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'Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition' -- Cameraman Makes Whoopee

AWN chats with filmmaker Don McWilliams about a giant box set for a giant of animation -- Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition.

Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition -- 15 hours, 7 discs, a life's work. All images © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

In more than 40 years as an animator and father figure to countless artists at Canada's National Film Board, Norman McLaren influenced so many filmmakers and innovated in so many ways he probably would rate a personal testimonial for every frame in the eight minutes of his signature short, Begone Dull Care. Some of the evidence for that reputation just went on a limited tour of North America in a 67-minute program of McLaren's films, and the reaction they engender ranges from pure entertainment to jaw-dropping shock. Those shorts -- and virtually everything else McLaren did -- are now available on a long-awaited DVD box set, Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition, from NFB.

What McLaren did, he didn't always do first, but he almost always did it best -- animating characters by painting them directly onto the film strip, creating wild and vibrant abstract films by running paint rollers down the emulsion for tens of feet at a time, performing single-frame animation on real people in outdoor settings, synthesizing sound by drawing directly onto the optical film soundtrack, or deconstructing dance choreography through blurring or composites so that a dancer could duet with his own afterimage. All this was suffused with a whimsy and creative fearlessness that marked McLaren as an artist who was truly open to all that surrounded him.

McLaren was born in Scotland in 1914, and was a painter from an early age. He still thought it would be his life's work when he entered the Glasgow School of Art, up to the moment he saw the work of Oskar Fischinger. Thereafter he shot and edited several Eisensteinian silent films, including Camera Makes Whoopee, which qualified for the Scottish Amateur Film Festival in 1936. The festival's adjudicator was John Grierson, long-time advocate for documentary film in Britain. Grierson hired McLaren to come work for him at the General Post Office film unit in London. If you've forgotten the Zen pleasure of watching a good educational film, the delight of watching letters get from anxious parents to their sons on board naval vessels via cars, bags and assembly lines in McLaren's GPO film, News for the Navy (1938), it will come as an early treat on disc one of the box set.

Jammin' with Oscar: Begone Dull Care (Caprice en couleurs) (1949).

McLaren shot documentary footage on the Republican side during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s. Convinced, as he was that he wouldn't be able to face more of that kind of devastation, he heeded the storm clouds over Europe and immigrated to New York in 1939. Meanwhile, Grierson had been hired by the Canadian government to head their first film commission, and Grierson invited McLaren to join the National Film Board in 1941. In short order McLaren helped found the animation department at NFB.

McLaren's NFB career lasted more than four decades. This new box set collects not just his NFB work, but every McLaren film that survives, which, thanks to the dedication of the artist himself, includes almost everything he ever did. All his best-known shorts for NFB are here, including Hen Hop, La Poulette Grise, Begone Dull Care, Neighbours, Blinkety Blank, A Chairy Tale, Le Merle, Canon, Pas de Deux, Spheres, Synchromy and Narcissus. His student films and documentaries done before he left the U.K. are also included, plus tests, documentaries about McLaren and some exuberant home movies.

Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition is a bountiful box of seven DVDs with an 84-page booklet in "flip" style to accommodate English and French liner notes (each printed upside-down of the other, so that both start from the outside and meet in the middle). There's 875 minutes of material here to consume, and the producers intentionally ordered this eclectic filmmaker's oeuvre thematically rather than chronologically to aid digestion. This does mean that material, which fit in more than one category, is sometimes repeated from disc to disc; but it hasn't unduly increased the box's footprint, which will take up less than two and a half inches on your shelf, and the price is pretty darn reasonable for seven discs (major retailers stock it for about $70).

After NFB talked about making a McLaren collection for some 20 years, it finally happened with consultant and McLaren protégé Don McWilliams guiding the restoration process.

Don McWilliams is a filmmaker/educator who knew McLaren and his films well, and served as a guiding hand behind NFB's efforts at researching, structuring and digitally restoring McLaren's life's work. Animation World Magazine spoke to McWilliams from his home in Montreal about McLaren and the 20-year quest to get the master his own box.

Taylor Jessen: Throughout Norman McLaren's life he was a major stylistic influence all over the world but, in America at least, he's no longer the star he once was.

