphic tools. The animator looks around
him and studies
contraption, done with the highest silent-these movements in animals,
in persons
comedy finesse, neat and hilarious. feeling jaunty or sad .... Movement
It reveals
can also,
an extraordinary sense of physical he points
timing and out, be erratic; and there is
grace in MacLaren, as he chasesalsothe
micro- which is extremely important,
phone, climbs a ladder when silence in music.
grows very tall, tries to tie it up Having
when said this much, MacLaren shows
it jerks
or leans away from him: ultimatelyLines Horizontal,
it baffles which he describes as a study
him, but "Welcome" is flashed on in the
constant motion,
screen in totally abstract play of

Above: the ending of NEIGHBORS.

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:: ::::I:::::::
rich; as an artist in those terms he cannot touch,
say, Jordan Belson. But his films are often new.
:i::::_:-:::: ::::

He does, up there in Montreal, what our film

::i-j i:i i-i-i-i-i:i; i:"

:-:-::::::::-:- ::?::-

artists might be doing in New Mexico or Iowa,

but aren't, because they do not have his pecul-
iar innovative talent.
MacLaren calls attention to the peacefulness
of the horizontal motion (which is rather like
that of a swell at sea). This is even more
marked when projected with an anamorphous
lens. He remarks that he has thought of the
possibility of a film designed to put an audience
to sleep. (And in fact the festival audience,
At work on the moviola: LINES HORIZONTAL.
when Lines Horizontal was shown at the down-
town theater, did not like the picture-which
motion. (Like his other recent films, it was was shown without any particular introduction
made in collaboration with Evelyn Lambart.) or explanation-probably because people still
This gentle and lullaby-like film, whichexpect,
has even on the basis of MacLaren's other
music by Pete Seeger, is entirely composedfilms,
of that an animation film should be quick
horizontal lines which move up and down andatfrantic.) But the problem, he says, is al-
a constant speed; but they become gradually ways to prevent the drop in interest-the film
more numerous, and they are shown against must be cohesive and keep building, building.
backgrounds which are at first blue-green, then Next he showed Rhythmetic, prefaced by an
pale gold, rose, orange, and back to blue-green.
ingenious drawing of what are for him the
The film was originally to have the lines ver-
three main categories of the visual world:
tical, he confesses wryly, and in fact a vertical
version does exist, with an electric-piano score
by Maurice Blackburn (he did not have a copy,PURE FORMS O SYMBOLSI0
unfortunately). The technology of the film has
the characteristic MacLaren quality: it was
made by engraving lines on black leader, in
about ten-foot lengths; the music was done DIFFERENT KIND OF ASSOCIATION
afterward by Seeger, who recorded the music ENTIRELY-IMAGES

(himself playing several instruments-done by Rhythmetic turns out to be an arith

tape) while watching the visuals. It was in 90- son, done with clever paper-cut-ou
frame units, he says, buthe now is using a beat and using two types of movement: c
of 10, 20, or 30 frames, which works better these items which are numbers, a
with animation counters, and with music done movement for items which are "animalized."
previously. The sound, which is very funny, was scratched
I reflect ruefully that the wonder of Mac- on black leader:
Laren is in his thinking of a technique like this
which is accessible to anybody with $300 and a 11111
big wooden table, and who knows the address AMPLITUDE SOFTER
of a laboratory with an optical printer. His films DECREASING NEEDED

are all "primitive," this is their real virtue, and TO GET

a large part of their charm. For his color sense

is harsh and his sense of design is not terribly

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McLAREN I:~~i~i
:::: :

He did the track in a moviola as he watched

the visual images; this gave him flexibility, be-
cause if he didn't like the effect of his sound- -
I- r
:::': ''

scratching, he could cover it with black tape ::D

and try again.

Next he came to Black Bird, also a cut-out iit~i-:---:

film, and a lovely thing, for children. Made to

the children's song, it uses what MacLaren calls
an ideogram of a bird-which, he said, finally ;?:

enabled him to cope with the extremely fast-

moving contents of the song, which had to be liiii; ::: ~?i ::::::

"illustrated." The simpler form gave him


greater freedom for animation, and led him to

imply birdiness by movement, instead of rep-
La Poulette Grise, another lullaby, uses a
rubbed-off pastel method which, over the three
or four months of shooting, gave him a pain-
fully raw thumb! Real animation, he says, is
hard to make graceful; so he used the trans-
formation between drawings-slow dissolves sloppy and eclectic on the screen, especially if
done in a Cin6 Special-as the main elementcompared
of to the calm classicism of Lines Hori-
the film. He had done about a month of tests zontal.) He explains that the drift of the white
dots on the screen was a strange thing: he
beforehand, trying out undulating reflector sur-
faces and other means of transforming the ran the film in a moviola at a low speed such
drawings. He remarks that he likes the old
that a knife placed against the film would
modes in French Canadian songs such as this. "chatter," and he then moved it about. This is,
But any song poses formidable problems, not he says, perhaps the most direct form of anima-
because of its rhythms, but because of its tion you could imagine. (It is, I reflect,
words; there are sometimes very quick changes probably "action animation" at last?)
within a line, then very small ones, and so on. Then, to show a film in which both camera
He now prefers to animate music without and acting speeds are made to vary, he shows
words. Neighbors, "my favorite of all my films." And
In introducing Begone Dull Care he notes on the ingeniousness and admirable sentiments
that Oscar Peterson, whose trio did the music, of that, the evening ends, and MacLaren scurries
is very fertile at producing ideas. He spent away. The smiles of the audience follow him
two or three days preparing. Then he appeared as he leaves, this man who has proved that
-without a single note written down. They film-making in Canada can gain worldwide
would work out the visual a little, then push renown, and who has proved also that the
the sound a little further, and after a couple of motion picture can be brought to life through
weeks of such interchange, and polishing and far simpler and less costly machinery than we
shaping, it came out quite different and un- usually think. The desiderata for the animation
recognizable. They tried all kinds of strangefilm as practiced by MacLaren are time and
ways of making images-laying lace and chains talent. The time is given to him by the National
on the film, using two kinds of paint which Film Board, but such amounts of time are
repelled each other, throwing dirt on it, and so within the reach of anyone. We must humbly
on. (Begone Dull Care now seems somewhat face it as he faces it: the problem is the talent.

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