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When I Grow Up I Want To Be Rene Jodoin

Chris Robinson celebrates the long overdue acknowledgement of RenJodoin's work in the animation community and for the NFB.

During the production of Sphere, René Jodoin and Norman McLaren. Photo © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Let me tell you how much I admire René Jodoin. He is 80 years old, long retired from his days as a producer and filmmaker at the National Film Board of Canada, yet here he sits in his Beaconsfield, Quebec basement in front of an Amiga computer working on a new film. The Amiga is an old system, but this is no matter for Jodoin. He seeks a computer that allows him to be in control. It has taken time, but he is now becoming the master of his machine. You can sense the excitement in his voice. A little boy displaying his toys. However, unlike most little boys, Jodoin is a modest, humble and an incredibly personable man who loves to think and loves to talk about what he's thinking. I'm 33 years old, take life way too seriously, spend half my time arguing with people, drink too much, laugh at odd things, can barely put my pants on, and have no intention of buying a crucifix (heh heh heh). There is no doubt in my deviant darkened mind that when -- if -- I reach 80 years of age, I want to be René Jodoin.

'So what?' you say. 'He's a nice old guy. I know lots of nice and active old people.' Well, let me tell you a little about René Jodoin. He worked at the National Film Board of Canada for over thirty years. He was handpicked by Norman McLaren to join the NFB in the 1940s, was one of the few people to collaborate with McLaren, was the founder and first director of the French animation unit, as director and producer he encouraged many young artists and notably women to make their own films and working with the National Research Council, paved the way for computer animation development. On top of that, Jodoin was a painter and worked in Toronto as a book illustrator and graphic designer. So why has he been lost in the shuffle? First of all, there's McLaren. Yeah, yeah, yeah. McLaren was great. McLaren was a genius. McLaren was a guru. We've heard it all before. Unfortunately, McLaren's work and fame overshadowed many other talented individuals at the Board. Secondly, Jodoin was a civil servant and how many famous civil servants do you know?

Sphere directed by René Jodoin. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

NFB Beginnings

Like all NFB stories, this one begins with founder, John Grierson. In 1943, Grierson asked Norman McLaren to start up an animation unit. Not knowing of any animators in Canada, McLaren first turned his eye to L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. Because of the draft, only two graduates were available: Jean-Paul Ladouceur and René Jodoin. "I was finishing my school and we had the choice to take exams or go to the selection board," says Jodoin. "I got to the medical and was refused because of ear problems." McLaren saw the portfolios of Ladouceur and Jodoin and liked what he saw. The two men were invited to move to Ottawa and join the NFB. Jodoin did not hesitate in accepting McLaren's offer.

Jodoin's initial work involved the designing of titles, maps and diagrams for a variety of documentary and war films. One of these projects was a war bond piece called He Who Laughs Last. After a Hollywood studio proved too costly, the Board was asked to produce a fable about a crow and squirrel. The Board took the job and Jodoin was asked to direct the film. "This was the first cel animation film at the NFB," says Jodoin. "[I] started ordering things like pegboards and cels, which was a problem finding someone in Canada who knew what you were talking about. So I made this little thing and Norman was coaching me through this. It wasn't imaginative. It was a learning experience." For awhile Jodoin was in charge of the title department, but was soon pulled away to produce a series of folk-songs called Let's All Sing Together.

Jodoin's contributions to Let's All Sing Together included Home on The Range (which features a slow pan across a prairie landscape), Square Dance (featuring very simple figures dancing) and Alouette, which was co-directed with Norman McLaren. This cut-out film consists of two parts. In the chorus, a bird 'bounces' back and forth to the music. During the verses, the text of the song appears in various corners of the frame. "I always thought that part of the game was to use the text in an interesting way," notes Jodoin. By highlighting the text, the films actually encouraged active participation from the audience. "The people doing the projection were always complaining. They wanted the people to sing these songs." On the whole, Alouette is awkward and primitive, however the experimental choreography of the lyrics remains quite striking and provides a momentary hint of Jodoin's later more accomplished work.

Mexico, Toronto and Back

Following the war, all or most of the people Jodoin admired and learned from were gone. John Grierson was in the USA. McLaren was in China. After failing to get a scholarship to attend a film school in France, Jodoin and Grant Munro decided to travel to Mexico. During this time, Jodoin and Munro met a man named Castro Leal who was setting up a Mexican film board in the NFB's mould. He invited the two to Mexico to help them get things started. However, when it came time to work at the Mexican film board, largely occupied by business types who were not totally convinced of the NFB's artistic ways, things didn't quite pan out. So after turning down a job to do live-action editing, Jodoin and Munro spent another year travelling around Mexico painting before Jodoin returned to Ottawa.

While Jodoin did not officially return to the Film Board, he did begin making a film with McLaren. "Norman and I met and discussed ideas many times," says Jodoin. "We came up with a simple but attractive idea. If the two of us where doing motion, what would be the natural next move? It was a bit like a mime and then we applied this to the structure. We were shooting under very primitive conditions. It was an old building. An old title stand that was shaking. We found it rather boring. The song was to be done directly on the film. We worked on that for a while, but we decided to leave it." Some years later, McLaren finished the film, which was called Spheres, to the accompaniment of Glenn Gould.

