Sunday, 11 March 2012

Profile: Norman Mclaren

Fig 1

One of the most significant pioneers in animation during Britain in the midst of the war, Norman McLaren created animation out of art, using a unique visual style and technique. He studied in Scotland in the Glasgow School of Art and afterwards started his experimentation within the animation and film industry. Since his success, he still worked close with the National Film Board and became a source of inspiration to many animators and filmmakers alike.

A couple of his most notable first animated films where done by using stark, bright colors on a blank strip of film, scratching into the surface to create abstract shapes with simple line. This technique of animation was innovative and bold, creating a new standard for animation to follow at the time. Norman started out with simple animation, but sought to expand his use of tools in order to venture into new media and new techniques in film making. He wanted to see what exactly he could get away with in film. Le Merle, Dots and Pas De Deux were among his most well known films and it is through these films that he explored a suggestion of mood and story through body language and motion.

Fig 2

'Dots' uses McLaren's unique ideal of telling story through movement. These simplistic visuals are further explained by Graeme Hobbs in his article on the McLaren on

"All of this information is presented absolutely straight, with the most limited of resources and in the most methodical, even dry, manner." (Hobbs, 1998)

His characters in this film aren't detailed, so the audience simply cannot lean on the idea of stand-alone visual to tell the story before it has happened on-screen. Instead, however, his characters here are simple dots on the screen appearing only to disappear and move to the rhythm of the soundtrack, nothing more; he exuded no particular details in each frame of the animation. Along with his technique of scratching each frame onto each slide of a blank film reel, he also did the same to a blank soundtrack as he created each frame. However, as we move on from 'Dots', we see that McLaren takes the concept of both character and simplicity and applies them both together with his later film 'Le Merle' or 'The Blackbird'.

Fig 3

As we can see, McLaren hadn't much moved on from the use of simple line-work in his films, but we see one of his first uses of character in the Blackbird. Thought it may not look much like a blackbird at first glance, the clever use of shapes formed into its vague shape helps the audience understand that the peculiar arrangement of shapes is the main character as it constantly ships and morphs its lines and circles into different forms. As the music, more specifically the main chorus, becomes faster the shapes it morphs into become more and more complex until it climaxes with a myriad of lines, circles, crosses all hovering in the form of some large pattern or beast. This animation is, at its base, constructed from the same surreal style that McLaren uses in all of his films and this style is used to full effect in one of his other films, 'Pas De Deux' which makes use of stroboscopic camera elements to create a haunting ballet performance. In Khalda Logan's essay which critically analyses McLaren, Logan talks about his techniques and compares it to one of his previous works, 'Line'.

"He exposes the same frames as many as ten times, creating a multiple image of a ballerina and her partner. Black background and backlit figures coupled with pan pipes produce a quiet and detachment similar to that of his film Lines." (Logan, <no date given>)

Fig 4

Fig 5

'Line' uses the same subtly theme of an almost hypnotic sequence of movements. Where 'Line' uses lines to convey a soothing and mesmerising series of images, 'Pas De Deux' conveys the act of dream-like movement on-screen while, when introducing the use of stroboscopic cinematography, creating ghostly trails of figures behind the dancers. The film is described more from its suggestion of mood and motion--how the dancers feel and how they dance around each other as their ghostly trails intertwine with one-another--rather than story or words. The dance itself, combined with its cinematography is relaxing as a soft piano suite accompanies it. 


Fig 1:

Fig 2"Norman McLaren - Dots (1940)" :
Fig 3 "Le Merle (The Blackbird)" :
Fig 4 "Pas de Deux prt1" :
Fig 5 "Pas de Deux pt deux" :


  1. Tom, you have 2 parts of text here that are highlighted in such a way that they have just come out as blocks of white - a quote from, and just before Pas de Deux pt1.

  2. yep - can you correct these please, Tom - thanks!