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80 years of Norman McLaren's experimental film 'Dots'

“Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn.”—Norman McLaren

With the dawn of digital technologies, the large majority of hand-drawn animations saw their final days. Digital animation was far quicker, far more versatile and, crucially, far cheaper than its quickly outdated predecessor. Although hand-drawn animation lives on, it’s existence is in decline, with 2016’s The Red Turtle and Your Name being two notable survivors. In this, it can be easy to forget that the genre began with crude drawings, cartoon scribbles and, in the case of Norman McLaren, dots, lines and hoops. 

Born in 1914, in Sterling, Scotland, McLaren was an artist and filmmaker, who experimented with the tactility of hand-drawn, direct-to-film animation. Cell-by-cell on 35mm celluloid, he would use the film as his canvas, painting directly onto it to create celestial light-shows and colourful dances to abstract music. 

Dots was amongst his earliest films, and this year celebrates its 80th anniversary. The (very) short film is as simple as the name might suggest. A collection of blue dots on a red background, which shuffle and squeak into life, trumping in and out of existence with a playful autonomy. 

As if a strange transmission from an incomprehensible lifeform, the film lives and breaths through a palpable celluloid canvas. It’s an energy that feels alien and surreal, a treat that feels both spontaneous and meticulously planned. This sentiment echoes through the majority of McLaren’s films, his playful energy transcending the sprocket holes of the 35mm celluloid. Just like the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, McLaren uses his canvas as a playground, remarkably even the great Pablo Picasso exclaimed of Mclaren’s work: “At last something new.”

Picasso would later go on to comment that McLaren’s Oscar-winning short film Neighbours, released in 1952, was one of “the greatest films ever made”—they indeed shared an exceptional pioneering spirit. Dots and his bounty of other experimental short films share a hunger for the imaginative, each one an audio-visual feast, effortlessly inspiring music with colour, or is it the other way around? 

Norman McLaren was not the only one to explore this process of personal filmmaking. He was joined by Len Lye and the German, Oskar Fischinger among others, who used film as an alternative tool of expression, a canvas to express flowing movement and sinuous rhythm. It’s an innately humanistic form of filmmaking, instantly appealing, that moves and swings to its own pulse.