Norman McLaren: Hand-made Cinema

Publication: The Times.     
June 2014

Stirling 100 years ago. A major series of events in the UK and in his adopted country, Canada, celebrates one of Scotland’s most important cultural figures.

After studying at Glasgow School of Art, McLaren worked for the General Post Office Film Unit before moving to New York in the late 1930s. He joined the Animation Department of the National Film Board of Canada (under the documentary film-maker and fellow Scot, John Grierson) in 1941.

Although, McLaren won an Oscar in 1953 for his partially animated short, Neighbours, the fact that he spent most of his working life abroad goes some way to explaining why McLaren (who died in 1987), remains relatively unknown at home.  

This well-named show, which concentrates on his abstract animation, gives insightful information and commentary on a wide range of McLaren’s techniques, tools and tricks of the trade. It also poses, implicitly, a number of questions including the way McLaren may have worked given access to today’s digital technologies.

McLaren was clearly ahead of his time both as animator and conceptual artist. Among many other preoccupations, he was absorbed by the relationship between the musical and the visual.

A number of important films offer a kind of synaesthetic experience. McLaren collaborated extensively on Begone Dull Care (1949) with the Oscar Peterson Trio. This combination of jazz and image can best be described as an eight-minute abstract audio-visual collage.

Although each of the three sections of Peterson’s composition differ widely, McLaren perfectly captures the mood and rhythmic assemblage of piano, drums and bass.  In the first section each instrument is assigned a different abstract motif – the piano, for example, has a series of stripes and lines while the bass inspires vaguely organic forms against a saturated red background. All of the imagery is perfected synchronised with the musical rhythm.

McLaren’s techniques were also innovatory – many involved mark-making directly onto the surface of the film.  On making Beyond Dull Care, McLaren said: “we applied the dyes with big and little brushes, with stipple brushes, with sprayers, with finely crumpled paper and with cloths…we pressed dry fabrics into washes of still wet dye…Netting, mesh and fine lace were stretched out tightly in various ways against the celluloid..”

McLaren left maximum room for improvisation and rarely worked with  scripts, preferring the time-based ‘dope-sheets’ of animators. Much of his working material was low-tech, again often improvised. A curious angled wooden structure, rather like a technician’s drawing-board with a gap through which light is reflected, was used by McLaren to back-light the raw celluloid film on which he drew.  Indeed, seeing the various self-fashioned objects, often made of card-board and wood,  which McLaren used to create apparently hi-tech ¾ but obviously analogue ¾ animations, is certainly one of the highlights here.

Demonstrating the typically Scottish traits of frugality and invention McLaren was a firm believer in the paradoxical notion of artistic innovation through constraint, explaining, “A small budget, limited technical means, and an urgent deadline often act as a catalyst and help to impose the artistic consistency and unity which is an essential part of a well-made work.”

This well conceived show should go a long way to further enhancing McLaren’s deservedly high reputation.