Drawing Attention to Canada, Winning Oscars in the Process
Two animated shorts--"When the Day Breaks,” an exploration of urban alienation and the fragile ties that link modern society by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, and “My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts,” Torill Kove’s sendup of Scandinavian history and family memories--mark the 64th and 65th Academy Award nominations that the National Film Board of Canada has received in its 61-year history.
Filmmakers from the board have won nine Oscars, five of them for animated films: “Neighbours” by Norman McLaren (1952), “The Sand Castle” by Co Hoedeman (1978), “Special Delivery” by John Weldon and Eunice Macaulay (1979), “Every Child” by Eugene Federenko (1980) and “Bob’s Birthday” by Alison Snowden and David Fine (1995).
Documentaries made with board backing have won four more Oscars, and the board received an honorary Oscar in 1989 in recognition of 50 years of commitment to excellence in filmmaking.
That’s an impressive record for a studio, let alone a civil service agency.
“The films of the NFB constitute a wonderful heritage that Canadians have shared with the rest of the world,” says animator Bob Kurtz, whose work includes the title sequences for the “City Slickers” films. “From Norman McLaren on, they’ve done so much to preserve the purity of animation as an art form and to maintain respect for the individual filmmaker.”
The board was established by an act of the Canadian Parliament in 1939 “to interpret Canada to Canadians and to people of other nations.”
Although John Grierson, the first head of the board, is credited with coining the term “documentary,” the board has had its greatest effect on animation. In 1941, Grierson invited McLaren, a Scottish artist, to start an animation unit in an old sawmill in Ottawa.
One of the most innovative artists in the history of the medium, McLaren explored alternative techniques. He drew tiny images in India ink on clear 35-millimeter film stock for bond-buying shorts during WWII. After the war, he used pixilation, sequential photographs of human actors, for “Neighbours,” his celebrated parable of human aggression.
During the 1970s and early ‘80s, when animation in the United States was reduced to the occasional Disney feature and hours of cheap children’s programming, Canada’s film board emerged as the world center of creativity in the medium.
Artists at the board explored visual styles that ranged from simple figures adapted from children’s drawings to Native Nations imagery and equally unusual media: charcoal on paper, cut-outs, pin-screen, paint on glass. Any technique an artist could use to create an image could be used to bring that image to life.
The board’s artists also pushed the boundaries of subject matter, making films that called attention to social ills, brought ancient legends to life and mocked the follies of modern life.
Board films that screened in the International Tournees, in retrospectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and other museums and in Oscar-qualifying programs at the Laemelle theaters during the 1970s and ‘80s offered a welcome respite to audiences weary of fairy tales and superhero adventures.
Although their official mission remained “to explain Canada to Canadians and to people of other lands,” the board’s artists accomplished a much greater task: They educated and excited viewers throughout the world about the potential of animation as an art form.
“The NFB artists were very influential when I was growing up, especially when I was in my teens and starting to recognize other forms of animation,” says Eric Goldberg, who directed the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of “Fantasia/2000,” inspired by theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
“I remember seeing [the board’s] ‘The House That Jack Built’ in a theater; it was the first time I’d seen my father laugh at a cartoon. The visual diversity of their films opened my eyes to the fact that such different graphic styles could be used in animation.”
Canadian-born artist Dave Brewster, a supervising animator on DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” and the forthcoming “The Road to El Dorado,” recalls, “I was influenced by Norman McLaren; I have vivid memories of seeing ‘Neighbours’ as a child. It scared me, but it was really intriguing.
“The films of Paul Driessen and Derek Lamb were my first exposure to international animation. At the time, I didn’t think of their work as being Canadian; I just thought of it as filmmaking. When I found out those films were Canadian, it was like finding out your dad’s a famous filmmaker.”
The NFB produces about 100 films a year. Its budget for 2000 is $68 million (Canadian); government allocations account for $55 million, down from a high of $80 million in 1995.
“What I find amazing,” says Canadian animator Carolyn Crookshank, who worked on “Hercules” and “Tarzan” at Disney, “is that after the reorganizations and budget cutbacks the NFB has endured in recent years, it still exists as a government entity that actually gives people money to make highly personal films. The individuality of the work being done there makes me want to get back to making independent films.”