Norman McLaren Research Paper

Sam Abdelhak

Survey to Animation and Visual Effects

Final Project: Research Paper

Norman McLaren

    Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn.” (Norman McLaren, BrainyQuote.)

For the time period of the British inter-war period, Norman McLaren was of the most influential, well-known, and significant abstract filmmakers in the region. His work in abstraction inspired many to pursue the abstract arts, and follow in his footsteps of creating unique abstract films. This research paper will demonstrate how Norman McLaren remains an inspiration to young artists around the world seeking to create invigorating abstract art pieces and how he is an inspiration to the art community as a whole (BFI Screenonline).

McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland in 1914. In 1932, McLaren entered the Fine Arts schools of Glasgow, and from there became interested in filmmaking, thus leading him to join the school’s Kine’s society. In 1935, McLaren released his first movie, Seven till Five, which made it very clear that McLaren’s early inspiration and formalist attitude came from film director, Sergei Eisenstein (BFI Screenonline).

What makes McLaren’s work so unique to many other abstract films seen by other artists, is the musical script McLaren incorporates into his works. However, when he started creating abstract films, he did not use music; but instead, in 1940, he animated and produced the sound effects to his films Dots, and Loops, by the means of “scratch-composing” the soundtrack, where he scratched marks into film using a knife or other sharp utensil, producing unique sounds, which he then recorded for his pieces to avoid paying the right for music to accompany his pieces (British Film Institute).


Later on, McLaren left New York to join the National Film Board of Canada. From there, he created more abstract animation films, including his films Mosaic (1965) and Synchromy (1971). He’s method of creating this was to paint the animations directly onto the film, and he continued to use his method of using a mixed array of pens, brushes, pencils, razor blades and various other tools, to scratch marks into the film he used for the soundtrack of his films (British Film Institute).

Mosaic, is an abstract film based on the notion of a man setting a ping-pong ball in motion, which then continues to multiple and perplex as it continues its bouncing impacting with walls, the floor, and the ceiling. As the movie continues, the background proceeds to change colors repeatedly, while the ping-pong balls remain their white colors. This creates a large amount of contrast throughout the entire film and allows for the audience to find themselves mesmerized by the synchronization of the coordinated movement of the ping-pong balls. The movements that McLaren used on his film were so precise, whenever two corresponding ping-pong balls hit a certain location of the room, two others would strike parallel locations of the opposite side of the room. Mclaren’s eye for precision is incomparable to any other artist who has attempted any similar experimentations or methods such as his.

Another well known McLaren film which was previously mentioned is Dots. What is so unique about this piece is how McLaren uses the dots to convey a character, rather than actually forming a character for his film. On individual frames, the dots appear as nothing more than dots; but when the slides are put together in the film, they form a lively character with a very playful sense which is added to the film because of it.

Synchromy is another National Film Board of Canada film created by Norman McLaren. In this film, images are used to interpret sound in their truest form. What puts this piece in such a high place amongst all the other abstract art films that McLaren has created, is that Synchromy was the last, and definitely one of the most well known. Synchromy was created using synthetic sound by photographing unusual and interesting geometric shapes, followed by running the photographs through a machine known as an optical sound head (Otherfilm).

Taking a step away from Norman McLaren’s fine work in abstract art films. There is a film that McLaren is well noted for, and it his pixelated film, Neighbors (1952). A pixelation is a form of stop motion, using humans and other moving objects as the puppets; Pixelation is an art form that McLaren excelled at in his lifetime.  The story of these two neighbors acts as a metaphor and exemplifies as an idea how ridiculous of a notion war can be. At the time this movie was released, the Korean war and the Cold war were occurring, in addition, he had experience with the Spanish Civil War.  War had clearly grabbed Norman McLaren’s attention quite a bit. At the end of the film, both neighbors end up in their graves, along with the death of their families, and the destruction of their homes and properties. Looking at the film from a technical perspective, pixelation along with other methods he incorporated into his film, made it a highly outstanding piece of work, with high regards in the art community. Although there has been a controversy about the film and how dark it became to convey its point, it did eventually go on to win an Academy Award (Neighbors).


It does not take much to see that Norman McLaren has revolutionized the world of abstract arts, and the world of art as a whole. McLaren used abstract arts to create remarkable films which are idolized by numerous young artists in our modern day society, he also learned to create his own music and sound effects for his films by making scratches in the film, then recording the noises it made while playing the film. This is not to say that there are not countless other artists who have also excelled in the fields of abstract art, however, Norman McLaren founded the path on which those other artists now walk on, and initiated the journey of many young artists, and artists to come.

Works Cited

“BFI Screenonline: McLaren, Norman (1914-1987) Biography.” BFI Screenonline: McLaren, Norman (1914-1987) Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

“How to Write a Film on a Piano: Norman McLaren’s Visual Music | Sight & Sound.” British Film Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

“Neighbours.” Neighbours. Rene Cartagena, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

“Norman McLaren Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

“Synchromy.” OtherFilm. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

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