Norman McLaren (1914-1987)

Following the establishment of its National Film Board in 1939, Canada has become a major contributor to the field of animation. One of Canada’s most influential animators was Norman McLaren. He was an exceptional artist who explored a variety of film techniques and was fascinated by the relationship of music to visuals. His sense of creative freedom led him to break new ground in animation techniques; for example, he was credited with introducing the technique of pixilation in his Oscar-winning film Neighbours (1952).

The Collector’s Edition features new digital masters of 14 of Norman McLaren’s best works.
Documentary Creative Process: Norman McLaren
The booklet Norman McLaren on the Creative Process

Critical Viewing for Neighbours

Ask students:

  • How do you think these films were made?
  • Why did the filmmaker use animation instead of live action?
  • How did the choice of film technique impact your perception of the theme?
  • Which parts of this film do you think might have been offensive to earlier audiences?
  • How do you feel about this particular sequence?
  • Why are we now allowed to view this kind of image?


McLaren’s most famous animation that reveals his technical brilliance and his sensitivity to the human condition.
The stop motion live-actor technique, typically referred to as pixilation, is created by applying the principles of animated cartoon movies to the filming of actors. Instead of making a series of drawings, real human beings are placed in a series of postures in front of the animation camera. Two animator artists were used as the actors in this particular film because, according to McLaren, they knew exactly how to move themselves. One interesting note: this entire short film was shot outdoors in one location. If doing another such film, McLaren stated that he would shoot it indoors with artificial light. This is because the summer climate of eastern Canada fluctuates too much from day to day and many days they had to stop shooting because of grey skies or very sunny days.

A Chairy Tale

This animation brings to life an inanimate object, the chair. The method for making the chair move was that of traditional string-puppet technique where animators manipulated horizontal strings (fine black nylon fishing tackle) which was invisible to the camera. The numbers of frames per second used was varied on purpose, because it was much easier to control the chair's behavior if it was moved slower than normal. The short film was completely edited before sound of the animation was considered. At that time, the distinguished composer-performer sitarist, Ravi Shankar, had come to Montreal. After being invited to view the silent film, he expressed a keen interest in composing the music. A Chairy Tale was shot indoors; but McLaren discovered that indoor shooting has its own problems. Dust and footmarks on the black floor were to prove just as irritating as any problem with the Canadian weather.

A Phantasy

This animation was created from a single color-pastel drawing that was slowly metamorphosed. Slightly changing different areas of the drawing at various speeds resulted in a technique that creates a continuous state of flux or metamorphosis. The music was planned after the visuals were completed. McLaren believed that abstract films may only contain unrepresentative shapes but since they assume motion in time and space they can possess a great deal of humanity.


© 2008 Karin Gunn. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: February 2008