Norman McLaren
Norman McLaren drawing on film - 1944.jpg
William Norman McLaren

(1914-04-11)11 April 1914
Stirling, Scotland
Died27 January 1987(1987-01-27) (aged 72)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
NationalityScottish / Canadian
Alma materGlasgow School of Art
Occupation(s)Animator, director, producer
Years active1933–1983
Known forFounding of the animation department of the National Film Board of Canada
Notable workNeighbours
Pas de deux
PartnerGuy Glover (1937–1983)
AwardsAcademy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject
1952 Neighbours

William Norman McLaren, CC CQ LL. D. (11 April 1914 – 27 January 1987) was a Scottish Canadian animator, director and producer known for his work for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).[1] He was a pioneer in a number of areas of animation and filmmaking, including hand-drawn animation, drawn-on-film animation, visual music, abstract film, pixilation and graphical sound.[2][3] McLaren was also an artist and printmaker, and explored his interest in dance in his films.[4]

His awards included an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1952 for Neighbours, a Silver Bear for best short documentary at the 1956 Berlin International Film Festival for Rythmetic and a 1969 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film for Pas de deux.[5]

Early life

Norman McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland, on 11 April 1914. He had two older siblings, one brother, Jack and a sister, Sheena.[6] At the age of 21, he travelled to Russia for a vacation which confirmed his communist beliefs; his father had paid for the trip in hopes of curing McLaren of the communist belief he valued.[6]

When McLaren was 22, he left Stirling[6] and studied set design at the Glasgow School of Art.[1] McLaren joined the Kinecraft Society at the Glasgow School of Art while he was studying there, it was within the society that he began to experiment with different styles and techniques of filmmaking.[6] It was also at the Glasgow School of Art that McLaren met Helen Biggar, they produced films together outside the School and sought to have their productions released nationally.[6]

His early experiments with film and animation included actually scratching and painting the film stock itself, as he did not have ready access to a camera. His earliest extant film, Seven Till Five (1933), a "day in the life of an art school" was influenced by Eisenstein and displays a strongly formalist attitude.

McLaren's next film, Camera Makes Whoopee (1935), was a more elaborate take on the themes explored in Seven Till Five, inspired by his acquisition of a Ciné-Kodak camera, which enabled him to execute a number of 'trick' shots. McLaren used pixilation effects, superimpositions and animation not only to display the staging of an art school ball, but also to tap into the aesthetic sensations supposedly produced by this event.

His two early films won prizes at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival, where fellow Scot and future NFB founder John Grierson was a judge.[7]

Professional career

GPO Film Unit

Grierson, who was at that time head of the UK General Post Office film unit, saw another of his movies at an amateur film festival and took interest.[1] He hired McLaren for the GPO after his studies, following a stint as cameraman on Defence of Madrid, Ivor Montagu's documentary on the Spanish Civil War.[7][8] McLaren worked at the GPO from 1936 to 1939, making four films including: Book Bargain (1937), Mony a Pickle and Love on the Wing (1938), and News for the Navy (1938).[8]

Solomon Guggenheim Foundation

McLaren then moved to New York City in 1939,[9] just as World War II was about to begin in Europe. With a grant from the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, he worked in New York until 1941, making four drawn-on-film animated works: Boogie-Doodle (1940), along with Dots, Loops and Stars and Stripes.[10][11]


At the invitation of Grierson, he moved to Canada in 1941 to work for the National Film Board, to open an animation studio and to train Canadian animators. Upon McLaren's arrival in Canada, Grierson asked him to direct a promotional film reminding Canadians to mail their Christmas cards early, Mail Early (1941). He then worked on animated shorts as well as maps for Allied propaganda documentary films, followed by his War Bonds campaign films: V for Victory (1941), 5 for 4 (1942), Hen Hop (1942) and Dollar Dance (1943).[8]

As of 1942, McLaren could no longer keep up with the demands for animation at the fast-growing NFB, and he was asked by Grierson to recruit art students and create a small animation team—a task made more difficult because many young students had gone off to fight in the war. McLaren found recruits for his fledgling animation unit at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal and the Ontario College of Art, including René Jodoin, George Dunning, Jim McKay, Grant Munro and his future collaborator, Evelyn Lambart. McLaren trained these emerging animators, who would all work on cartoons, animated cards and propaganda documentaries before going on to make their own films. Studio A, the NFB's first animation studio, formally came into existence as of January 1943, with McLaren as its head.[1][8]

During his work for the NFB, McLaren created his most famous film, Neighbours (1952), which has won various awards around the world, including the Canadian Film Award and the Academy Award. Besides the brilliant combination of visuals and sound, the film has a very strong social message against violence and war. In 1955, McLaren won the Cannes Film Festival prize for Blinkity Blank (1955), which he later selected as his diploma piece when he was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1974.[12] In his early period in Canada, McLaren spent considerable time developing the animation department of the board.[1]


In addition to film, McLaren worked with UNESCO in the 1950s and 1960s on programs to teach film and animation techniques in China and India.[1] His five part "Animated Motion" shorts, produced in the late 1970s, are an excellent example of instruction on the basics of film animation.

While travelling back from Mexico, McLaren travelled to Cuba and by chance met Fidel Castro.[6]


McLaren is remembered for his experiments with image and sound as he developed a number of groundbreaking techniques for combining and synchronizing animation with music.

The National Film Board honoured McLaren by naming its Montreal head office building the Norman McLaren Building. The Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent, which is home to the NFB, has also honoured McLaren by naming a borough district after him.

In 1981, the new Film House opened in Edinburgh, it was to be the home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, inside there are two seats dedicated to McLaren and Grierson.[6]

In 2006, he was the subject of a short animated documentary McLaren's Negatives. Also in 2006, the Film Board marked the 65th anniversary of NFB animation with an international retrospective of McLaren's restored classics and a new DVD box set of his complete works.

