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McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)

Animator, Director, Writer

Main image of McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)

Norman McLaren was one of the most significant abstract filmmakers of the British inter-war period. Born in 1914 in Stirling, Scotland, he entered the Glasgow School of Fine Arts in 1932, where he became interested in film and joined the School's Kine Society. His earliest extant film, Seven Till Five (1933), a "day in the life of an art school", was clearly influenced by Eisenstein and displays a strongly formalist attitude.

McLaren's next film, Camera Makes Whoopee (1935) was a more elaborate take on the themes explored in Seven Till Five, inspired by his acquisition of a Ciné-Kodak camera, which enabled him to execute a number of 'trick' shots. McLaren used pixillation effects, superimpositions and animation not only to display the staging of an art school ball, but also to tap into the aesthetic sensations supposedly produced by this event. McLaren made two further abstract films in 1935: Colour Cocktail (which does not survive) and Polychrome Fantasy, which interweaves dancing with colour abstractions.

The following year McLaren became involved in political issues and was at one stage a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Out of such interests emerged Hell Unltd. (1936), co-directed with sculptress Helen Biggar. The film is one of the most remarkable made in the inter-war period, a complex mixture of found footage, animation, and graphics, combined in a rapid montage for didactic purposes. Such commitments also led him to act as a cameraman on Ivor Montagu's Defence of Madrid (1936), which documented the Republican resistance in the Spanish capital.

John Grierson had become interested in the work of McLaren after awarding him the Best Film Award at the 1935 Scottish Amateur Film Festival for Colour Cocktail, and McLaren subsequently became a member of the GPO Film Unit. Unlike Len Lye, however, McLaren did not fully develop his creative faculties there, having to make a number of straightforward educational films. His most significant film for the unit was Love on the Wing (1938), an animation promoting the postal service, in which a series of two-dimensional white images continually mutate against a moving, multiplane coloured background.

McLaren moved to America in 1939 and two years later teamed up again with Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada, where he directed a number of educational films. He stayed with the Board after the war and, unlike at the GPO, enjoyed a significant degree of artistic freedom, making a number of innovative animated and abstract films and acquiring an international reputation as a visual artist.

Beveridge, James, John Grierson: Film Master (New York: Macmillan, 1978)
Collins, Maynard, Norman McLaren (Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 1976)
Curtis, David, Norman McLaren (Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council Catalogue, 1977)
Moritz, William, 'Norman McLaren and Jules Engel: Post-Modernists', in Jayne Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies (Sydney: John Libbey, 1997)
Richard, Valliere T., Norman McLaren: Manipulator of Movement (East Brunswick: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982)

Jamie Sexton, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Book Bargain (1937)Book Bargain (1937)

The printing and production of the telephone directory

Thumbnail image of Hell Unltd (1936)Hell Unltd (1936)

An animated protest against the arms race, co-directed by Norman McLaren

Thumbnail image of Job in a Million, A (1937)Job in a Million, A (1937)

GPO recruitment film about the training of a new messenger boy

Thumbnail image of Love on the Wing (1938)Love on the Wing (1938)

A dazzling feat of hand-drawn animation ostensibly advertising airmail

Thumbnail image of Mony a Pickle (1938)Mony a Pickle (1938)

A film advocating thrift by use of the Post Office Savings Bank

Thumbnail image of News for the Navy (1938)News for the Navy (1938)

The course of a letter posted in London to a sailor aboard his ship

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