McLaren 2014 festival shines a light on underappreciated experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren
Filmmaker Iain Gardner: 'Were he still alive today he’d be at the forefront of experiments with digital technology'
When it comes to Scottish icons, we hear a lot about bards and Bonds, hip musicians and blockbusting painters – but some trailblazers still slip under the radar, even when their work has transformed an industry or an art form. The Stirling-born filmmaker Norman McLaren arguably did both, achieving innovations in the field of animation that helped to push the medium forward both artistically and commercially.
McLaren 2014, a major collaboration between Edinburgh’s Centre for the Moving Image, the National Film Board of Canada and the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme marking the centenary of his birth, seeks to draw new audiences to his work, as well as showcasing work inspired by his art, and extending his legacy of training and education. Events will follow the trajectory of McLaren’s own career. His birthplace, Stirling, will see a plaque dedication as well as a photography exhibition, a film tour of the city and the dance production A Chairy Tale, based on his short film of the same name. Glasgow, where McLaren trained at the School of Art, will pay particular tribute to McLaren’s interest in musical experimentation, with a screening of his short films scored by the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, and the live animation and sound event Digital Scratch: Riding Over Blinkity Blank. Edinburgh will see the comprehensive exhibition Hand-Made Cinema at the Talbot Rice Gallery, as well as a yet-to-be-announced exclusive presentation at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where McLaren’s films were regular features of the programme during his lifetime, and where the annual animation award bears his name. The time McLaren spent in Orkney will also be marked by an exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness; and animation workshops led by, among others, McLaren’s niece Tricia Anderson, will take place all over the UK. The National Film Board of Canada, where McLaren trained animators as well as creating some of his most important work, will dovetail the Scottish events with its own celebrations.
So what is it that makes McLaren such a significant figure? ‘His work is relentlessly inventive,’ says Iain Gardner, BAFTA-winning and Oscar-longlisted animator, EIFF animation programmer and Artistic Director of McLaren 2014. ‘For me, it’s the vitality in the work that most touches me – and it’s that unique quality of animation, that shapes and colour can have a life of their own, that drives me to animate myself.’ Gardner notes a couple of particular innovations for which McLaren is celebrated – the direct painting on to film stock whereby he created his ‘cameraless films’; his frame-by-frame ‘pixilation’ of living human figures – but points out that ‘he pioneered so many techniques that it’s counterproductive to concentrate on one or two. I feel confident that were he still alive today he’d be at the forefront of experiments with digital technology.’
McLaren won an Oscar, a Palme D'Or, a BAFTA and two Silver Bears in the course of his career. But he also displayed a lifelong commitment to the use of animation in educational and community-building contexts, and took his message all over the world, working with UNESCO in the 1950s and 60s to bring workshops to China and India. Through his work with the National Film Board of Canada, McLaren was also a mentor and inspiration to countless animators – among them George Dunning, who directed Yellow Submarine (and whose company TV Cartoons would eventually produce Iain Gardner’s own breakthrough short, Akbar’s Cheetah, for Channel 4).
The international aspect of McLaren’s work was vastly important, although as Gardner notes, his success in Canada has seen him somewhat overlooked in his native Scotland. ‘He’s very much posited as a Canadian filmmaker,’ says Gardner. McLaren’s work in Canada remains an inspirational model, however. ‘One does wonder what could be achieved with animation in Scotland with similar audience engagement and support, and the correct economic environment to encourage production. The McLaren 2014 project will have delivered digital animation workshops to over 100 schools in Scotland by the time it’s run its course, so there could be an explosion of animators here in ten or 20 years’ time!’
But times are harder than ever for those who choose a creative path, and the type of publicly funded programmes that McLaren both benefited from and backed are under ever more threat. Such questions are to the fore for Gardner even as his long graft on McLaren 2014 comes to fruition. ‘It’s not only our current time of recession that makes discussion of public support for the arts essential, but also the question of independence,’ he says. ‘Tax breaks for animation production in the UK are beginning to have a positive impact on indigenous creativity and production; would an independent Scotland retain this government support? For me, McLaren 2014 and the issues raised by McLaren’s life come at a very interesting time for Scotland.’