Norman McLaren

film 18 of 24

Animated Motion, pt. 1

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 8, 2015

This is the first of Norman McLaren and Grant Munro’s five how-to-animate films, prepared as McLaren’s career as an active filmmaker was approaching its close. They are terrific. In fact they’re very beautiful, both for themselves, and for any number of things that are happening just outside the frame, as it were. We’ll elaborate, one film at a time.

After all of the profoundly innovative, even brain-busting work that had gone before, these productions are strictly for training or educational purposes. They don’t apologize for the fact at all. Why should they, when it turns out that unvarnished information can be just as exciting? This is true whether you apply it to all the past films in which McLaren and his collaborators used these very techniques, or if you’re simply considering the information in its own right, and for its own sake.

How does one get her head around this enormous, daunting discipline? McLaren and Munro take that enormous task on by simply explicating one basic, exactly placed animation principle at a time. “Tempos appear to be modified by context and association,” for instance. This maxim is illustrated by a simple animation of suns and tennis balls. But more than just tempos, contexts and association, the suns and tennis balls further illuminate McLaren’s unique brand of abstract anthropomorphism, as well as the assumptions and sensibility that informed it. He would often create kindly hybrids, initiating or bookending theoretically rigourous material with some simple, easily and warmly recognizable human element. (Mosaic, from 1965, is an especially clear, sweet example.) Though purists might argue otherwise, this rigourous accessibility was no betrayal at all. Give the neophyte, or even more, the little child, a familiar referent!

Another important idea emerges here, one that had been addressed in this site’s “Avant Garde Milestones” clusters (q.v.). The idea of complete abstraction or absolute music sounds great, and works if you can or want to separate yourself completely from the world. But the fact is that things remind you of things. And, as Turner and Cezanne demonstrated so definitively, so long ago, the very concrete things that we’re reminded of are actually, when you think of it, made of what you might call abstractions, out of lines and shapes and washes of colour.

They summarize: “All tempos are part of an infinitely graded spectrum.” To illustrate they start eight balls going at doubling, overtonal rates. The result is transformative: what begins or appears as dutiful instruction turns quickly into something quite positively electrifying. This isn’t just animated motion, but modern art entire. Again, McLaren’s courteous—even courtly, actually chivalrous!—explanations are touching upon so much more than mere animation technique. He and Munro are not only saying, they are proving that what might seem utter chaos can often be and often is completely rational, and fully comprehensible. You can understand how animation works. And while we’re at it, you might just be able to understand the whole world. It’s The Art of Fugue. It’s the Theory of Relativity!