Don McWilliams: No, not in Canada, either. (laughs) During the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, he was a major figure internationally. Toward the end of his career, I think he disappeared from the public consciousness. At the time that he became so well known, he worked within the institution of the National Film Board, which had access to world markets, so the work was always seen. Columbia Pictures distributed all of the NFB films automatically for many years. And then in Canada in the '60s, the film industry started to grow outside the confines of the National Film Board, which was the major training institution for all the young filmmakers, and you had people like Gilles Carle and Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg appearing.

Norman McLaren at work.

So McLaren faded into the background, particularly because he was making short films. At one time, up until probably the early '80s, short films were much more widely seen, because there was a big distribution system, both here and in the States, in 16mm through public libraries and schools. It was the era of the film-literate generation. That was a great moment in the '70s in American cinema with Altman and so forth, and I think there was a whole different atmosphere. McLaren was in the center of this. That movement has dissipated, so short films, and the role of schools and libraries in promoting them, have diminished greatly. So I suppose McLaren began to seem old-fashioned to lots of young filmmakers. Cinemas at one time showed short films, and McLaren was a staple of that. You could still see them in the'60s. But by the end of the '60s, they completely disappeared from the cinemas.

TJ: That's interesting, because I got exposed to short films in libraries and school as well, and I completely forgot how seminal that experience was. I'm sure they started infiltrating my brain as early as first grade.

DM: When we had a launch screening in Ottawa three weeks ago, in the question-and-answer afterwards, somebody stuck up their head and said this was a revelation, because he'd only ever seen McLaren's films on scratchy prints in a classroom. I was an elementary school teacher in the '60s, and I showed McLaren films all the time. The first McLaren I ever saw was in the cinema in Toronto in 1959, along with a re-release of Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. That's what I went to see, and then this amazing short came on. (laughs)

TJ: And of course now they're almost completely banished from theaters, unless you're at a festival. It's very hard to stumble on undiscovered treasure.

DM: There's a magazine published in France called Bref, which is devoted entirely to short film. They have lists in the back of the magazine of all the screening events and festivals in France for short film. It's a big thing. And I teach in Norway, and you see quite a lot of shorts there. But generally speaking, what you're saying is true. It's true in England as well, that shorts are gone, except for special events.

Eyes on the birdie: Blinkety Blank (1955).

TJ: When did you first meet McLaren?

DM: It came out of going to see Gaslight, and seeing his film Serenal before the feature. It was totally abstract, and I'd never seen anything like it. I was very interested in cinema, but I only tended to think of cinema in narrative terms. And cartoons had stories. (laughs) And then this thing came on, and was a total revelation to me. Then a couple years later the film society exposed me to my second McLaren. That was also a very big mover for the dissemination of shorts, the film societies -- in Canada, since there were no movies legally allowed on Sundays, the film societies filled in. They showed mostly foreign movies and shorts. I saw Neighbors at one of those in around 1961. And then when I started teaching, the Film Board reps would come around with packages of films, because they were very active in getting films into the classroom. So through that I started to show a lot more films. And we started making handmade films in the classroom, drawing directly onto film.

Then, in 1968, the Film Board had a six-week session in the summer. You went down to the Film Board from nine in the morning to midnight looking at films and meeting filmmakers. So I took the opportunity and I just went round to McLaren's office and knocked on his door. And there was this terribly shy man. (laughs)

He didn't want to talk to me particularly. I told him why I was there, and he said, "Well, give me one of the films." So he put it on his rewinds -- because they were all hand-drawn on 16mm -- and he said, "Oh, this is interesting. We've got to look at these films in the theater." So he booked a projection room, and we looked at five films by my 11- to 12 year-old pupils. And, out of that, we just became friendly. As a consequence I started spending time with him, and I started making films myself. Then, in 1981, I was in Montreal working on a production and we were using the Film Board's shooting stage. I went up to see McLaren in his office, and he was not well, and he was trying to finish his last film, Narcissus, which he'd just shot. So it was decided I would go and work with him on it. I ended up staying in Montreal, and becoming the so-called "McLaren expert."

TJ: What was your function on helping finish Narcissus?

