Animafest: Which guidelines did you have in mind when putting together worldwide retrospective program to commemorate 100th birthday of Norman McLaren?
Marc Bertrand: The program presented at Animafest was designed for the launch of the McLaren DVD box set "McLaren Master’s Edition". The films included in this program had been restored in 35mm to be shown in Cannes as part of the Cannes Classic series. After the presentation of the program in the Grand Palace Cinema, I remember presenting this program on the city of Cannes beach cinema amongst the beautiful yacht that were anchored in the bay. It was funny to see the amazement of the spectators watching the short animated film of McLaren, most of them experimental. This crowd was more used to a more linear and more narrative classic film, but this program definitely got their attention and their respect for something different. This program was built to give a sense of time, a display of different technique and an insight of McLaren many talents and interest. In this program we experience the interest that McLaren had in the visual arts, in music and in dancing. McLaren always said that he was fascinated by movement and not by static picture.
When I sat down to do this program I knew that we had to start with McLaren himself with Opening Speech. And then his early films: Stars and Stripes, drawn directly on 35mm film, commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum when McLaren was an independent filmmaker in New York. In 1941 he came to the NFB and he recruited some artist from the different Canadian arts schools. He encouraged them to use Canadian folkloric song. He himself made Hen Hop and Le merle included in this program. Begone Dull Care is for me one of his most important films. It is a perfect balance of pure ingenuity and absolute experimentation. By using different tools McLaren painted, scratched, rolled on paint, and drew directly on the film stock. After editing he invited Oscar Peterson to record an improvise music session with his trio and the film is a perfect balance of jazz and fireworks.
McLaren always had a lot of “flair” to find new talents. He started working with a young actor and filmmaker called Claude Jutra. Together they experimented on the storyline of A Chairy Tale. They ended up with a beautiful fable that was narrated the music of Ravi Shankar. Pixillation had been used by McLaren in the Oscar winning film Neighbors in 1952, 5 years before A Chairy Tail. Neighbors is included in this program for the implacable narrative, the timeless peace message. Horizontal Lines, a simple formal esthetic film. There is something magical about this film’s simplicity. It simply works. Lines moving from side to side on colored backgrounds, it has a hypnotic effect on you. It just works. McLaren knew why, I am still amazed by it.
I finished the program with 3 of the most important films. Neighbors, Synchromy and Pas de deux. Synchromy for the mastering of the techniques: "What you see is what you hear, what you hear is what you see". Pas de deux is beautiful, and so perfect. I have seen many dance films that tried to reproduce this masterpiece. None comes close to Pas de Deux. The program starts in Black and White and ends in Black and White. Back to the basics. The program is made to make the spectator feel the emotion and discover the filmmaker through his inventiveness and magic.
Animafest: Could you sketch in a few sentences something like "Norman McLaren for dummies"? How would you present him in a digest way to someone whose knowledge of animation doesn't go beyond classical full style?
Marc Bertrand: Norman McLaren’s work is the product of a creative flux of such magnitude that its scope can only be accurately measured when considered as a whole. It would be difficult to appreciate the filmmaker’s true importance by focusing on any one aspect of his work, since it is the result of an exuberance that, incredibly, spans six decades. McLaren, who was the founder of the National Film Board’s animation division, succeeded in giving Canadian animation an impetus and direction that still flourish today, 7 decades after he was hired by John Grierson.
McLaren’s personality and philosophy were inseparable from the direction animation took at the NFB. A tireless innovator, he championed a creative concept of animation that views filmmakers as artisans who take charge of every step of the production of their films, much like artists in their studios. Consequently, McLaren set an example for his colleagues, motivating them to develop their own tools and experiment with new techniques.
McLaren was of the school that refused to believe that cinematography had been invented by the Lumière brothers in 1895. Instead, he was of the opinion that it had yet to be invented, that research and experimentation were a natural ingredient of artistic creation. He thus emerged as a pioneer of countless techniques that have become hallmarks of animation: drawing and engraving on film, cross dissolves, pixillation, synthesized sound, and more. Pre-existing methods and formulas had no place in his approach. Uncommon boldness and originality were the creative sources for all his work.