After Spheres, Jodoin moved to Toronto where he freelanced for various production houses (like Audio Pictures and for a time he even worked out of Graphic Visuals, owned by former NFB colleagues, George Dunning and Jim McKay) before finding a permanent job as the art director for Current Publications, a publishing firm that put out medicine and health journals. In 1954, as fate would have it, Jodoin, bored by his work at Current Publications, accepted an invitation to return to the NFB, this time as a director in the NFB sponsored film division.

Jodoin's first works were a series of training films for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Taken as a whole these films, with such lively titles as Introduction to Jet Engines and Antenna Fundamentals, are quite dull. Nevertheless, there are some striking scenes that seem more tailored for an abstract film than an industrial film. In Jet Engines, for example, a scene demonstrating the interaction between gases and blades resembles a bizarre Busby Berkeley sequence as interpreted by Oskar Fischinger. In Antenna Fundamentals, radiation wave patterns are demonstrated through a dance of blue and red circles that expand and interact. In both films, the use of colour, shape and movement is quite extraordinary and at once lays the groundwork for Jodoin's more detailed explorations of geometrical figures in his personal films.

Dance Squared directed by René Jodoin. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

His Own Voice

In 1961, Jodoin finally had the chance to make his own film. "I wanted to make a film about something that doesn't have pictures. I jumped onto it. I needed sound and square dance music was ideal. I asked Maurice Blackburn if he would find me something. He found some old square dance music that was recorded at a party in Ottawa with all sorts of noise. He cut all of that out and restructured it for the film. I had to do this in a basement with a kind of Rube Goldberg arrangement. I couldn't move the camera for any changes. I had to cut huge copies of the square. This was in the same room where Universe was being done." The result was Dance Squared, an intriguing, albeit primitive, film that explores the geometrical possibilities of a square. The film is at times too slow and deliberate. Nevertheless, Dance Squared is unique in its attempt to integrate the pedagogical into an abstract field of expression.

Dance Squared directed by René Jodoin. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Notes on A Triangle is considered by many to be Jodoin's masterpiece. An extension of Dance Squared, Notes examines the geometrical possibilities of a triangle. A single triangle splits and rotates into a variety of different shapes and colours. As with Dance Squared, the music plays a pivotal role in extending Jodoin's work beyond the pedagogical. The waltz-inspired fiddle music of Maurice Blackburn adds a lightness to the film that lures the viewer far from the very precise and logical constructs and into a world of seemingly random bursts of colour and shapes. It is this ability to displace delicate morsels of complexity under the guise of visual and aural candy that makes Jodoin's work so magnificent.

One of the lauded moments of Notes on A Triangle is a brief zoom that occurs midway through the film. During this zoom, the shapes continue to expand and move about. "With computers today that would be trivial," notes animator, Pierre Hébert, "but doing this with cut-outs on an old camera is really an accomplishment." Says Jodoin, "There was a notion of something going on forever. There were maybe ten zooms, but you are conscious of one. The whole thing was designed exponentially, so that you compensate for that fact that you are approaching a flat thing, you are actually moving in space."

The French Animation Unit

After the Film Board moved to Montreal in 1956 and set up a French production division, there was pressure to establish a French animation unit. "A few years after the move to Montreal," says Jodoin, "there was an influx of young people who wanted to do animation. I wasn't particularly keen on it, but you had to put yourself in the position of all these younger people and that's how we all got together and proposed the idea. The whole of French production were enthusiastic about it, so when I presented it to the director of production he said, 'Yes, on one condition, that you do it.'" So, in 1965, Jodoin became the director of the French animation unit.

"It was primitive to begin with. There was very little money and no locale. Everyone [many of the new animators were already working at the Board in other departments] stayed where they were and we rented a bus for people to work out of." In getting both respect and money, Jodoin turned to his very roots as an NFB animator and proposed Contemporary Songs of French-Canada, a series based on contemporary Montreal songs. The roots of the idea evolved out of McLaren's initial Let's All Sing Together series, and it was a brilliant stroke. At once, the series enabled Jodoin to get more money for the department and, like Let's All Sing Together, provided an ideal training exercise for a number of young animators. "[The series] made it easier to get to the next step which was getting a room to work in."

"He knew," says Pierre Hébert, "that he had to prove something and make something. He delivered the films with a limited budget and it allowed the studio to have more money." There is no denying Norman McLaren's immense role in establishing the Film Board's international reputation, however it is foolish to underestimate the impact of Jodoin. While the English studio languished in producing narrative driven, cel animation, the French studio, in part because of a low budget, explored diverse avenues of expression. Under Jodoin's lead, the French unit attracted the likes of Co Hoedeman, Ishu Patel, Paul Driessen, Caroline Leaf and Pierre Hébert, Francine Desbiens, Andre Léduc and Jacques Drouin. The result was some of the most strikingly original films that the Board had ever produced.

