Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Norman McLaren: Camera Makes Whoopee!

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)

When asked how he would like to be remembered, Norman McLaren said, with characteristic modesty, as ‘an innovator of new techniques, some of which led to a few distinguished or interesting films’. A dip into any one of the seven discs that comprise Norman McLaren: The Master’s Edition, which showcases the spread of his films from his work for – and even before – John Griersons GPO Film Unit in the 1930s, through his wartime films, his joyously free postwar interpretations of music from Oscar Peterson to Québécois folk song, his experiments with synthetic sound and his sublime late-career ballet films, reveals the complete inadequacy of this statement.

However, out of all the wonders on display in this set, I’ve found that it has been one of the least likely titles that has captured my attention and stayed with me. It’s the series of five short programmes that McLaren made with Grant Munro between 1976-78 and entitled simply, Animated Motion, in which ‘McLaren comments on, demonstrates and classifies aspects of motion which the animator employs in his everyday work’. With the aid of little more than a white disc on a black background, the two animators methodically go through the absolutely basic techniques available to the animator to create the illusion of motion, demonstrating the different effects – and crucially, the different emotional effects – to be had from varying the tempo of movement. From constant movement, showing what movement looks like at different speeds – 32, 64, 128, 256, 512 frames a second for example, they then take in accelerating, decelerating, zero and irregular motion as well as change brought about through colour and lighting. As McLaren says, it is through mastery of these that an animator brings ‘life, meaning, character and spirit’ to his work. All of this information is presented absolutely straight, with the most limited of resources and in the most methodical, even dry, manner. (It is, by the by, an essential introduction to the art of animation for any aspiring animators.)

Why did these programmes have such an effect on me? Very simply, because it was with a sense of awe that I realised that what I was watching was McLaren running through the techniques and the tools available to any animator. However, to transmute those most basic techniques into the rhythmic wonders and profound emotional content of McLaren’s work frankly borders on the miraculous and shows almost better than anything his stature as a uniquely imaginative artist.

He of course had great skills, empathy and understanding to bring to the service of his animation. This is evident in one of the interviews he gave (found on the set as one of the Window on Canada programmes) that demonstrated how he transformed a mountain landscape into one of continual metamorphosis with shadings and dabs of chalk to mark the subtle changes of the day as the sun rises and sets. It leads the interviewer to remark that McLaren could have been a quick-draw pavement artist – a statement with which McLaren agrees.

It’s evident too in the continually evolving world of his 1947 film La Poulette Grise, drawn in pastels and which calls Marc Chagall’s landscapes and fantasies to mind, or his 1966 film The Seasons, an unfinished film experiment, in which, through a series of paintings, he tried to catch the changing light and colours of Canada, with the results recalling the ethereal sky-scapes of Turner. On a different level entirely, his drawing skills are there in the flipbook sketches that form the basis of New York Lightboard (1961), designed to promote Canada as a holiday destination in a lightboard show in Times Square.

Crucially, there’s humour too in his work – plenty of it. In Rythmetic (1956) for example, numerals take on human and animal characteristics – and equals sign impatient for an answer quivers with agitation, a number 5 scratches like a dog with a flea. With McLaren’s accompanying synthetic animated sounds accentuating the humour of the sums in progress, it becomes a wonderfully funny exercise on the simplest of subjects.

The set is divided up thematically and also to highlight the various collaborations that were essential to his work, people such as composer Maurice Blackburn, animator Grant Munro and dancer Vincent Warren. One of McLaren’s most important colleagues however was fellow animator and artist Evelyn Lambart, with whom McLaren made a number of his most well-known works.

Of their collaborations, one of my favourites, and also one of the most minimal films that McLaren made, is Lines Vertical (1960). It’s accompanied by Maurice Blackburn’s perfectly fitting Japanese-styled keyboard music, and is rapturously lovely in the calm of its moving vertical lines against the subtly changing backgrounds of lilac to violet, terracotta to brick to plum. This is almost as minimal as animation can get (though as part of the experiments for the film, McLaren and Lambart did make a film with a single moving vertical line, before deciding to use several lines instead), though it’s worth remembering that this is a hand made film and also the product of months of work, in which lines were scratched into the emulsion of six-foot strips of film with three different thicknesses of knife, the finest of which kept breaking. Because of the inherent difficulty of scratching a perfectly clean line into film emulsion, which hardens as it dries, the lines sometimes have a ragged edge on one side. To me this is part of what gives it life as an exquisite film-object that represents both the thoughts and artisanal skills of its makers. 

Lines Vertical was to directly result in two more films – Lines Horizontal, in which the Lines Vertical was turned through 90 degrees and given a new accompaniment by folk singer and guitarist Pete Seeger. The filmmakers were initially drawn to the idea of this experiment because horizontal lines would implicate the existence of gravity in a way that the vertical ones would not. Because the rising lines don’t decelerate – or the falling ones accelerate – they have the effect of floating and denying the gravity that they have called up. The other film to owe its existence to Lines Vertical is Mosaic, and with this film you really do start to enter an area of innovative brilliance. Briefly Lines Vertical and Lines Horizontal were superimposed in an optical printer with only the intersections of their lines showing as clear dots. The play of these dots across the screen was then set to a selection of McLaren’s animated sounds, which here resemble a sort of cross between Victor Borge’s phonetic pronunciation, the muffled sounds of a squash court, puckered kisses and the amplified puttering wing beats of a trapped moth.

