Pas de deux--Critical Essay

Norman McLaren unlike other film and video artists has experienced large audiences and popularity. This is due to his films appeal to the senses regardless of the subject matter, says William Jordan ( 1953 Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television, p. 1). He is known for his animation techniques. Using abstract designs in color and shape he creates personalities for things usually seen as inanimate.

In the film "Pas de deux" he does more than a recording of choreography. Much like with Norman McLaren other work the process of the recording is part of it's art. He exposes the same frames as many as ten times, creating a multiple image of a ballerina and her partner. Black background and backlit figures coupled with pan pipes produce a quiet and detachment similar to that of his film Lines.

It contains components of both abstract and realism but unlike his other pieces it leans closer to the realistic end of the spectrum. One dancer is made to appear to be dancing with herself. When the male dancer is introduced it then becomes more based on design there are trails of movement that are used as brush strokes as an artist paints on a canvas. Then the art fades as another stroke begins.

McLaren wrote about his films, in Film Quarterly (1953) saying: ...their making is a one man operation from start to finish. I have tried to preserve in my relationship to the film the same closeness and intimacy that exists between a painter and his canvas. This is rather difficult, for in one case only a stick of wood with a tuft of camel hair intervenes between the maker and the finished result. And in the other an elaborate series of optical, chemical and mechanical processes, which become a perfect breeding ground for a lack of intimacy, frustrations, ill-feeling and hostility between the artist and his finished work...And so my militant philosophy is this: to make with a brush on canvas is a simple direct delight-to make with the movie is the same.

I would consider him from the impressionists school of theory. His works appeared to depart from realism. He was famous, for even using live subjects, having them appear animated. His use of juxtaposition, rupture and speed alteration exemplify this in his films. There is a feeling of dream like motion incorporated into the choreography through his work. Pas de deux captures an aspect of dance that the human eye would not be able to achieve alone. It shows the use of patterns made through space in a clear fashion.

William Jordan believes that McLaren's everyman approach to his work is what becomes evident in his work. What ever the subject matter may be he looks more at, "means to an end" rather than, "the end itself." He says that McLaren's work can be explained in the following ways:

In the Film Quarterly article, The Craft of Norman McLaren, the author discusses a lecture McLaren gave in 1961 at the Vancouver film festival. He describes McLaren as tall, spare, shy with almost a gawky air. McLaren during this lecture speaks of tempo, modulation and the essence of animation. He says that "it is what happens between each frame of film-this is what is all important."

Jordan Belson says in this article, "his films are all primitive, this is their real virtue and a large part of their charm. For his color sense is harsh and his sense of design is not terribly rich; as an artist in those terms he can not touch. But his films are often new. He does up there in Montreal, what our film artists might be doing in New Mexico or Iowa, but aren't because they do not have his peculiar innovative talent."

McLaren continued in this lecture saying, "the problem is one must always prevent the drop in interest-the film must be cohesive and keep building, building." McLaren uses unusual methods to attain unique effects in his films. The two general procedures he utilizes are cameraless animation and using the camera to animate paintings in unusual ways through the pastel method. In his earlier years as a film student at Glasgow School of Art, he lacked the resources of film equipment. He then decided to scrounge up used 35mm film and wash the emulsion off. Now with a clear celluloid of film he painted directly on to it. When done it was an abstract film of "rhythmic, colored patterns." As time progressed using new clear film, the process did not change.

According to William Jordan, the reliance on pure movement is one of the most distinctive traits in Norman McLaren films. Since the characters in his cameraless animation are 3/4 inch by 3/8 inch the details are kept to the most simplistic form. Therefore all the character personality is conveyed through movement. During cameraless animation clear celluloid is hand painted on slowly, showing the progression of the character. There are 24 frames per second, each frame differing only slightly from the one before, creating a fluid motion. The sound, music are synthetic, is laid on the film first and translated with marks showing crescendos and beats so that the painter can create the motion to coincide with the sound.

The second form of producing films without cameras consist not of, "individual frame divisions or picture separations" but instead of long painting strokes at a time. Those lengths being organized by a measurement cue sheet of the music. William Jordan states that with this type of Norman McLaren work, "trying to appreciate it with the intellect is besides the point, for their sole function is to divert the ear with their rhythms and to amuse the eye with their dancing patterns."

Through out school and his professional life McLaren experimented with synthetic sound. Synthetic is without the aid of a camera or a sound recording device. During a radio interview Forsythe Hardy in 1951 he said, "I like to think of synthetic sound as a new medium with a new set of inherent qualities and limitations. As a rhythmic instrument it is definitely superior to most of the traditional instruments in the subtly, the speed, and the complexity of the rhythms which it can make, for each of these rhythms can be carefully plotted in advance." As reported by Jordan in his article in the same radio interview McLaren said:

McLaren wrote in "Animated Films," documentary film news May 1948: in doing oil paintings myself and in watching other painters at their canvases it often seemed to me the evolution...from it's virgin of state to (in my own case) it's soiled and battered conclusion, was more interesting than the conclusion itself. Why not therefore, consciously switch the focus point of all the effort from the end condition and spread it over the whole process? In other words, do a painting, but put the emphasis on the doing rather than the painting-on the process rather than on the end process.

In 1953 McLaren showed that he could also use live subjects and objects as well as animation. With the film short Neighbours, he used camera tricks by stopping the camera and moving objects and restarting the camera. Neighbours won the short subject academy award for that year. The aforementioned trick was used to " create ideas loaded with meaning." In the stereoscopic, where "three dimensional space is made from two dimensional subject matter," a motion picture animation camera is used along with some sequences painted directly on film. "McLaren views stereoscopy with composure, feeling that although it adds a sensory element to the film form, it is on about the same level as color. Consequently he believes, "movement is still the guts of the film."

--Khalda Logan

Norman McLaren