June 2004 to March, 2012
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Thinking about Norman McLaren

John Robert Colombo kindly lent me a compilation set of Norman McLaren DVDs and we’ve been watching the works of Canada’s outstanding animator. McLaren was born in Scotland and went to art school there before he landed in Montreal and went to work for the National Film Board.

He produced experimental films that were half a century ahead of their time, beginning in Scotland in the 1930s but really taking off in Canada in the 40s and 50s. Here is an example of work done by drawing, painting and scratching directly onto film.

My reaction to McLaren’s work surprises me. On one hand, it’s obviously very advanced for the time it was done and very original, too. Nobody else was doing anything like it. On the other hand, today’s technologies make similar presentations much easier to do, smoother, more polished and more dramatic.

We are so spoiled with amazing visuals now, it can be difficult to appreciate McLaren’s work without making an effort to remember how and when it was done. Just watching his animations, without reference to his painstaking production ingenuity or the absence of precursors to build upon, how does his work stand up? I’m not so sure.

McLaren did a lot of animation with cutouts… paper shapes that he moved about and photographed frame by frame. He created atmospheric backgrounds by making multiple exposures onto the same film. Considering his methods, he got some amazing effects but the same and better can be achieved now by any kid with a copy of Flash.

The work that seems freshest to me is the stuff he made by hand, directly on film. Flash doesn’t do that. The textures of the drawn-on-film works deliver an immediate, personal quality that does stand up. The pace of such films is in keeping with our sped-up expectations, too. Some of McLaren’s work seems too slow for our tastes these days.

The didacticism of his Oscar-winning film Neighbours kind of turns me off and the point McLaren is making is quite laboured. In bread-and-butter propaganda work for the war effort, the campy message seems silly and the animation is sophomoric.

I know I am being unfair. A “peace” message in the Cold War era was quite daring. The whole world ran at a slower pace, too. McLaren’s work would not seem to drag, back then. People probably wanted to spend a lot of time enjoying the novelty of stop motion animation. And everyone’s wartime propaganda looks corny now.

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1 comment

1 joni { 07.11.11 at 10:03 pm }

Wow!

Music really is another paintbrush!!

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