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100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Neighbours / Norman McLaren

100 Greatest Animated Shorts, Featured

Canada / 1952

Neighbours is simply one of the great anti war films. Made soon after the end of the World War Two and the beginning of the Korean War, this pixelation classic was inspired by Norman McLaren’s travels to the far east and witnessing first hand the results of territorial wars and the opposing ideologies of co-operative societies.

Norman McLaren was born in Sterling, Scotland and studied at Glasgow School of Art. Inspired by the films of Oscar Fishinger and Emile Cohl he experimented with forms of abstract animation now often referred to as ‘direct cinema’, stripping film stock of its images and then applying dyes to create abstract colour pieces, flows of pattern and colour. This ‘visual music’ was often accompanied with a jazz soundtrack, the perfect free flowing music for this type of work. His film ‘Colour Cocktai’ (1935) won him prizes and the attention of groundbreaking producer John Grierson (also see 100 Greatest Animated Shorts on Halas and Bachelors ‘Autobahn’) who was then heading the GPO (Greater Post Office) film unit, an organisation set up to produce publicity films for the Post Office.

Under Grierson the GPO was producing groundbreaking documentary and animation, for which McLaren and fellow experimentalist animator Len Lye were identified and hired, a use of public money which must have raised a few eyebrows, but Grierson’s judgement was vindicated as the move proved to be not only beneficial for all parties but also enabled the British public to have their minds expanded by some great art in their local cinemas.

After a spell filming the Spanish Civil war McLaren he made two more experimental animation films for the GPO, ‘Many a Pickle’ (1938) which explored pixelation, which he had seen in some of Cohl’s films, and ‘Love on the Wing’ (1938) which was more drawing direct onto film.

In 1939 Grierson was asked by the Canadian Government to set up the National Film Board of Canada. He immediately set up an animation unit, which was the catalyst that kick started the Canadian animation industry. The original task of the NFB was to create wartime propaganda and after some early collaboration with Disney in this area, the policy of animation production of the NFB moved away from mainstream cell animation. Like Grierson and McLaren’s GPO Film Unit before, the NFB’s policy was inclined to explore more experimental forms in order to establish an identity for Canadian animation away from the commercial mainstream of the USA. A huge success over the years, the NFB is still going strong and has became one of the greatest supporters of experimental and progressive film work in the world, winning over 5000 awards including over 70 Oscar nominations and creating Canada’s reputation as a world centre of animation.

McLaren, who was now in New York, was invited by Grierson in 1941 to come to Canada and lead the NFB Animation Unit. McLaren soon recruited a team of animators and set to work on a series of ground breaking films, first a series of wartime propaganda films and then one of his greatest shorts, Begone Dull Care (1949).

McLaren made Neighbours on his return from China, where he had been working with local artists in a war-torn region of Szechuan. It uses the form of slapstick silent comedy to tell an increasingly disturbing narrative of two peaceful ‘good neighbours’ who become entranced with a beautiful scented dancing flower that appears on the border between them. Base human instincts of private ownership kick in and instead of both enjoying this gift of natural beauty and sharing the land as before, they become obsessed by possessiveness and jealousy and the dispute quickly escalates, ending in the pointless deaths of the neighbours, their families and the flower. For submission to the Oscars, the scene in which they kill each other’s wives and children was edited out, but was reinstated in later years. Strangely, the film was entered into, and won, the documentary category at the Oscars, rather than animation or short film.

McLaren’s colleagues at the National Film Board of Canada, Grant Munro and Jean Paul Ladouceur, played the two main parts in the film and the soundtrack, which sounds very much like early electronic music, was again created by McLaren’s ‘direct’ film making, marking the audio track on the film with a series of dots timed with the rhythm of the film.

Norman Mclaren’s legacy lives on in the experimental principles of the NFB and in the McLaren Award for animation given out every year at the Edinburgh Film Festival. John Grierson also has his own prestigious award named after him with the Grierson Awards for documentary achievement given out annually in association with the UK Film Council.

The sense of experimentation embraced by McLaren and Grierson is very apparent in ‘Neighbours’, which is constructed with various techniques, only some of which can be classified as animation. In fact although it has historically been defined as an animated film its debatable wether the film qualifies as an animated short at all by some modern definitions. A lot of it is arguably not animation in the strictest sense and although it employs much single frame technique in the remainder of the film, easily enough to qualify as an animated film in its era, under modern terms it contains perhaps less pure animation than many VFX movies which are not defined as animated films. It has always been known as an animated film though and I’m happy to go along with that, as it enables me to write about it on this list!

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!

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