Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition
© National Film Board of Canada
Emru Townsend · November 13, 2006 | I don't make it a habit to comment on things I haven't experienced in their entirety, but in the case of the Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition DVD box set, I'll make an exception. After all, I've been dipping into the six-disc set, savouring its crisp, restored films, and absorbing its supplemental materials for three months now—and I still haven't covered half of the included films.

I realized it was a lost cause when I watched A Chairy Tale (1957) for what must have been the fifth time during one afternoon's viewing session. I couldn't help it; I kept marvelling at how the wordless film poetically and hilariously spoke about power and relationships as the lone human figure (co-director Claude Jutra) tried to do nothing more than sit on a chair that kept mischievously bobbing, weaving and sliding out of the way, set to the sitar and tabla music of Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal. A Chairy Tale combines stop-motion, pixillation, a form of puppetry in which the chair was manipulated with strings pulled horizontally, reverse filming, and a technique McLaren called "blurr." (As an indicator of how far ahead of their time they were, Phil Tippett's "go-motion," developed for Dragonslayer in 1981, was a variation of the blurr concept.) One of the reasons I kept going back to the film was to see how McLaren and Jutra went from one technique to the other, sometimes imperceptibly; however, I was repeatedly sucked in by the film itself, watching it through to the end each time.

Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition
National Film Board of Canada, 2006
875 minutes

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Norman McLaren was, like many of Canada's treasures, an import. John Grierson, the first commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and himself an import from South Africa, hired the young Scot in 1941 to create the NFB's animation division.

If that were all McLaren had done, we would owe him a huge debt. But his contributions extended far beyond that. McLaren was an experimental filmmaker throughout his career, and he used his films to explore the relationship between motion and sound. He experimented with drawing directly on film stock to create "cameraless" animation in the vein of Len Lye, but pushed it further by scratching the audio segment of the 35mm film strip, effectively drawing sound and teaching himself musical composition in the process. He tried to find out how much visual information he could remove and still convey motion. He glided from technique to technique, exploring their theoretical edges. The astonishing thing is that as an experimental filmmaker, all of McLaren's films are explicitly about technique—and yet each one is entertaining and sometimes even riveting to the everyday person.
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