In June 2013, the NFB released an iTunes app entitled "McLaren's Workshop," allowing users to create their own films using animation techniques utilized by McLaren and providing access to over fifty of his films.[13]

From 1 to 10 June 2018, Robert Lepage, principal dancer Guillaume Côté and the National Ballet of Canada staged a ballet entitled Frame by Frame, based on McLaren's life and work.[14]

Birth centenary events

The 100th anniversary of the birth of McLaren was marked by a project entitled "McLaren Wall-to-Wall" in Montreal's Quartier des Spectacles entertainment district, with short films inspired by McLaren works Neighbours, Begone Dull Care, Synchromy and Spheres projected onto local landmarks.[15]

McLaren's centenary was also celebrated in Scotland with the McLaren 2014 Programme of screenings, exhibitions, events and animation workshops. The Programme was conceived of and directed by animator Iain Gardner who also serves as the Animation Programmer for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. The programme was a key focus within the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, and ran through to the end of the XX Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in August. The McLaren 2014 Programme was managed by the Centre for the Moving Image, working in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, and over 20 partners in Scotland and the UK.[16] In April 2014 his only surviving nephew Douglas Biggar (younger son of Sheena) unveiled a blue heritage plaque on his childhood home marking the centenary of his birth.

Lifetime achievement awards

In 1968, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and promoted to Companion in 1973. In 1977, he received an honorary doctorate from Concordia University.[17] In 1982, he was the first anglophone to receive the Prix Albert-Tessier, given to persons for an outstanding career in Québec cinema.

In 1986, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Festival of Animated Film – Animafest Zagreb.[18]

In 2009, McLaren's works were added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme, listing the most significant documentary heritage collections in the world, joining such works as the Gutenberg Bible and The Wizard of Oz.[19]


Academy Awards (USA)
Annie Awards (USA)
BAFTA Awards (UK)
Berlin International Film Festival
Canadian Film Awards (Canada)
Cannes Film Festival
Columbus International Film and Video Festival (USA)
Dance on Camera Festival (USA)
Festival international de cinéma de court métrage (France)
Festival international du film romantique
Genie Awards (Canada)
Golden Sheaf Awards / Short Film and Video Festival (Canada)
International Film Festival (India)
Itinerant – American Film and Video Festival (USA)

Personal life

McLaren's longtime partner was fellow NFB director Guy Glover, whom he met at the ballet in London in 1937. The two men remained in a committed relationship until McLaren's death.[23][24]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Rosenthal, Alan. The new documentary in action: a casebook in film making. University of California Press, 1972. 267-8. Print.
  2. ^ Schaffer, Bill (2005). "The Riddle of the Chicken: The Work of Norman McLaren". Senses of Cinema (35). Retrieved 16 March 2011.
  3. ^ Clark, Ken (Summer 1987). "Tribute to Norman McLaren". Animator (19): 2. Retrieved 20 March 2011.
  4. ^ Burant, Jim (2022). Ottawa Art & Artists: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Art Canada Institute. ISBN 978-1-4871-0289-0.
  5. ^ Kozlov, Vladimir (28 May 2009). "Movie of the week – Norman McLaren retrospective". Moscow News.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Dobson, Nichola (25 January 2018). Norman McLaren : between the frames. New York. ISBN 978-1-5013-2879-4. OCLC 1015372165.
  7. ^ a b Liz Faber, Helen Walters (2003). Animation Unlimited: Innovative Short Films Since 1940. Laurence King Publishing. p. 1929. ISBN 1-85669-346-5.
  8. ^ a b c d St-Pierre, Marc (December 2011). "70 Years of Animation, Part 2 – Norman McLaren". NFB Blog. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
  9. ^ Dobson, Nichola. Norman McLaren: Between the Frames. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 87. doi:10.5040/9781501328800-008. ISBN 978-1-5013-2881-7.
  10. ^ Ortega, Marcos (16 July 2006). "Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition". Experimental Cinema. Retrieved 1 April 2011.
  11. ^ Beckerman, Howard (February 2004). Animation: The Whole Story. Allworth Press. pp. 51–52. ISBN 978-1-58115-301-9.
  12. ^ Burant, Jim (2022). Ottawa Art & Artists: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Art Canada Institute. ISBN 978-1-4871-0289-0.
  13. ^ Amidi, Amid (7 June 2013). "NFB's Free McLaren's Workshop iPad App is a Must-Download". Cartoon Brew. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
  14. ^ Demara, Bruce (15 February 2017). "National Ballet and Robert Lepage team on work honouring Norman McLaren". Toronto Star. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  15. ^ Milligan, Mercedes (5 December 2013). "NFB Invites Artists to Celebrate McLaren's 100th". Animation. Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  16. ^ McGill, Hannah (27 March 2014). "McLaren 2014 festival shines a light on underappreciated experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren". The List. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  17. ^ "Honorary Degree List Concordia University Archives". Retrieved 19 December 2022.
  18. ^ "Animafest Zagreb 1986".
  19. ^ Boswell, Randy (31 July 2009). "Montreal filmmaker honoured by UN". Montreal Gazette. Canwest. Retrieved 4 August 2009.[dead link]
  20. ^ "NFB – Collection – Pas de deux".
  21. ^ "1st Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners". Archived from the original on 15 October 2013. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
  22. ^ "6th Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners". Archived from the original on 15 October 2013. Retrieved 26 December 2009.
  23. ^ McWilliams, Donald (1990). Creative Process: Norman McLaren.
  24. ^ Glassman, Marc (17 August 2009). "Norman McLaren: Animation genius created poetry". Playback. Brunico Communications. Retrieved 29 January 2014.