Visual Music: The Animation of Norman McLaren

By Nancy Harrison

norman-mclaren.jpgNorman McLaren

"For myself, indeed, with an abstract film, the most pleasing forms are those which come closest to music. There must be visual equivalence. Movies move! How it moves is as important as what moves" – Norman McLaren

Although born and educated in Scotland, Norman McLaren (1914-1987) became Canada’s best-known animator through his work at the National Film Board of Canada, winning both an Oscar (for his 1952 anti-War Neighbours) and a Palme d’Or (Blinkity Blank, 1955). Best known as a pioneer of the camera-less technique of drawing directly onto film, frame by frame with pen and ink, overall his work incorporated pastels, stop motion, paper cut-outs, flip book, pixilation, glass sheets and chalk drawings. Continually innovative and experimental, his films are luminous, complex and brilliant.

neighbours-norman-mclaren.jpgNeighbours, 1952

For me, growing up in Canada in the 60s and 70s, McLaren’s animations were a pervasive presence in everyday life, continually popping up to seep into my conscience. Late night television on CBC would yield surprise harvests at irregular hours. My entire school years were peppered with his works – a slightly rackety 16mm projector would be taken from the cupboard, the film awkwardly threaded through, the lights would go out and wondrous things would suddenly appear. For although essentially abstract, his films leant themselves easily to most subjects – Neighbours illustrated the Cold War for Politics; History – and the dreaded French class – featured C’est l’aviron (1944) and La Poulette Grise (1947) from his series on Quebecois chanson; Art teachers prodded our creativity with Love on the Wing (1938), Hen Hop (1942) and Blinkity Blank .

But it was the Music teachers who had the richest banquet of all from which to choose – Serenal (1959), Boogie Doodle (1940) and Begone Dull Care (1949) were all to follow on, in later years, from early First Grade sing-along screenings of Alouette (1944). For music is the essential element to McLaren’s films: all virtually dialogue-free, his use of music is not as an accompaniment to the images, but the very reason for the images. McLaren wrote that when he listened to music he would see abstractions in his mind – upon seeing his first abstract film in 1934 he realised that he had found a way in which he could make these inner abstractions visible to others. In this he succeeded to brilliant effect: his films are as pure a visual representation of music as is possible – music as film. Films which, screened mute, would just as effortlessly create a soundtrack in the mind of the viewer.

blinkity-blank-norman-mclaren.jpgBlinkty Blank, 1955

McLaren incorporated a huge variety of music into his films – Ravi Shankar’s sitar in A Chairy Tale (1957), Glenn Gould’s Bach in Spheres (1969), panpipes in Pas de Deux (1968), fiddle in Hen Hop , a Trinidadian string band in Serenal, a joyous Oscar Peterson jazz piano soundtrack for the brilliant Begone Dull Care. But beyond music itself, as a sound pioneer he experimented as early as 1939 with synthetic sound by painting and scratching (and later developing a method of photographing sound card patterns) directly on the soundtrack area of the film stock – a technique he called ‘animated sound’. This can be heard to great effect in Blinkity Blank, and the highly abstract – and unfinished (McLaren felt it to be “…too esoteric, even for my taste”) – The Flicker Film (1961).

The NFB, where McLaren worked for 42 years, founding the Animation department, has collected all of his works together in a 7 DVD boxed set, including early films from the Glasgow School of Art and the GPO, together with uncompleted films. Presented thematically, the set also contains 15 short analytic documentaries, technical notes, interviews and an 85-page (bilingual) illustrated booklet, for a complete masterclass on this visionary and inventive artist.

For more information on the animation work of the National Film Board of Canada, see