Norman McLaren

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Norman McLaren

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Stirling, Scotland


One of the most influential animators in Canadian history, McLaren worked largely for the National Film Board of Canada, creating the Oscar-nominated short Neighbours in 1952.  Over the course of his lifetime, McClaren won over two hundred international awards, including an Oscar, and was best known for developing the animation technique of pixillation, which is a stop-motion animation technique which employees live-action actors.

Career outline

His film Camera Makes Whoopee (1935) was shown at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival, and one of the judges, John Grierson, the future founder of the NFB, saw his films. Grierson approached McLaren after he graduated for the organization he worked for, the UK General Post Office film unit, and hired him on as a cameraman.

In 1936, McLaren went to Spain to film the civil war going on at the time with the GPO film unit, images he was haunted by for the rest of his life. He worked for the organization until 1939, helping make four films which included, Book Bargain (1937) and Love on the wing (1938). 

Knowing that war was eminent in Europe, McLaren moved to the United States in 1939. He received a grant from the Soloman Guggenheim Foundation that allowed him to work for two years producing animated films. These works employed the drawn-on-film technique, and were Boogie-Doodle (1940), and Dots, Loops and Stars and Stripes.

At John Grierson’s instigation, McLaren moved to Canada in 1941 to head the animation department in the newly created National Film Board of Canada. For the rest of his career, McLaren worked for the NFB with total creative control, except his two brief stints in Indian and China.

For three years at NFB, McLaren was in charge of training young animators at an abandoned sawmill, animators who came from all over the world. He produced over 59 short films, most without narrative or dialogue, using the smallest budgets and most conservative techniques. Though McLaren was sought after during the height of his career in the States and offered much more money elsewhere, he always politely declined and stayed in his post at the NFB

For the war effort, McLaren produced some propaganda films for the NFB, and these included V for Victory (1941), Five for Four (1942), Dollar Dance (1943) and Keep Your Mouth Shut (1944). 

The experimental short films McLaren made over the course of his career garnered much attention, and Blinkity Blank (1955) won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival for the shorts section. In this film, he uses the technique of “camera-less” animation, scratching and drawing images directly onto the film.

In 1952, McLaren created the short film Neighboursfeaturing moving objects and real people along with stop-motion animated props, which one him an Oscar that year. Through the 50’s, McLaren produced two 3-D films for The Festival of Britain, and these were Around is Around, and Now is the Time. McLaren’s work used many innovative techniques, including shooting through a prism in order to capture images in Line: Horizontal (1962), and using slow-motion techniques to produce a sense of fluid movement in Ballet Adagio (1972). 

In addition to his lifelong work with the NFB, McLaren also collaborated with UNESCO corporation to develop pedagogical programs for animation in China and India. These films produced were called Animated Motion (1976-78) and were composed of five instructional videos exploring the basic techniques of filmmaking and animation.

McLaren was awarded the Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement Award from ASIFA in 1975.

In 1983, McLaren directed his last film Narcissus, bringing the musician Maurice Blackburn out of retirement in order to compose music for it.

McLaren passed away in 1987, on January 27th at the age of 72. In 1989, the NFB named the headquarter building after the legendary animator, along with creating the Norman McLaren Heritage Prize awarded annually to artists and animators continuing on the work his vision inspired. 


  • Lenburg, Jeff. Who’s Who in Animated Cartoons . New York : Applause Theatre & Cinema Books , 2006 . Print.

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