Creating Films Frame by Frame
The Life and Works of Norman McLaren
by John Hart
April 13, 2023

Frame by Frame 1

Norman McLaren. Photo by Gar Lunney.

“Every film is a kind of dance.” – Norman McLaren

Through a combination of dance, music, film, storytelling and technology, Frame by Frame is an homage to Norman McLaren, a pioneer in film, sound and animation. His experiments in filmmaking – idiosyncratic and accessible, whimsical and aesthetically brilliant – have had an immense impact on Canadian animation and still resonate and delight today. The 2018 ballet by Robert Lepage and Guillaume Côté explores McLaren’s interest in movement and music, as well as his creative and collaborative processes.

Born in Scotland, Norman McLaren studied set design and experimented with film and animation. After working for the UK General Post Office film unit, he and his partner moved to New York City before they were invited to work for the nascent National Film Board of Canada in 1941. McLaren was tasked with opening an animation studio and to train Canadian animators. Studio A, the NFB’s first animation studio, formally came into existence in January 1943 with McLaren at its helm.

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Norman McLaren.

“A cinematic genius who made films without cameras and music without instruments.” – National Film Board

Each of McLaren’s films is infused with his personal sense of curiosity, discovery and playfulness. He constantly experimented with different techniques, including hand-drawn animation, drawn-on-film animation, visual music, abstract film, pixilation and graphical sound. It took many months, sometimes over a year, to create a film, especially if McLaren was painting directly on a film strip.

Just think: a 5 minute film was made up of 7,200 individual frames that McLaren animated one at a time: frame by frame. Is the animation perfect? No, but each film has its own sense of character and energy. The imperfections themselves give the films life and reveal the hand and creativity of the artist.

For McLaren, a lover of ballet, movement and music were inseparable and were integral to each film. In Synchromy (1971), for example, he composed the piano rhythms of the soundtrack with optical techniques, then transposed those visuals into multicolour: what the audience sees and hears is essentially the same.

“I want the show to be an homage from the digital age to Norman McLaren, to the analog world.” - Robert Lepage

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Guillaume Côté and Robert Lepage with members from production rehearsing Frame by Frame. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

For Robert Lepage, celebrated actor, director and producer, he was long inspired and intrigued by Norman McLaren. There are direct parallels to the hallmarks of Lepage’s artistic style: the use of technology to tell stories, a fusion of art forms, a collaborative process and a personal dedication to creativity and innovation. Like many of McLaren’s projects, the creation of Frame by Frame was itself a collaboration, with Lepage’s Ex Machina studio, the National Film Board and The National Ballet of Canada.

The ballet brings together three stylistic and imaginative creators – Lepage and Principal Dancer and Choreographic Associate Guillaume Côté and the films and legacy of Norman McLaren. Frame by Frame enters McLaren’s imaginative landscape, a mediation on how film, movement, music and dance produce an effect greater than the sum of its parts. Together Lepage and Côté examine and extend McLaren’s fascination with the ways technology can be employed to produce and become a moving piece of art.

In the ballet, eleven of McLaren’s works are directly referenced: screened on stage, used as inspiration or replicated. McLaren’s Oscar-winning short film, Neighbours (1952), for example, is recreated on stage, as is A Chairy Tale (1957) and the third part of Canon (1964).

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Harrison James and Heather Ogden in Frame by Frame. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Undoubtedly the climax of Frame by Frame is the stunning Pas de Deux (1968), one of McLaren’s three dance films, which is performed live on stage. McLaren’s digital visual effects, which he produced after filming, can happen in real time with today’s technology. It’s a reminder that McLaren’s original films were created before computers, which now can create special visual effects in minutes. But Frame by Frame honours the technique, care, passion and patience that McLaren invested in every frame of his films.

Frame by Frame is an intimate collaboration of film, music and dance to create a portrait of Norman McLaren – his life, his work, his relationship to dance and how he revolutionized the discipline of animation by being true to himself.” - Guillaume Côté

Frame by Frame is onstage June 2 — 11. Learn more


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