Norman McLaren: Spectacular Abstractions

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Harrison Laird. The assignment was to produce screening notes to accompany a small collection of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Comments and feedback below would be most welcome. Read more student work here.]

Born in Stirling Scotland in 1914 and having attended the Glasgow School of Fine Arts from 1932, Norman McLaren is known as one of “the most significant abstract filmmakers of the British inter-war period” (Sexton), with influences stemming from the Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin.  Despite being successful and influential during this period, it is after the war that he “enjoyed a significant degree of artistic freedom” (McWilliams) in being able to return to filmmaking for pleasure. Having been influenced in particular an abstract film by the German animator Oscar Fischinger, McLaren’s experimentation in technique and content produced an avant-garde collection that displays an incredible attention to the individual frame, and in the aesthetic symbiosis of both image and sound from one frame to the next; the result being, especially in films such as Begone Dull Care (1949) and Blinkety Blank (1955), an elaborate and exciting meld of musical improvisation, abstract imagery, and exploding colour. In each film, McLaren’s technique is “something to be defined precisely, and exploited just once – it seeming important that each film be regarded as a unique invention” (Curtis, 178) stressing the need for diversity throughout his work.


Begone Dull Care is a startlingly abstract 8 minute meld of music with colour; McLaren creates a symbiosis between the sound and image by painting the images directly onto the film. In being able to view and ‘connect’ the optical and sound tracks simultaneously, the analogy between Peterson’s jazz and McLaren’s image seems almost flawless (the viewer only rarely and briefly being able to make out snippets of the frame).  In figure 1, the black slug-like brush strokes bounce to and fro across the frame, and gradually seem to fall downwards as the end of the bar approaches, mimicking the pitch of the piano sonically) of the high tempo improvised piano; in some instances  these abstract scratches of colour on the film take on recognisable forms, which are perhaps McLaren’s visual representation of the random improvisation of Jazz. Begone is “non-objective art and visual music, recontextualised” (Moritz, 107) and reformatted into a film which succeeds in captivating audiences of both genres of art in McLaren’s ability to make the two intrinsic in their existence.



After returning from a brief teaching post in China in 1950 and portraying feelings towards the Korean War (in its symbolic narrative of a petty argument between neighbours over a flower), contrasting the light-hearted, colourful experimentation of Begone is Neighbours. Finished in 1952 it is another 8 minute short which despite its political context, is representative of another of McLaren’s technical experimentations. Branding and utilising the technique ‘pixillation’ (a technique McLaren first experienced in early French trick films) to “harness the specific energy of animation” (Moritz, 107), McLaren gives the real-life drama a cartoon-like animated energy in using the cut-frame animation to make the characters have seemingly instantaneous changes of stances, which juxtaposed with their following slower, exaggerated movements, brings an abstract sense of comedy to the drama. In animating the film in this way, McLaren is able to create more bewildering possibilities, such as the pair hovering and spinning mid-air (figure 3) by eliminating the frames in between jumps, which enhances the films satirical political narrative by imposing almost a sense of preposterous nous. The use of card-animated music is also employed in conjunction with the jump cuts to emphasise certain actions and emotions, again adding to the abstract humour of the complete film. Animating the live figures in this way “deviates from antecedent practice” (Carroll, 102) of avant-garde methods of using more random shapes and forms, which signifies this film as one of the most ground-breaking as well as one of the most politically fuelled in McLaren’s career.



Following Neighbours quite closely in 1952 was the completion of A Phantasy. Actually started before his visit to China, McLaren uses additive and subtractive animation to produce a “witty perspective on abstraction” (Moritz, 107) using Dali-esque pastel compositions with added animated aspects (such as a bright, sharp nautical compass, figure 4) and having them interact with and morph with one-another. By juxtaposing the formalistic ‘dance’ of animated balls taking dominance over the background with the following scene of the pastel background subduing this formal addition (figure 5),and with a much slower and structured soundtrack, McLaren is incorporating a formalistic approach to abstraction, which greatly contrasts his depiction of the more sporadic, improvised techniques of abstraction of the earlier Begone, highlighting his technical diversity and desire to reveal to audiences the ability to create abstract compositions by any means and from any source.

Returning again to hand-made cinema in 1955, McLaren produced Blinkety Blank which while depicting a similar relationship between image and sound as Begone, expresses it using a semi-improvised soundtrack produced by Maurice Blackburn (who also produced Phantasy’s soundtrack), mimicked this time not by painting and drawing on the film, but by scratching and etching (figure 6). This enabled McLaren to himself add hand-scratched rhythms into the film, immediately producing a direct correlation between sound and image. While it could be said that improvisation of the visual image is therefore “limited to its scratching technique” (Curtis, 178), it is also conceivable that the immediacy in response of the scratching technique to the music, in comparison to a slower drawn/ painted technique (such as in Begone) makes the image more of an improvised, immediate reaction to sound with, in places, the use of hand coloured etchings to add more visual vibrancy.



While quite simplistic in its appearance, Blinkety incorporates the kinetic colour and camera-less approach of Begone with the more representational connection between image and sound in narrative (represented by the two bird-like figures, figure 7) that Neighbours employs, making it in fact an extremely complex example of abstract film. This freedom to experiment and combine the numerous aspects of visual art with musical art “redefined and revealed to a new audience” (Moritz, 106) is explicit throughout McLaren’s collection; in combining such a multitude of individual concepts, McLaren succeeds in engaging a host of separate genre defined audiences into one united audience of the avant-garde film.


  • Begone Dull Care (1949)
  • Neighbours (1952)
  • A Phantasy (1952)
  • Blinkety Blank (1955)


  • Carroll, Noël. “Avant Garde Film and Film Theory.” Theorising the Moving Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 162 – 168.
  • Curtis, David. “Locating McLaren.” The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video. Nina Panino & Michael Mazlére (ed.) New York: Wallflower Press. 174 – 181.
  • Mc Williams, Donald. “Norman McLaren: Biography.” Focus on Animation 2006
  • Moritz, William. “Norman McLaren & Jules Engel: Post Modernists.” A Reader in Animation Studies. Jayne Pilling (ed.) 1997. Sydney: J. Libbey, 104 – 111.
  • Sexton, Jamie. “McLaren, Norman (1914 – 1987)Screenonline. 2003

© Harrison Laird 2010

2 thoughts on “Norman McLaren: Spectacular Abstractions

  1. Pingback: Political Narrative « Anju Miah

  2. I just came across this very nice piece about one of my heroes. I know it was written 8 years go but in case the author is keeping track here I have a question. Is the comment “Having been influenced in particular an abstract film by the German animator Oscar Fischinger,” speculation or do you have some documentation that this was the case? There are many works by McLaren that indicate such influence but I have not actually found anything to confirm that he even was aware of Fischinger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s