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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Leonard Maltin's Animation Favourites from the National Film Board of Canada

Here we go once again with Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I watch one of the many movies I own and blog about it.  Time to get to one of my more esoteric purchases, Leonard Maltin's Animation Favourites from the National Film Board of Canada.  This originally appears in my notes at January 16, 2015.

Leonard Maltin's Animation Favourites from the National Film Board of Canada

Well, perhaps one of the nerdiest and most artsy-fartsy purchases I ever made arrived in the mail the other day...I bought DVDs from the National Film Board of Canada. 

As I've blogged a couple of times before, the National Film Board of Canada's website is a great online time-waster.  The NFB has spent the past few years digitizing literally thousands of their films, and making them available for free, online.  Well, free for streaming, and a fee for the download.  And, if you're old-school like me, you can still pop by their online store and buy a lot of them on DVD.  While poking around their website one night, I came across the DVD for Leonard Maltin's Animation Favorites from the National Film Board of Canada.

I remember watching this on TV back when I was in high school.  It's a TV special...a co-production between the NFB and A&E, back when A&E was still "PBS with commercials" and not "the network that brought you Duck Dynasty."  The title pretty much sums up the whole special:  renowned film critic and historian Leonard Maltin presents and discusses his favourite animated short films that were produced by the NFB. 

When it first aired, I was already into Leonard Maltin, having recently discovered his legendary Movie Guide.  I saw in my local TV listings that it was airing that night, so I staked my claim on the TV room to watch it.  And I loved it.  Most of the animated shorts that Maltin presented had already become famous enough that I had seen and/or heard of them, but there were just enough new discoveries in there to whet my appetite.  A few months after it aired, I read in the "New Home Video Releases" column in the newspaper that it had been released on VHS.  The only place I ever saw the VHS available was at the Safeway in Camrose when I was going to college, but I never bought it, being a broke college student.  And when I saw it for sale there in the NFB's online store, and they were having an online Boxing Day Sale, I figured it would be as good a time as any to finally get it.

So, back in 1994, what did Leonard Maltin declare to be his animation favorites from the National Film Board of Canada?

Begone Dull Care - So, Norman McLaren was THE animation guy at the National Film Board.  He created their animation department, and he was always on the cutting edge of new animation techniques.  One of his earliest works was this Fantasia-esque animated film, set to the music of Oscar Peterson.  Rather than traditional cel animation, McLaren produced this by drawing, painting and scratching directly on to the film.  "Fantasica-esque" was the first thing I thought of, because much like the first segment of Fantasia, the end result is a bunch of abstract shapes bouncing and floating in time to the music.  Very trippy. 

Mindscape - Remember those executive desk toys you used to able to get?  There was this one that was a bunch of pins on a board, and by pushing your hand into it, you could create an impression of your hand?  Well, that's how Mindscape is animated, using a specially designed pinboard, and creating the pictures by varying the pins' lengths and through special use of light and shadows.  This one comes out as very dream-like, as a painter paints a picture, then steps inside to have a wander around.  It very much becomes a journey through his own memories.  Again, very Fantasia-esque as there's no dialogue, just music, and the the use of the pins also makes the final result in stark black-and-white. 

Canada Vignettes: Log Driver's Waltz - Ha!  You thought it was going to be all artsy-fartsy stuff, didn't you?  I don't think need to go into much detail on this one, as you've no doubt seen it a zillion times yourself growing up.

The Cat Came Back - Another NFB classic and Oscar nominee that probably needs no description.  Cordell Barker's adaptation of the legendary kids song is still as funny as the first time I saw it when I was 10.

Getting Started - From the entire special, this is the one I remembered the most vividly.  Our nameless protagonist needs to practice the piano for a big recital coming up, but he gets easily distracted by the minutia around him.  Playing with his snack, arguing with a delivery guy that accidentally comes to his door, day dreaming about being a great pianist, and just idly staring out the window.  There has probably been no more accurate depiction of procrastination ever committed to the screen.  And on top of that, it's just funny as hell.  Director Richard Condie also collaborated with Cordell Barker on The Cat Came Back, so there's a similar vein of humour running throughout. 

The Sweater - Again, another one so famous I don't think I need to tell you about it.  Director Sheldon Cohen's adaptation of Roch Carrier's legendary essay/children's book The Hockey Sweater is still one of the greatest love letters to hockey, the Habs, and the two solitudes.  Although he doesn't say it in this special, Maltin has referred to it in other interviews as one of the most education films he ever saw on Canadian culture. 

The Street - Director Caroline Leaf's adaptation of the Mordecai Richler story, about a Jewish family in Montreal dealing with their elderly grandmother and, as morbid as it sounds, they're pretty much waiting for her to die.  Again, it's given kind of a dream-like quality, thanks to Leaf's technique of painting the images directly onto glass.  A fascinating little slice-of-life film

Pas de Deux - Norman McLaren makes his second appearance in the special.  As Maltin points out, as his career went on, McLaren began experimenting more with creating animation through the manipulation of live-action footage and photographs.  (McLaren's legendary and controversial film Neighbours gets a mention, and a few clips shown in Maltin's intro).  For Pas de Deux, McLaren manipulated the footage of a ballet, creating all kinds of after-images and dual appearances, giving the impression that the ballerina is dancing with herself.  Again, it can easily be done these in days in after effects in Adobe Premiere, but when the film was made in 1968 using analog techniques, it was groundbreaking.  The fact that the footage was filmed in stark black-and-white, with just the white outline of the dancers visible most of the time, just makes it the more surreal. 

Anniversay/L'Anniversaire - And to finish things off, we get one of the NFB's first forays into computer animation.  Made in 1989 as their official 50th anniversary film, so the CGI is very primitive.  We're talking "first season of ReBoot" here.  We get a cute CGI movie camera, film canister, and a dog.  The accidentally knock a green orb from the top of a green pedestal, and they pool their resources to get the orb back on top.  Of course, the big twist ending is the green pedestal and orb are the NFB logo, our cute CGI characters are cake toppers, and the whole thing takes place atop an anniversary cake.  Just cute and funny.

And that's it, the TV special that haunted me for many a year, finally seen again.  At the end of the day, I just love having some of these films on DVD, forever, in my collection.  Maltin's introduction to each film, sprinkled with rare, behind-the-scenes footage from the NFB archives, just enhances the film, and you learn more about them.  I'd love for Maltin to do a sequel...see if anything new has come out of the NFB in the past 20 years that he'd now add to the list. 

You can watch the entire special for free and streaming at the National Film Board website.  Most of the feature shorts you can watch individually, too. 

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