DM: I was his legs, basically. That's what I'd call it. But I worked on every aspect. I did all the optical shooting, and helped with the editing. He taught me an awful lot. It was a great leap forward in my life.

TJ: Were you considered his unofficial archivist?

DM: Well, we'd had this idea at one time that I would write a book about him, which never came to fruition. I did write it, but it lies in a drawer. But as a consequence, he went through everything he'd ever done with me, so I became very knowledgeable about his work. And then when he retired, he had all these tests and unfinished films, all of which were in cans in the basement of the Film Board -- and I looked after it and did an inventory. So when this whole project started, I was the one who happened to know where all this stuff was and what it meant.

DM: Did you bring the project to NFB, or did they approach you?

TJ: It's kind of convoluted -- this took something like 20 years. There's always been talk around the Film Board -- "We have to do something about McLaren!" And eventually the right people all started to think that at the same moment, and the thing clicked. It was under the leadership of a man called Marcel Jean. Everybody involved put their heart and soul into it -- because there are still people at the Film Board, particularly on the technical side, who knew McLaren and worked with him. There's an enormous loyalty to his memory. There's a chap named Sayed Rawji in technical services who was in charge of standards in the lab at the time we were doing Narcissus. The film was very complicated technically, so he was in the center of all this. And now, as head of technical services, he carries that connection with McLaren to his job, and he's able to galvanize the people underneath him.

TJ: How long was the actual production period for the DVD?

DM: I think it ended up being two years and three months. I didn't concern myself with any of that. My job was involved in the restoration and acting as consultant, and I wanted to stay out of all of that aspect of it. (laughs) You know, where do we get all the money, and who do we get to author the DVDs, and da da da.

Take a seat: A Chairy Tale (1957).

TJ: Was it difficult gathering all the material that McLaren did prior to his NFB work?

DM: It wasn't complicated, because there were negatives at the Film Board of all of this material.

TJ: Even the films that he did in the U.K.?

DM: Yes -- he brought negatives of his student films with him when he emigrated. In one or two instances, the films were with his family or something. Then McLaren had had copies of the GPO films sent to him at some point. And when I did the feature on McLaren called, Creative Process, in 1990, I got one or two other things for that. But all this material existed at the Film Board, and Norman had obtained good dupes.

TJ: That's some remarkable foresight on Norman's part. So often in filmmaking the negative is under someone else's lock and key, far, far away. Or in TV it's sold from one library to the next, or chucked, or lost, or degaussed. But no, Norman preserved all his own prints.

DM: There was Love on the Wing, in which all Norman had was a very scratched 16mm print, because he thought the original materials had been destroyed in an air raid. But when I did Creative Process, I actually found the original at the British Film Institute, so I got a fabulous interneg from them. That's my only memory of anything that was not already at the Film Board, in Norman's vaults.

My blackbird may never sing: Le Merle (1958).

TJ: So there was no long-lost treasure you had to laboriously dig up, no holy grail?

DM: No -- I knew what was there. It was a holy grail as far as other people were concerned, because a lot of this stuff had never been seen. Bits of it, like On the Farm, had been running around for years in different forms, and sometimes had been shown in festivals. But it was 98% unknown to the general public.

TJ: So you got to be the Fool in the Fisher King story -- "Hey, guys, I didn't know you were looking for the grail -- I just thought you were thirsty for some McLaren! Here you go!"... It's interesting how the box set is thematic, not chronological, and some material repeats from disc to disc.

DM: I think initially there was some idea of doing it chronologically, and then we had meetings and it was decided that we should do it thematically. McLaren himself jumped back and forth. He was doing handmade films right up until the mid-'60s, but they were interrupted by films which were not handmade. It's awkward looking at the work chronologically.

TJ: It's easier to see how he refined his technique if you see all the examples of that technique in one place.

DM: Exactly.

TJ: Were you involved in any of the packaging decisions, the choice of DVD shells and so on?

Abstract ballet in Pas de Deux (1968).