McLaren took this equivalence of image and sound even further, and probably to its logical end, in his remarkable film Synchromy, from 1971. With Evelyn Lambart in the 1950s, McLaren had worked out the different patterns of stripes that would lead to them creating different notes of animated sound on the soundtrack area of a filmstrip. In Synchromy, McLaren first composed the soundtrack music using these cards, and then used these same sound patterns to create their exact animated visual equivalant. It is a truly stunning concept which gave rise to the title of Gavin Millar’s documentary on McLaren that is included in this set and which was filmed as McLaren was making Synchromy in 1970. Millar’s film is called The Eye Hears, The Ear Sees. In his notes on the making of Synchromy, McLaren said that, ‘Apart from planning and executing the music, the only creative aspect of the film was the “choreographing” of the striations in the columns and deciding on the sequence and combinations of colours.’ Well, that and a uniquely inventive approach to the entire manufacture and use of animated sound and image.

At the foundation of all of McLaren’s art, is movement. As McLaren said, ‘every film is a kind of dance’ and being an animator was like ‘being a dancer at second-hand’. He talked of how, in his teens, before he went to art school in Glasgow, he would listen to music on the radio, shut his eyes and see ‘the play and dance of forms’. A few years down the line, this ‘play and dance of forms’ translated in to some of his most enduringly enjoyable films, among them Boogie Doodle, Blinkity Blank and Begone Dull Care.

With his exposure to surrealism, his approach to artistic creation was really liberated. He realised that ‘with surrealism you can after all change anything into anything’, and so he did, creating a world of constant transformation and metamorphosis. This is best seen early on in a film he made for the GPO Film unit called Love on the Wing. With its imagery of kisses, hearts, pillars, pipes, people, keys, locks, bees, flowers and candles, as well as teasing, mating envelopes, it was considered ‘too Freudian’ by the then Postmaster-General, who prevented its release. 

Boogie Doodle was inspired by the excitement McLaren felt on first hearing a boogie woogie tune. Here, the boogie is from Albert Ammons, and the doodle from McLaren. It’s a sort of joyfully unbridled courtship of suggestive shapes. If the Postmaster-General found the imagery in Love on the Wing a little too near the knuckle, it’s almost certain that Boogie Doodle would have incured his prohibition too. 

Blinkity Blank, which started out as an abstract film set to a mixture of Maurice Blackburn’s music and McLaren’s animated sounds, was actually the product of a flash of inspiration from McLaren, who realised that black leader didn’t need to be drawn on every frame (which was proving difficult anyhow), but could actually be incorporated into the substance of the film, thereby giving that film its special nature of images appearing in flashes that imprint themselves after-images on the retina.

With Begone Dull Care, McLaren and Lambart’s ‘caprice en couleurs’ set to jazz from The Oscar Peterson Trio, they made use of what fate sent their way too. They were working in an old dusty building, which initially they found a great hindrance to their work, especially when they dropped a section of carefully-painted film on the floor when it was still wet. On picking it up however, they found that the dust had created a texture on the filmstrip which they thought looked good. Thereafter, Lambart would collect different types of dust into small boxes, cataloguing them from smooth to rough for future use. The experience of the film is an all-embracing one of synaesthetic visual equivalence.

One person whose name I haven’t yet mentioned, but who was instrumental to McLaren’s career, was of course John Grierson. It was Grierson who, as one of the adjudicators of the Third Glasgow Amateur Film Festival, at which McLaren showed his experimental and joyfully wayward ‘symphony on the ciné-kodak special’, Camera Makes Whoopee!, derided the film as a jumble, before offering him a job at the GPO Film Unit, (and thereby ensuring that McLaren didn’t think too highly of himself when he took the position). One of McLaren’s straight documentaries for the Film Unit, Book Bargain, included in this set, about the processes behind the printing of a telephone directory, is a clearly presented, straightforward documentary that goes to prove McLaren’s statement that he learnt discipline at the GPO.

It was also Grierson who enticed McLaren from his penury in New York (where, as a committed pacifist, he had gone in 1939 to escape the war) to the National Film Board of Canada. Concerned that he may be used to make propaganda, Grierson reassured him that he was going there to inject a little lightness and fantasy into the predominantly factual nature of the Film Board’s output and he would be given the freedom to experiment. And so he did, for the next four decades of his professional life.

It seems fitting to end with a quote from Grierson, who summed up McLaren’s art by saying that, ‘If there is such a thing as pure movie, be sure that McLaren has been one of its greatest exponents’.

Norman McLaren, The Master’s Edition has 58 of McLaren’s complete films as well as numerous tests, outtakes and unfinished experiments, documentaries contemporary and modern, technical notes on the films and audio snippets of McLaren talking about selected works. I haven’t even mentioned famous films such as his Oscar-winning Neighbours, Le Merle, Pas de Deux and Narcissus. Suffice to say, if you are even remotely interested in the man and his work, this set handsomely repays the investment, as there are films here that you will be returning to time and again.

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