2014 will mark the centenary of Norman McLaren, one of the most innovative animators in the 20th Century. This post is something of an indulgence for me to act as notification of a work in progress.  The project to examine McLaren’s legacy has been in the works for a number of years and will generate a book (planned to launch next year) as well as further study. This will sit alongside a host of planned events in Scotland, his homeland and Canada, his adopted home.

I wanted to include McLaren in this month’s theme of technological developments (pre digital) and address some aspects of his practice. His work is well known in Animation Studies, but much of this research (and the events) is to bring him to a wider audience.  While researching I have come across some fantastic material at the University of Stirling archive, not least his copious technical notes, which I have found to be invaluable. His notes allowed anyone with an interest to find out how he achieved his effects, including details on how to create the perfect animation table. This blog will present a few sections from this research as it starts to form the larger project[1]. Much of this is in the form of quotes from these notes. By allowing McLaren to speak for himself as it were, we get a greater insight into his practice.

He is well known for his direct, or ‘cameraless’ animation – scratching the film emulsion or painting directly onto the film to generate his images. Likewise his synchronized soundtracks, which accompanied his animation were scratched, painted or printed onto the film stock creating a new form of animated music. He was practical in his approach, seeking solutions which became innovative techniques, “I switched to engraving on black emulsion-coated film for all hand-made sound. The reason was that clear film got scratched and dirty very easily…” (1940). This resolution to a simple problem led to an effective animation technique as seen in Dots and Loops (1940).

Likewise the technical notes from the 1955 film Blinkity Blank suggest that the film was in part created in order to solve a registration problem:

“…To bypass this problem blinkity blank intentionally set out to investigate the possibilities of intermittent animation and spasmodic imagery

His fascination with rhythm and movement led to continuous experimentation. His notes detail his practice and rationale as well as the suggestion that much of the fun was, for him, in the process of making the animation, as much as the end result.  He was also keen to advance his methods and would revisit older work and attempt to recreate them using new techniques (as seen with Spheres in 1969).

McLaren talked openly about his ‘frugal’ beginnings as a filmmaker which limited his options in terms of equipment, but he also suggests that this helped drive his creativity, an approach which remained throughout his life,

“I certainly admit that I get a distinct pleasure from making a film out of as little as possible in the way of money, equipment and time….limited means…stimulate the imagination to new directions of thinking and film making.” (1948 Documentary Film News). 

He was also keen to retain a hands-on feel when making his films, “And so my militant philosophy is this: to make with a brush on canvas is a simple and direct delight- to make a movie should be the same.” (p.52 of “Documentary Film News” 1948)

This short collection of quotes merely scratches the surface of the continuing work but instead of pre-empting the rest of the project (and going too far over the length of a reasonable blog post) I will end here.  I will be presenting a paper on McLaren and performance at the 25th Society for Animation Studies conference next month which will open the discussion further.

[1] Some of this material was presented at the 24th Society for Animation Studies conference in Melbourne 2012.


Dr Nichola Dobson is based in Edinburgh, lecturing part time at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Founding editor of Animation Studies from 2006 until 2011 and has recently established a new academic blog Animation Studies 2.0. She has published on both animation studies and television, most recently The A to Z of Animation and Cartoons (2010) and Historical Dictionary of Animation and Cartoons (2009) for Scarecrow Press.  She has published in anthologies on Crime Scene Investigation and Life on Mars as well as shorter works for the online journal FLOW.  She is currently working on a book on TV animation with Paul Ward for Edinburgh University Press and a book on Scottish animator Norman McLaren.  She began a new role as Vice President of the Society for Animation Studies in autumn 2011.