DM: No, that was all done by other people -- Christine Noël, Marysol Moran and Marc Bertrand, who's a producer working under Marcel Jean. They would ask me questions -- "Are there photographs on such-and-such?" And I would say yes, and they'd have a dozen to look at, and we would go through them and pick. But I had made it clear that I didn't own McLaren, (laughs) and that anything that I would say or think about the DVDs is only my opinion, and that McLaren has to stand on his own two feet. It was one of those things that the Film Board does well, which is large-scale collaborative projects.

TJ: Have you gone on the road with that program of McLaren's work? Were you at the Academy screening in L.A.?

DM: No, I couldn't get down for that. It was a 67-minute program that went down to Hollywood, and then we showed that in Toronto, and Ottawa, and Montreal. For that we took the digital restorations and transferred them onto film. See, the problem is that a lot of these films are still in release. They're films that he made in 1940 in New York, like Dots and Loops, and they've never gone out of circulation. The original negatives don't survive anymore. We're now into a dupe of a dupe of a dupe. So we made a decision to use the digital materials, which were totally clean and with new sound, and to make the 35 negatives from those.

Two men about to go to war over a flower in Neighbors (Voisins) (1952).

TJ: I caught the program in Los Angeles when it came down this fall, and I was amazed. McLaren had an uncanny knack for creating an innovative new technique and the apotheosis of that technique in the same film. His maiden voyages have become the definitive examples, the things so many artists are still trying to live up to.

DM: I do these workshops -- I call it "The Unknown McLaren," and I go and show tests and some of the finished films, and spend a lot of time discussing his synthetic sound, which pre-dated the synthesizer. It's interesting the reactions I get from young filmmakers. Last week I did it in Montreal, and a fellow came up to me afterwards -- he was a musician who's now studying film. He was stunned. He said, "This is amazing stuff, and I've never heard of this! Why have I never heard of this?"

TJ: The first time I saw Begone Dull Care it just made me burst into laughter at the end -- the smash-bang glee of flashing one line of credits on the screen for every eighth note in Oscar Peterson's last piano run. The concept pops and the execution pops, and together it's too beautiful. There's joy in these shorts that 60 years can't kill.

Battling a willful mike stand in Norman McLaren's Opening Speech (1961).

DM: It's the great jazz film, I think.

TJ: And his technical standards were almost unmatched. Dozens of optical elements in any given shot of Pas de Deux, multiplying the dancers on the screen, and still no gate weave and no dust. Watching that for the first time on this DVD, someone might think, "Ah, that's been digitally restored," but it hasn't, has it?

DM: That actually is from the negative. That's not digital.

TJ: It was that clean in 1968, which is extraordinary. How are sales going so far?

DM: My understanding is that they're going very well. I think it was a simultaneous release in Canada and the United States. And now some distributor in Europe has ordered 2,000 copies. There's a great deal of optimism about how well it's going to do.

TJ: I know it'll be a boon for a lot of animation fans who know about McLaren but haven't seen the bulk of his work. Voilà, here it is -- the whole shebang.

DM: I remember, in 1982, I went to Turin for a weekend retrospective of McLaren's films, and there were these Italian animators -- Bruno Bozzetto, Gianini and Luzzati -- who had made The Thieving Magpie and some others. They got up and showed their very first films. And the thing was, apparently the young Italian animators saw Disney, and they thought it was great, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came these films from this man in Canada. (laughs) And it was fascinating because all their first films were direct copies or influenced by McLaren.

She will lay a pretty little egg: La Poulette Grise (1947).

I remember Gianini's first film was totally handmade -- and he never made another handmade film in his life! And Bruno Bozzetto made a little anti-war film with chess pieces, which was inspired by Neighbors. (laughs) The innovation and the eclecticism and the freedom he had in the way he worked just caught their imagination. And, even though their later work isn't as abstract -- I mean, look at Bozzetto's films, they don't have much relation to what McLaren was doing -- McLaren's films were the push that got them into finding their own voices, that showed them they didn't have to do the big-scale cel movie. They could be free and individualistic. And I think this always for me has been the great lesson of McLaren, that the sky's the limit.

Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition, seven-DVD box set, The National Film Board of Canada, 2006, 15 hours B&W, original version mono, NR, NFB ID Number: 183C9306410 ($99.95).

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Here, everybody, I made brownies!