When I Grow Up I Want To Be René Jodoin

by Chris Robinson

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.


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