Historic NFB Films You Almost Never Saw

While Michael Fukushima (NFB Executive Producer for English Animation) was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I got a chance to sit down with him at the National Film Board (NFB) in Toronto. We talked about the restoration work that the NFB recently completed on four NFB films that have an unusual history. As far as the NFB is aware, these films were the first hand-drawn, stereoscopic, 3D animated films made in the world. They were completed between 1951 and 1952, but never screened in North America because the animator Gretta Ekman, who worked on “Twirligig,” was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1952. As a result of this accusation, the NFB made the political decision to distance itself from all the projects she was involved with, and not to premiere any of the films in North America. Because of this, the general Canadian public never even knew these films existed, even though they were landmark films in terms of the creativity and the technical skill that went into making them at the time.

So how did these films come into existence in the first place? The Festival of Britain, run by the British Film Institute (BFI), asked Norman McLaren to create a special animation for their 1951 event. Inspired by the oscilloscopes that a sound engineer at the NFB, Chester Beachall, used for his audio work, Norman came up with the idea to use similar visuals.

Oscilloscope - Image Source
Still from "Around is Around"
Norman combined these similar visuals with 3D Stereoscopic hand-drawn animation to create his film “Around is Around.” It should also be noted that Evelyn Lambart, Norman McLaren’s assistant at the time, played a large part in the creation of that film. When the film was completed, it screened at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and was so successful that the British Film Institute then commissioned three more films from artists at the NFB: “Now is the Time” by Norman McLaren, “O Canada” by Evelyn Lambart, and “Twirligig” by Gretta Ekman.

Still from "Twirligig"

Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart both animated on “Now is the Time” and “O Canada.” Gretta Ekman was the sole animator on “Twirligig”, but did all of her animation in 2D. Norman then placed Gretta’s 2D-animated objects into 3D stereoscopic space. Even though the three new films screened to rave reviews at the Festival of Britain in 1952, when Gretta Ekman was accused of being a Soviet spy, the people in control of the NFB forced her out. Then they washed their hands not only of her film, but of the other three films as well. And that is the reason that, up until now, most Canadians were unaware that these films even existed.

Still from "Now is the Time"

Now, skip ahead to 2013: BFI is the only place in the world that still has a copy of the negatives and interpositives for all of these films, but they are lying forgotten in the BFI archives. Then, somehow, the films come up in conversation when Don McWilliams is talking to folks at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. They get excited and contact the NFB folks, who have to contact the BFI folks, who in turn send the only copy they have (the only copy in the world) to the NFB to be examined. The source material is very degraded and almost unwatchable, but the current NFB folks (led by Marcy Page and David Verrall) decide to take up the challenge of recreating the visuals so that Canadians would not lose this part of their heritage.

Still from "Around is Around"

Don McWilliams took charge of the creative side of things and was invaluable in determining what McLaren’s colour palette would have been, because the colour from the source material had almost completely faded away. Eloi Champagne took on the task of analyzing the source material and reconstituting the visuals - first in 2D, then recreating the 3D stereoscopic view from there. The sound designer and composer, Luigi Allemano, figured out how to create the music based on mono tracks that existed, one or two stereo tracks still left, and McLaren’s written notes.

Still from "O Canada"

Once the films’ foundations were reconstituted, the NFB had to figure out the stereoscopic aesthetic they wanted. Should they keep the 1952 stereoscopic standard, or re-interpret it into 2014 stereoscopic standards?  The choice was made to impose the 1952 technical limitations on stereoscopic 3D films. This ensured that the reconstituted films would be better able to bring viewers into the time and space of 1952, and to truly keep this as a piece of Canadian heritage.

The North American premiere, fifty-three years after the films’ creation, happened this year at TIFF in conjunction with “Festival on The Street.” Nobu Adilman programmed the event and included these reconstituted films to celebrate the NFB’s 75th anniversary, as well as Norman McLaren’s 100th birthday. “Absolutely Free,” a contemporary band that specializes in synthetic music, was brought on board to provide a live score. There were concerns about adding new music to a McLaren film, in relation to whether or not it would stay true to the original artistic vision. However, in the end, Michael Fukushima said he felt that if Norman had been at the screening, he would have likely been right up there on the stage jamming with the musicians of “Absolutely Free.”

And that’s the story of how four landmark Canadian films, which were almost wiped from the pages of history by an anti-Communist scourge at the NFB, were reconstituted and premiered over fifty years later in their home country.

Still from "Around is Around"

Upcoming Screenings

New York - The MoMa: To Preserve and Project, as part of the “3-D Funhouse!” screening.

Thursday, November 20, 2014, 7:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
(Introduced by Eloi Champagne, Technical Director, NFB Animation Studio; and Robert Furmanek, founder of the 3-D Film Archive)
Friday, November 21, 2014, 4:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2

Worldwide Release

Scotland - The Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of “McLaren 2014”, which is a Norman McLaren Centenary Film Tour.