This year marks the centenary of the birth of pioneering filmmaker Norman McLaren, whose multi-award-winning animations inspired generations of filmmakers including Francois Truffaut, George Lucas and Michel Gondry.
McLaren’s best-known for his work with the National Film Board of Canada, for whom he made his Oscar-winning 1952 short Neighbours, which mixed pixilation, stop-frame animation and live action to create a powerful anti-war message. The film reflected McLaren’s mixed feelings about the Korean War as he had just returned from China where he had been greatly impressed by the way the Communist country was progressing. He found his own experience of Chairman Mao’s China at odds with its representation in the West during the war.
McLaren was born on April 11th, 1914 in Stirling, Scotland. He attended the Glasgow School of Art, where he decided filmmaking rather than painting was the future of art. He started making short animations by painting and scratching directly onto the film. His first experiment proved so successful that the film was worn-out through continual screenings. His next film Seven Till Five (1933) told the story of a day-in-the-life of the art school. The film used various techniques such as montage and editing-in-camera lifted from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. McLaren followed this with Camera Makes Whoopee (1935), which covered the celebration of a student party. Again, the film is now best-known for McLaren’s innovative use of camera effects.
In 1936, McLaren collaborated with fellow student, sculptor Helen Biggar on a far more ambitious and political project, an anti-war film called Hell Unltd.. McLaren was a pacifist and, at this time, also a Communist, who believed he could change people’s attitudes through his films. Together with Biggar he created a highly imaginative (if politically simplistic) anti-capitalist take on the cause and effect of war and profiteering from it. The film mixes stop-frame animation with filmed and archival footage, captions and rostrum camera work. It’s a powerful little film and one that showcases many of the talents that made Norman McLaren a dynamic, imaginative and brilliant film-maker.
Bonus: Norman McLaren’s Oscar-winning film ‘Neighbours’ made for the National Film Board of Canada in 1952.