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Animated documentaries are a new wave of an older art form. Combining elements of a life, a lifetime career, a unique art, and a quick sharp look at what holds it all together in a new age technological mix. Terri Dentry talked at length with Marie-Josee Saint-Pierre about her latest animated film, which showcases the life of a master of animation – Norman McLaren.
Header images: Marie Josee St-Pierre; McLaren's Negatives (2005), NFB Canada
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2007
Republished with permission
History lessons come in all shapes and sizes. The short animated documentary “McLaren’s Negatives” by Montreal based filmmaker and animator, Marie-Josee Saint-Pierre, musters some of the latest technology to bring to life the words, images and works of one of animation’s true pioneers, Norman McLaren (1914 – 1987). In the process of channeling McLaren, she neatly bookends the beginning of one of our newest artforms with current day filmmaking practice, but reminds us that the essential ingredients remain a creative soul and a good idea.

To those working in the field, Norman McLaren needs no introduction. His impact on the artform of creative animation has been nothing short of profound.

As an animator, he was prolific and restless. He invented, refined or mastered many of the most creative techniques in the animation arsenal. “Begone Dull Care” (1949), made by hand painting directly on to film stock and perfectly synchronised to a wonderful Oscar Peterson jazz track, is one of the finest abstract films ever made. The Oscar winning “Neighbours” (1952), made by manipulating two live actors and a series of physical props and shooting these movements one frame at a time – or pixilation - simply set the benchmark for that type of filmmaking, and his “Pas de Deux” (1969) was a startlingly original film made using an optical printer which first opened up the blurry interzone between animation and special effects.

If generating one of the most important bodies of work in animation is not enough to cement his place in the history books, McLaren will also be remembered as the original life force behind the establishment of the National Film Board of Canada’s animation division in 1943. To this day, the NFB remains one of the most important incubators and producers of creative animation in the world. It would be a brave critic who contended that there existed a more important catalogue of works than those that reside within the hallowed vaults of the NFB. McLaren set the path from the very beginning, hiring the most promising, dynamic animators of his time and creating an environment that allowed them to push their talents to the very limits. Always the visionary, McLaren pioneered international co-productions finding ways to bring animators from India, Korea and Europe to Canada to work under the auspices of the NFB.

Saint-Pierre, however, is concerned that many of these lessons are being forgotten – or not being taught in the first place. She sees her film as a vehicle to introduce McLaren to a more general audience.

“I made this film for the new generation. I was always stunned to talk about this great artist and people would say: “Norman who?”, says Saint-Pierre.

The goal was to create a kind of ‘Norman McLaren 101’. With just 10 minutes to capture the audiences’ attention, tell its story and cram a number of fairly disparate techniques into the film, the project was always going to be a risky proposition – but it has worked brilliantly. In this, McLaren’s Negatives manages a sublime trio of triumphs. It introduces us to the man himself by drawing heavily from a collection of taped interviews with the artist to allow much of his story to be told in – literally – his own voice. It introduces us to a collection of his most important films giving us an insight into his brilliance as a filmmaker. And finally, the film itself acts as a kind of rolling, no let-up stylistic reference to the various abstract elements, which pay homage to the visual history, bequeathed us by McLaren.

The silhouette figure representing McLaren was animated to replicate the effect that can be achieved with an optical printer. Much of the hand drawn animation conjures up the style of figures scratched directly into film invoking one of McLaren’s fortes. And the visual ‘look’ of the film is defined by an expressive series of background colours and patterns dyed directly onto the film stock, another McLaren hallmark.

This physical contact with the film stock itself was something McLaren loved and often felt the need to do. It was akin to a sculptor’s need to touch a piece of stone or a cabinet maker’s love of handling wood. This imperative also fuelled Saint-Pierre to ensure that McLaren’s Negatives was completed on film rather than in a digital format even though it added significantly to the budget and complexity of the project.

The films opens simply enough with a tape recording of McLaren interrupting an interview to answer a phone call. The coiled telephone cable quickly morphs into a pulsing vertical line invoking the twitchy hand drawn marks McLaren etched directly into many thousands of tiny film frames. Within the first 60 seconds we have learned some of the basic facts of McLaren’s life, seen snippets of at least a half dozen of his films and have been introduced to several of the unusual techniques he mastered.

Having established the big picture in very short order, the film works backwards and takes a little more time to detail McLaren’s influences (particularly jazz music and his frustrations with purely static images) as well as give the audience something of a primer on the mechanics of some of the individual techniques McLaren used. This is fascinating stuff and because it is narrated in his own voice feels for all the world like experiencing a Master Class hosted by McLaren himself. It makes many in the audience feel like it is something they could do themselves.

The audience is still day dreaming about the possibility of this apparently simple process when, without realising it, the film subtly changes gear to take us much deeper into McLaren’s creative motivations. We begin to realise these masterpieces can only be created by someone with an almost superhuman ability to understand the intricacies of motion, the power of colours and the ability to recreate that which does not exist except in the imagination.

Festivals all over the world are seizing upon the opportunity provided by McLaren’s Negatives to ‘reconnect’ their audiences with his films as well as the elemental properties of animation that Norman McLaren found ways to present on the big screen.

“McLaren’s Negatives” was selected as the opening film for both the Melbourne and London International Animation Festivals this year. They used the accessible and documentary nature of “McLaren’s Negatives” to pave the way for some other abstract and ‘direct-to-film’ style titles later in the same program, hoping in the process that the audience would appreciate these films in a more informed, connected way. Saint-Pierre has even been invited to the London festival as a guest curator charged with presenting a collection of animated documentaries there.

“It was too good an opportunity to pass up”, says Malcolm Turner, a co-director and programmer of both festivals. “Some times people just see dancing shapes and flashing colours when they watch these kinds of films. But showing McLaren’s Negatives first gave them a chance to see behind all of that in a way that no amount of earnest introductions of worthy program notes ever could. The perfect opening film really”.

He’s clearly a fan.

For more information – www.normanmclaren.ca

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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McLaren's Negatives (2005): Marie Josee St-Pierre
McLaren's Negatives (2005)
McLaren's Negatives (2005)
McLaren's Negatives (2005)
McLaren's Negatives (2005)
McLaren's Negatives (2005)