Norman McLaren's Creative Experiments in Animation

Back in NFBC

Playlist of Keep your Mouth Shut, V for Victory, Five for Four, Hen Hop and Dollar Dance

In 1941, McLaren Joined rejoin John Grierson at the recently founded National Film Board of Canada. During the remainder of the war, McLaren made five films directly related to the war effort, all but one, Keep your Mouth Shut. These were—V for Victory, Five for Four, Hen Hop and Dollar Dance. These films employed the above mentioned method for Stars and Stripes and Boogie Doodle, only he went on refining the method further. Dollar Dance is notable for its sustained, metamorphic line animation; Hen Hop is a grand solo performance by the creature which later became a McLaren trademark; V for Victory is probably McLaren’s simplest film graphically. It is centered on a marching stick figure and made to appear simple enough for anyone to do.

A year after joining NFBC, McLaren was asked to found an animation department, which he did and headed. His responsibilities as animation head and maker of films for the war effort did not stop McLaren making films of a more personal, non-war related nature.

Là-haut sur ces montagnes

The first one to be noted is Là-haut sur ces montagnes. For this movie, the 90visuals were mainly made by a continuous chain of abutting mixes or dissolves. A pastel drawing about 61 cm x 46 cm was placed on the animation table. The drawing, a landscape rendered in smooth, soft-edge light-and-shade, was slightly changed between each mix; the tonalities of different areas were lightened or darkened; new forms made to appear, old ones to disappear; details were emphasized and then obliterated. Each mix was two seconds (48 frames) long, and as soon as one mix was finished the next one began.

For C’est l’aviron, McLaren invented and employed a technique of travelling zoom throughout the movie, which gave the effect of swiftly traveling down a river with landscape on either side, reflections in the water and mists here and there.

For this, about one hundred and fifty 61 cm x 46 cm black cards were prepared, each with only one plane of landscape painted on it with white and grey tempera paint. The camera zoomed from its largest field 61 cm x 46 cm down to a close field of about 5.7 cm x 4 cm. Trees, rocks, cliffs, or mists, etc. were painted there, as close as possible to the smallest field, which remained black. The rest of the card was also left black. The painting on any one card was restricted to a very small area around the smallest field (never inside), and represented only one plane of the landscape. With the camera zooming from largest to smallest field in 100 frames (4 seconds), and with the first 2 seconds consisting of a fade-in, we had the effect of one plane of landscape appearing out of darkness, while approaching, and eventually coming so close that it passed out of the edges of the frame. As soon as the smallest field was completely black, a very quick 8-frame fade-out was made to avoid the black cards from picking up some slight exposure. The shooting procedure was identical for all cards, except that each card started zooming 25 frames later than the previous card.

C’est l’aviron

This created a continuous and constant series of staggered superimpositions in which, at any one moment, each landscape-card was at a different distance from the camera. Maximum of four planes appear at any given moment. The first or nearest place passes out of the edges of the field when the fifth or most distant plane starts to fade in, which is when the fourth plane is halfway faded in, and the third plane has just fully faded in. The final result gave an impression of traveling through multi-planed depth.


He also made Alouette with René Jodoin, his first movie of paper cut-outs. measured for musical beats, bars, phrases and sentences, as were the words of the lyrics. These measurements, in terms of frames, were written down in ‘dope-sheet’ form, to be used as a guide while shooting the picture. The visuals were animated with simple white paper cut-outs, moved a single-frame at a time, on a black ground.

A Little Phantasy on a 19th Century Painting

At the end of the war McLaren made another metamorphic pastel film, A Little Phantasy on a 19th Century Painting. He employed mix-chain method and metamorphosis in this movie, only with pastels.



After the war, McLaren completed four films between 1946 and 1949. Hoppity-Pop, Fiddle-de-dee, Begone Dull Care and La Pouletter Grise.

Hoppity-Pop was another direct-on film in which he treated the film frame as a triptych.

La Poulette Grise

La Poulette Grise is another metamorphic pastel film, but the first that McLaren did in colour.



Fiddle-de-dee was made by painting directly on a clear 35 mm motion picture film. In all his hand-drawn films, McLaren had developed simple imagery frame-by-frame. In hand-painting, he ignored the frame line. The soundtrack had been recorded beforehand. The painting was done, not a frame at a time, but in stretches corresponding to phrases and sentences of the music. The textures were got by using brush strokes, stippling, scratching with razor blades and sand-papers of different roughness, painting on both sides of the film, and further scratching. A certain “effect” was usually maintained for the duration of at least a musical phrase. Later, framed images were added, often just for one frame at a time, and usually to coincide with the first beat of a musical phrase. 





Begone Dull Care

Begone Dull Care is, however, an almost totally frameless film – an explosion of colour moving to the piano jazz of Oscar Peterson, and it stands as one of McLaren’s masterworks. Peterson often did things on the piano that for McLaren gave rise to new visual ideas; on the other hand, I had already certain visual ideas which dictated that he do certain things in the music. The music was measured, note by note. The movie is in three parts; the first and third were almost all painted on clear 35 mm celluloid leader; the second was engraved on 35 mm black emulsion coated film. For the second, only black leader was used. While running in a moviola interlocked with the soundtrack, it was engraved on by a sharp-pointed knife. If the knife touched the film very lightly, the intermittent motion of the film in the moviola gate, made the knife bounce, so that little clear dots were created on each frame; if pressed harder the knife made larger dots with a faint tail; if pressed really hard, it made a more or less vertical line. Thus, the knife-point was made to slide and move on the surface of the film; his hand pressed, guided and, as it were, made it “dance” to the rhythm of the music. The total painted and engraved film was used as a master positive, from which was made a colour negative. Initial release prints were then struck from this negative.

Related Posts

Leave a comment