In achieving this, Jodoin consciously avoided hiring experienced animators. Instead, Jodoin eagerly encouraged young artists who were not yet formed as artists, let alone as animators. It was Jodoin's goal to train them on the job. Even more remarkable was Jodoin's openness to women artists. It is a well-known fact that animation, especially cel animation, has traditionally been a male dominated medium. It is little known that Francine Desbiens was the first French-Canadian woman to direct an animation film. "At one time," says Desbiens, "there were more women than men. After he left the department, there was ten years where not one woman was employed as a freelancer or as a permanent. The person who was there [Robert Forget] will tell you that there were no women directors. There were some, but none were chosen. [Jodoin] was way out in front of everybody."

Rectangle and Rectangles directed by René Jodoin. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Computer Research and Retirement

Jodoin's liberal attitudes also extended to an interest in developing computer animation as an artistic tool for animators. "The National Research Council came around to visit and discuss their problems and that they were working on a project with CBC and Radio Canada," says Jodoin. "I wasn't too impressed with all that, but finally they asked the Film Board to cooperate. We went down to see what they were doing and I was impressed and we realized that we could animate line drawing." Unfortunately the Film Board was never really in a position to follow through on their early computer exploration. "Things changed," notes Pierre Hébert, "because the NFB couldn't afford to keep up and the people doing the same in the USA were better funded." Indeed, Jodoin was not in total agreement with the NFB's aim to be at the forefront of computer animation development. "René favoured lighter equipment that would be put in the hands of the animators," notes Hébert. "This is what he had in mind and of course, this is the way it is today. René was seeing things differently."

Rectangle and Rectangles directed by René Jodoin. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

In 1979, Jodoin resigned from his position to work on his own films. "When René left," notes animator, Paul Driessen, "I think it was a heavy blow to the department. After that the people in charge of the department where much more commercial and didn't really stand for anything and you can see that, it's still like that." Between 1979 and his retirement from the Board in 1985, Jodoin completed two films, A Matter of Form (1984) and Rectangle and Rectangles (1985). A Matter of Form is an intriguing and clever film, but is really just a variation on ideas previously explored. Three dots interact to form a line which expands from different points to create various shapes and colours. Echoing the thoughts of Heraclitus, Matter of Form presents a world in a constant state of change.

More interesting is Rectangle and Rectangles, an almost violent film that assaults the viewer with an onslaught of colours, shapes and an incessant, disturbing flickering (the video comes with a warning that it may trigger epileptic seizures!). "The aim was to show time. I tried to make a film with the absence of almost everything so that you could see time move and visually you can become interested through the play of colour and motion." It is a film that leaves one with impressions, not absolutes. There are traces of movement and colour, but nothing definitive.

A Matter of Form directed by René Jodoin. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Remarkably, Jodoin just completed a new film, Between Time and Space. For some, this black-and-white film looks like a primitive screen saver from the 1970s, but beneath the apparent simplicity lie complex analytical ideas about the nature of time and space. Influenced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, whose studies of space, language and time are seminal, Jodoin has re-contextualized these ideas within the framework of our experience of music. What appears to be a primitive interaction between white and black objects is instead an insightful investigation into the movements between notes of music. On the other hand, if you've got a headache and just want to kick back, it's got a cool galloping soundtrack.

"I find it extraordinary," says producer Pierre Hébert, "that this man of 80 is still looking for things he had in mind in the 1940s. There is a strong sense of necessity in him that has a lot of continuity in what he did. I would like to be like that." It was Heraclitus who believed that the universe is in a constant state of change and that "the beginning and end are the same," but like the words of all great philosophers, they are little more than abstract musings by distant voices. Jodoin has however applied these words both artistically and institutionally throughout his life. Oddly enough, Jodoin's determined exploration of the infinite is deeply rooted in a traditional belief (inherited from McLaren and ultimately Grierson) in the active function of the civil servant. In age where we view the institutional as 'dead weight,' the work of René Jodoin, a man of the institution, suggests that perhaps we, not our institutions, have become stagnant and unchanging.

Over the past two years, Jodoin has finally been acknowledged by the animation community. In 1999, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival honoured Jodoin and the National Film Board of Canada released a two volume video of his work as a filmmaker and producer. This year, both ASIFA-Canada and ASIFA-International honored his work, and in November, the Holland Animation Film Festival will present a retrospective. It's about time.

Chris Robinson is executive director of the Ottawa International Festival and the founder and director of SAFO, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is also a board member of ASIFA International. In his spare time, Robinson writes a column, "The Animation Pimp" for Animation World Magazine which will debut next month. Robinson has curated film programs (Los Angeles, Norway, Korea, Holland, Estonia, Singapore, Vietnam and several other places), served on juries (AnimExpo, World Animation Celebration), and written articles on animation for Animation World, FPS, Plateau,Animation Journal and Take One. He prefers writing over cartoons. He also irks a lot of people with his often-inflammatory opinions about many things. He has a son. His son likes him. But maybe it's because he's only 2 (Jarvis -- the son). Maybe when Jarvis knows better he won't feel the same way.

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