norman mclaren and ‘la poulette grise’

As I prepare the animated Mari Lwyd sequences for the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra commission of The Mare’s Tale (music by Mark Bowden and words by Damian Walford Davies), I’m recommending to Artloggers examples of  films from the animators I most admire. Following Yuri Norstein, Jan Svankmejer and Siri Melchior, I offer here the peerless La Poulette Grise by the great Canadian animator, Norman McLaren.

I don’t think there’s a more beautiful animated film to be experienced than McLaren’s La Poulette Grise of 1947. (5 mins 33) On a board measuring only 18 x 24 inches, McLaren drew each frame image in pastel, exposing and subsequently incrementally adjusting the drawing before moving on to the next one. It took three weeks to complete the film, and each stage of the pastel drawing was destroyed in the process of transforming it into the next. It’s almost impossible to imagine how the artist could have kept the animation so dreamlike and seamlessly fluid, given the stop-start nature of a technique that allowed for no re-shoots. But fluid it is, as softly glowing images of plump nesting hens evanesce into starry skies, night-time landscapes and tenderly observed interiors. Grey hen transforms to black, to yellow, to white, to brown, and while I always smile at the black hen who lays in the armoire (the closet), it’s the white hen on her leafy tree-top perch who invariably moves me to tears, the light caressing her feathers as she stares into the clouds beyond.

The film is accompanied by a ravishingly beautiful folk-song performed by Anna Malenfant, and the soundtrack immediately transports the listener to a world where all is safe and well and cherished. It’s as though every lullaby ever sung to soothe a sleepy child has been distilled into one, perfect auditory experience. If I was conscious and could choose the music to comfort me on my deathbed, then this would be it.

Click HERE to watch La Poulette Grise.

12 thoughts on “norman mclaren and ‘la poulette grise’

  1. Pingback: Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. What a BEAUTIFUL thing to see and hear, a glorious Easter / Spring / Passover gift and just as matzos are starting to become tedious!
    Must pass it on for others to enjoy, I have found a strange sense of calm since viewing. Glad you’ve both safely returned.
    Love as ever
    B xxx xxx xxx

  3. What a beautiful, moving little film, I didn’t know about him before, and the ‘Chansons de Chez-Nous’ series is very beguiling, I could spend rather a lot of time with this! Thanks again Clive.

    • His is not a name known by most people, but McLaren is revered by animators. And La Poulette Grise hits just about every button for me. Like slipping into a warm, fragrant bath and drifting away. I’m reduced to a child when watching it, amazed, enchanted and comforted at the deepest levels.

  4. The more I see it, the more I love it. Since you first recommended it I keep sending the link to friends because it is so magical. I’m sure this post will reel in more admirers and a trawl through his other films on the Canadian Film Board site yields a few more specialities too. What amazing skill, patience and vision.

    • McLaren was an innovator. The films that came later explored many styles and moods, and while I can’t think of anything he produced after La Poulette Grise as romantic and poetic as that film, I recall a documentary about him featuring beautiful neo-romantic drawings reminiscent the mystical British artist Cecil Collins. In the sixties McLaren was making edgy animations, fantastic explorations of abstraction with squirming marks painted directly onto the film. (Boogie-Doodle) He never stood still. He’d hit and run, trying something out and then moving on, leaving what he’d discovered on a project for other film-makers to borrow and explore further. He produced a film of dancers trailing multiple images of themselves (Ballet Adagio) and another of a man fighting a chair with a mind of its own. (A Chairy Tale) Creativity flew from his finger-tips. He was a master.

  5. Sorry to mention my problem, but just wanted to say that it is solved… a long overdue update to Flash that I’d overlooked. I’m glad I was able to see this film, so very beautiful in every way and one I don’t recall. Many thanks again, Clive, for taking time out from a huge project to find this for us.

    • Glad to hear that you’re sorted out now, Marja-Leena, and ‘Flash Friendly’! Good to hear too that you enjoyed La Poulette Grise. It’s one of those little gems that I return to, because it warms the heart whenever it’s feeling a tad chill. Life-affirming.

  6. Oh, thanks so much for this! Norman McLaren is an idol of mine, since long ago school days when it was a special treat for us children to be shown his films. I’d blogged about him a while ago on a McLaren anniversary celebration by NFB. It really is amazing how he hand drew each frame of his films. Now I’m very disappointed to discover that I cannot see any of his films due to a ‘blocked plug-in’. I suspect these films are in Flash which is no longer supported by Apple.

    • Hello Marja-Leena. Good to hear from you.

      This little series of ‘animators I revere’ is a pleasant occasional distraction from the massive backlog of work I’m toiling over. (The two theatre projects I have on this year have set me many interesting challenges!) I’d thought I had two or three heroes-of-animation to share here, but I see my file is getting longer the more I try to bring the series to a conclusion. I am a man of boundless enthusiasms!

      Very best

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