FILMS

The animator’s art

The NFB celebrates 50 years of innovation

Brian D. Johnson January 6 1992
FILMS

The animator’s art

The NFB celebrates 50 years of innovation

Brian D. Johnson January 6 1992

The animator’s art

FILMS

The NFB celebrates 50 years of innovation

It takes just over seven minutes to tell the story of George’s life on film. George was unlucky and unloved. At the age of 5, “he found his mother in the arms of another child,” says the narrator. George was unattractive and short, and worked as a model for a gargoyle sculptor. But one day, a lump grew out of his head and turned into a second head, which was very handsome and made him taller. George buttoned his shirt over his old head, and with his new look, he was suddenly loved, respected—and elected to the highest office in the land. One day, however, a revolution toppled his government and sent him to the guillotine. The story of how a man got a head— and lost it—is called The Lump. Directed by Montreal animator John Weldon, it is part of The National Film Board of Canada ’s Animation Festival, a dazzling collection of short films packaged as a full-length theatrical feature. The Festival includes 11 new shorts and excerpts from five recent award-winning hits.

Produced to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NFB’s animation department, the anthology is scheduled to play in 350 theatres across North America—including 20 in Canada— during the year. It is the first time that a widerelease theatrical feature has been devoted exclusively to NFB animation. Since Scottishborn innovator Norman McLaren founded the NFB’s animation studio in 1941, the board has produced more than 700 animated films. They

have won over 600 international prizes— including four Academy Awards, out of 25 nominations. With a full-time staff of six producers and 14 animators at the NFB’s Montreal headquarters, plus 24 freelancers across Canada, the board is widely regarded as a world leader in animation.

Unlike commercial cartoons, which are often manufactured by dozens of people in an assembly-line method, the NFB’s animated films are handmade by their directors. It is a solitary, almost monastic pursuit. And it has produced some highly idiosyncratic styles and techniques. The films compiled in the Festival anthology use materials including clay, oils, beads, fabric, sand and glass—as well as traditional methods. For The Lump, Weldon employed a method he calls “recyclamation,” by which he created characters and backgrounds out of cut-up scraps of paper and cloth. “The art,” says Weldon, “is often in the materials you use. It’s like incorporating the grain of the wood into a piece of carpentry.”

The Balgonie Birdman, directed by Saskatchewan’s Brian Duchscherer, uses latex puppets to tell the story of Bill Gibson, a tumof-the-century eccentric who tried to get a flying machine off the ground in Saskatchewan. In the age of Hollywood special effects, the film’s quaint mechanics are refreshing. With Strings, animator Wendy Tilby weaves a more sophisticated narrative. Painting each frame on glass, Tilby tells the story of a man and a woman who live on consecutive floors of an apartment block. Her floor is his ceiling. They pass in the elevator but never speak. They pursue their separate hobbies: she builds a model of the Titanic, and he plays in a string quartet. But their lives connect when water leaking from her bathtub loosens his light fixture.

Beautifully rendered, Strings is a bittersweet tale of alienation and intimacy between strangers.

Some NFB animators owe as much to the visual arts as to film. Suzanne Gervais animates oil paint in her new film, The Irises, a brilliant deconstruction of the 1889 masterpiece by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Beginning with a blank canvas, the film shows the frenetic layering of brushstrokes up to the completion of the painting three minutes later. In brisk counterpoint, an auctioneer’s voice brings the final selling price of the artwork up to $53.9 million. It is a mordant comment on two kinds of madness— that of the artist and of the marketplace.

With Two Sisters, Caroline Leaf picks up where McLaren left off—like the depart-

ment’s innovative founder, she scratches her images directly onto celluloid. The result resembles an animated woodcut. It is the moody story of a homely woman who writes novels on an island, where she lives with her sister. One day, a disturbing visit from a fan shatters their solitude.

Although many NFB animators work in the spirit of painting and literature, some, like their commercial counterparts, actually do create cartoons. Blackfly, directed by Christopher Hinton, offers an amusing romp through the buggy perils of Northern Ontario. And Winnipeg animator Richard Condie follows up his 1985 Oscar-nominated triumph, The Big Snit—abouta couple squabbling over Scrabble, oblivious to the onset of nuclear war—with The Apprentice, a black comedy about two fools who meet in the Middle Ages. Although there are some inspired touches, including a bunch of buck-toothed flowers, the film is perversely enigmatic.

But even at its obscure extremes, the NFB’s Festival shows evidence of vividly animated imaginations at work.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON