The Making of McLarena: Part 1
Norman McLaren’s 100th Birthday Party
Norman McLaren, the famous animator and film director, would have turned 100 years old in 2014.
In order to commemorate his birthday, the National Film Board of Canada teamed up with Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles to create the “Mc Laren Wall-to-Wall festival”: a commission of seven projects, including four monumental projections and three interactive installations.
We were thrilled when we were approached to make a proposal for one of the interactive installations, but also a bit nervous about having to stand on this giant’s shoulders…
We at Daily have been endlessly inspired by McLaren’s work. I have personally always been fascinated by his ability to balance simplicity and expressiveness. His imaginative and innovative approach towards tools as means of expression also plays a big part in what makes his work so captivating.
Our task was to make clear reference to one of his movies. After many hours spent debating which one was the best, we all agreed on an excerpt from Canon (starting at 4:23).
This movie explores a musical canon, a form of “round” in which each singer picks up the words and tune of a song following the preceding singer. Through the combination of animation and live action, this lively musical film demonstrates, without dialogue, the many patterns that a canon can adopt depending on the number of participants and the length of the musical score.
A canon is a very specific form of music. Or, as McLaren once put it so eloquently:
What interested us most in Canon is how he managed to create complexity out of very simple elements evolving through time. The simplicity, and the hands-on trial and error approach behind this movie also felt very accessible; a perfect opportunity to invite people to express their creativity!
Plus, the main character—played by Grant Munro, with whom McLaren co-directed the film—has the best outfit ever.
Make it Interactive
Because the choreography is so expressive, we thought it would be interesting to ask people to reproduce it.
To render the experience more collective, we decided to turn it into a game of “telephone,” where one participant would have to reproduce the previous participant’s moves. As the night evolved, the choreography would progressively (or radically) diverge from the original model.
People’s recordings would then be projected monumentally on the building next to the recording booth, turning every participant into the star character featured in the original movie.
Due to its fundamental dance-oriented nature, we quickly found a codename (and eventually the actual name) for the project: McLarena.
Would People do it?
In order to validate the idea, we sketched a quick software prototype using openFrameworks. It would allow us to record people following a sequence (be it the original one or another participant’s). It also allowed us to test different playback rates to see how comfortable it was to follow the leader. It turned out that two times slower was the ideal playback rate.
We tested this very early prototype at the studio to get a variety of footage we could stitch together to try recreating the original movie.
This test helped us identify the key steps of the interactive scenario: read the instructions, record yourself, watch your performance. It also gave us clues about how quickly the choreography would turn into chaos when people were building on each other’s moves. We found a limit of six people per “chain” was ideal; meaning that after every sixth participant, the model to imitate would reset to the original movie.
very very early prototype setup
Variations of the Canon
The sound and visual transformations McLaren developed in his movie were really inspiring and helpful in explaining how a canon can evolve through time. While researching, we stumbled upon his beautiful production notes, in which he shares his insights along with diagrams explaining these transformations.
You can hear each individual pattern here:
Augmentation: the pattern is played slower.
Diminution: the pattern is played over a shorter period of time.
Inversion: each element of the pattern is inversed
Retrograde: the pattern is played backwards
As in most of McLaren’s work, music plays a key role in Canon.
Every new character entering the screen is introduced by a distinct instrumental voice. We also wanted to apply this rule to help differentiate participants from one another on the projection.
After reverse-engineering the original partition (yes we were provided with the original score later on but sometimes life is unfair) we approached the amazing studio Hotel2Tango which took care of the recording.
Although we found it was best to video participants at half speed, the original audio slowed down by half wouldn’t provide enough rhythmic cues. Plus, we really wanted people to dance, so a rhythmic score was played inside to provide participants with a sense of tempo while recording.