The path Norman McLaren forged in the history of cinema has been illuminated by the many awards he received in the course of his career: a Palme d’Or in the short film category at Cannes for Blinkity Blank, an Oscar for Neighbours, a Berlin Silver Bear for Rythmetic, a Berlin Silver Plaque for Begone Dull Care, BAFTAs for Blinkity Blank, A Chairy Tale, and Pas de deux, not to mention numerous Canadian awards, as well as the honours bestowed in recognition of his overall achievements. But McLaren’s importance in the history of film animation is also evident in the influence he continues to have on hundreds of filmmakers and artists who consciously follow in his footsteps. All of them, in their own way, carry the McLaren flame forward by virtue of their dedication to research and exploration. Among them are Raoul Servais of Belgium, Zbigniew Rybczynski of Poland, and Canadians Pierre Hébert, Chris Hinton, and Steven Woloshen. Those who have acknowledged their debt to McLaren among famous filmmakers are legion: George Lucas and Jacques-Rémy Girerd, the founder of the French studio Folimage, are but two. Even Pablo Picasso paid homage to the father of Canadian animation. After attending a screening of Hen Hop, Picasso declared, "At last, something new in the art of drawing!" And when François Truffaut viewed McLaren’s work, he wrote to him, "I had tears in my eyes watching your films, and I felt like a very heavy filmmaker indeed seeing your dancers en slow motion but in strong émotion." It is almost paradoxical that an experimental filmmaker could achieve such recognition, enjoy such popularity, and have such far-reaching influence.
Animafest: Does McLaren's work still has such significance in contemporary world? What can he show / tell to the modern day film lover - what is still new and relevant about him and what perhaps surpassed?
Marc Bertrand: Always open to diverse forms of artistic expression, McLaren emerged as a forerunner to the multidisciplinary artists of the late 20th century. Dance, music, and painting are among the art forms he embraced and incorporated into his approach. Whether in short films featuring dancers (Pas de deux, Ballet Adagio, Narcissus) or abstract works based on movement (Mosaic), his deep-rooted affinity for dance was a determining factor in his choreographic perception of animation. I have seen a lot of young filmmakers trying to copy McLaren works… it simply does not work. McLaren was passionate about what he did and was an assessable explorer. I think this is his message to filmmakers. Be passionate about what you do, explore new avenues, and work and work and work. Be serious about your work, but don’t take yourself seriously. Look, try and have fun.
Animafest: Nowadays we tend to talk about McLaren as a giant on whose shoulders many stood, but who or what shaped him in formative years?
Marc Bertrand: I am not a McLaren historian, but I can say that he was a contemporary artist, influenced by his environment and by the events happening in his time. Norman McLaren’s films are the achievements of a humanist marked by his war experiences. Born at the outbreak of World War I, he lived through the great conflicts of his century, most notably the Spanish Civil War, which he witnessed first-hand working as a cameraman for Ivor Montagu’s filming of Defence of Madrid. During the same period, he collaborated with Helen Biggar on Hell Unlimited, a film with a strong anti-war message. McLaren’s violent indignation in the face of warmongering is apparent in many of his works and culminates in Neighbours, his most famous film.
Animafest: What would you judge to be McLaren's most valuable invention when it comes to techniques?
Marc Bertrand: I believe that McLaren’s obsession in movement is his biggest legacy. Not character driven movements, just movement. His interests in sound and movements is probably his best invention… but that is not a technique… or is it! The technique, which allows the filmmaker to create sounds graphically by essentially drawing the film’s soundtrack, was used by McLaren as early as 1940 for such films as Dots and Loops. He also used the technique to compose the extraordinary soundtrack of Rythmetic as well as Synchromy, whose ingenious complexity commands admiration.
Animafest: Can you name a few of McLaren films that you personally prefer?
Marc Bertrand: I love Begone Dull Care, it is a fireworks of movements, and the music is sublime. A perfect meeting between sound and movements, McLaren’s lifework. I also have a soft spot for Pas de Deux, it is just perfect. Also, how could anyone forget the flickering birds in Blinkity Blank or fail to be captivated by the clever war of numbers in Rythmetic and the simplicity, conceptual rigour, and sleekness of Le merle? How could anyone resist the elegant visual balletic display of Pas de deux? And finally, how could anyone remain insensitive to the urgent call for pacifism in Neighbours? Norman McLaren’s work is like an enchanting, impetuous stream, a river that carries you off to the open sea, far from the reassuring banks of conventional cinema. Its energy transports you to the heart of visual modernity, not unlike the way the patterns and streaks of colour in Begone Dull Care parade freely on the screen to the lively beat of Oscar Peterson Trio’s music.