I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Norman McLaren: A Visualizer in His Soul

by Matthew Gray
May 10, 2015

Although—to my knowledge—not clinically diagnosed, it seems like Norman McLaren must have had a sensory disorder called synesthesia. As in, he could see music, hear colors, and smell… feelings... (maybe). Just take a look at his work – for example, "Lines, Synchromie" and his masterpiece "Begone Dull Care".  The only explanation for this stuff is that Norman had potent and unrestricted access to the ineffable.

If you’re into McLaren’s kind of movie at all, then I’m sure you have between one and six crappy visualizers on your computer, software that makes sound visible. Maybe you did this in the hope that they would make Deadmau5 listenable (good luck with that). Norman Mclaren didn’t need Milkdrop and G-force, because Norman was born with a visualizer in his soul. When he heard music he was met with synchronized visual imagery. My guess is that he didn’t have to consciously plan and execute these visions, they just were. What makes him spectacular, though, is that he was able to take this gift and put it onto film.

All that said, much of McLaren’s genius (and the source of his acclaim) is how he captured his raw creative impulse. He was a pioneer of experimental film and animation techniques. Most famously, he came up with the idea of creating sound and animation by drawing or etching directly on the film. It’s pretty obvious how doing so could produce the abstract animation, but you might not expect that this could also be used to create the synchronized soundtrack.

As explained in "Pen Point Percussion", Norman used a pen and ink to make marks on the audio section of the film reel. He would draw lines, triangles, and other shapes each of which produced unique sounds. By changing the size, shape, and distance between the marks Norman could control volume, tone and pitch.

Size = Volume
Shape = Tone
Distance = Pitch

The raw physical nature of this technique may explain why so many people who view Norman’s work are able to experience humanness in his abstract lines, shapes and colors. Yes, it’s a line, but the line means something

This might also be due to the fact that Norman had an acute sense of movement; he was a choreographer of color and shape. He could not create anything that was not dancing, fluid, and expressive.

I have to admit, my first thought when I saw Norman’s film, "Lines Vertical", was “Is this whole thing just going be a bunch goddamn lines?” I wasn’t wrong, Norman. You were right. It was just a bunch of lines, but I had failed to anticipate how beautiful lines could be.

Watching Norman’s stuff made me realize: brilliance is simple. Children’s blocks move on a chessboard, two dudes freak out real bad over a flower, a microphone stand moves on its own. These are Norman’s ideas: simple and awesome. They’re brilliant. Enjoy.

Matthew Gray is an old-fashioned man of great import. One of the few abstract thinkers of the early 21st century to thoroughly penetrate the nonsense. He is currently hunkered down deep below the surface hoping the end will come and wash his cares away.