More important than Walt Disney – gay animator’s work celebrated
Some say Norman McLaren was more important to the world of animation than Walt Disney. Stephen A Russell talks to Melbourne International Animation Festival director, Malcolm Turner, about the man who pioneered an industry who just happened to be gay…
Globally renowned animation pioneer, much-garlanded filmmaker and openly gay man Norman McLaren was born in the Scottish city of Stirling just over 100 years ago in April, 1914. It’s a testament to his lifetime achievements that this landmark is being recognised across the globe, from the Edinburgh Film Festival and Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in the nation of his birth, to a collection of films inspired by his work projected onto the façades of public buildings in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles.
The riches of both his artistic and technical excellence will also be celebrated in a retrospective of his films, and a showcase of other filmmakers influenced by him, screening at this year’s Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF).
“He was a unique human being, one of those people who was the right guy in the right place at the right time,” says Malcolm Turner, MIAF festival director. “Cinema wasn’t the established art form it is now, where we’re completely immersed in the moving image in all of its forms. It was still coming together in those days.”
McLaren studied at the Glasgow School of Art in 1932 and it was during this period that he attracted the attention of John Grierson, who was judging the Scottish Amateur Film Festival in 1935. He awarded McLaren Best Film for Colour Cocktail.
Watch McLaren's stop animation Neighbours.
“Grierson, by all accounts, was fairly taciturn gentlemen prone to calling a spade a spade, fairly common amongst the Scottish,” Turner says. “He was an early, honest voice in McLaren’s ears telling him when the things he was doing were rubbish and when they were very, very good.”
The bright lights of London called, with McLaren following his mentor to the General Post Office’s Film Unit, alongside animation luminaries including Len Lye.
“It’s fascinating they were able to get away with this, because they were essentially making fantastic pieces of abstract animation with a kind of after end credits, ‘oh, and by the way don’t forget to buy some stamps and post a letter’.”
McLaren met his life-long partner Guy Glover in London in 1937, and the pair were invited to work at the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada by its founder, one John Grierson. McLaren was tasked with setting up the animation department and he flourished in a hugely creative environment that placed a premium on experimentation and predicted a time when cinema would reach all homes.
“He was able to establish a culture within the NFB of support and cooperation that encouraged from the very top down, the taking of risks and spending of money, blood and tears on trying things out,” Turner says. “It’s the biggest and most impressive animation research and development department in the world, bar none, and that’s down to the way Norman set it up.”
One of the most garlanded filmmakers in Canada’s history, McLaren scored an Oscar for his stunning stop-animated short Neighbours (1952). It was a subtle commentary on the emergence of the Cold War. “He had quite a leftist social and political perspective, and came to believe he could make quite complex political statements using these films,” Turner says.
McLaren used two athletic actors essentially as puppets, moving them a fraction each time then capturing the next image, including surreal floating effects and crazy interaction with sets and props that clearly inspired the frenetic visuals of regular Bjork collaborator Michel Gondry.
[Image] McLaren was known for his complex, political films, as well as animations.
“He had them jumping up and down on the spot, tucking their legs underneath them,” Turner says. “He’d shoot them at the apex, move them a foot forward and shoot again. They endured this for hours.”
Blinkity Blank won the Best Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1955, while the stunningly balletic Pas De Deux (1968) layered multiple exposures of dancers performing, creating the effect of dancing with 15-20 versions of themselves long before computers made such a thing commonplace. It was awarded the Grand Prix at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1969.
With 1949’s Begone Dull Care, McLaren literally painted images directly onto 35mm film, moving to the next cell and recreating that frame with a fraction’s difference. It was awarded at the 1951 Berlin International Film Festival.
“It’s the pinnacle of his work in cameraless animation, and through that he spawned several generations of geniuses, particularly within Canada, like Richard Reeves and Stephen Woloshen.”
Through all of these highs, Glover was at his side, with footage of them arriving on countless red carpets together, embracing when McLaren won and always credited in his acceptance speeches. The were in a committed relationship until the day McLaren died in 1987, still doing what he loved most, creating abstract animation and experimenting with new technology and techniques.
“Norman McLaren drew the roadmap,” Turner says. “To us, as fans of animation, he’s much more important than Walt Disney.”
[Main image] Norman McLaren: The making of 'Spheres'.
McLaren’s Influences will showcase at MIAF on Friday, June 20. For more info or to book tickets, go to miaf.net