NFB of Canada – Host Country

The films Contes de quartier, by Florence Miailhe (2006), Les cordes de Muybridge, by Koji Yamamura (2011), Edmond était un âne, by Franck Dion (2012) and Le retour des aviateurs, by Olga and Priit Parn (2014) are eloquent examples of rewarding joint productions between the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and renowned international animation artists.

These extraordinary but mostly recent collaborations didn’t just suddenly appear with the introduction of a international co-productions policy. They are deeply rooted in the very beginning of NFB’s animations history.

This year, the National Film Board of Canada celebrates its 75th anniversary. Despite having been originally developed around Canadian cinema – hoping to show Canada to the Canadians and abroad – since it’s establishment, NFB has definitely opened up to the world. It’s worth noting that the creation of NFB was primarily due to the need of unification in a time of war, assuring communication in ten provinces, covering a large piece of territory, granting the Canadians the chance to know each other better.

The founder himself, John Grierson, was Scottish. He was hired by the Canadian government to evaluate the situation of Canadian film making. Relying on his past experience in the UK (in the Empire Marketing Board Film and in the General Post Office Film Unit), he recommended the creation of the National Film Board of Canada. Grierson would become the first cinematography commissioner of the government and NFB’s president.

Grierson, in his turn, brought another Scot, Norman McLaren. Born in Stirling, McLaren went to live in Canada by the commissioner’s request in 1941, taking on the ambitious project of setting up a team of animators. Expertise in animation was nonexistent in Canada at the time. McLaren was the right man for the job, considering his three years of work in the General Post Office Film Unit of London, where he had the opportunity to experiment with animation and different film techniques.

Between 1936 and 1939 he directed the movie Love on the Wing, drawn on film stock with a dip pen. Grierson assembled his first team of Canadian animators including Evelyn Lambart, Jean-Paul Ladouceur, René Jodoin, Grant Munro and Robert Verrall. Shortly after he invited two foreign artists, Alexandre Alexeïeff and his wife Claire Parker, to participate in the production of a series called “chants populaires”. In 1945, the couple had directed the film En passant, in New York City. In this film, they used their famous invention, the pin screen, a curious device that fascinated Norman Mclaren, who ordered a copy (the NEC) in 1972. After this, the couple was invited to give a workshop in Montreal to a group of NFB’s film makers about this odd technique, culminating on the documentary film L’écran d’épingles.

During the 50s, a decade after NFB’s birth, the English connection was still very evident. Gerald Potterton and Derek Lamb both left England to apply for a job at NFB hoping to join McLaren and his team. Potterton decided he would try to join NFB after watching McLaren’s Voisins (1952) and Colon Low’s Romance of Transportation in Canada (1952). He accomplished his ambition in 1954 by co-producing the film Huff and Puff with Grant Munro. Potterton´s movie My Financial Career (1962) is definitely his most popular work from his time at the NFB, having even been nominated for an Academy Award. He went away and came back to the NFB on many occasions before eventually setting up his own studio in Montreal, in 1968. In this same year, he contributed with his own team to the animation feature film Yellow Submarine, by Georges Dunning. Derek Lamb joined the NFB in 1959 and had his premiere in the series Hors-d’oeuvre (1960). Being a multifaceted artist – animator, musician, producer, director and stage director – he became the executive producer of the English animation studio from 1976 to 1982. Two of his productions have won the Academy Award for best animated short film: Special Delivery (John Weldon and Eunice Macauley, 1978) and Every Child (Eugene Federenko, 1980).

Since the 60s, during their time as producers, Wolf Koenig and Robert Verrall have brought in film makers from various countries. At the time, there were few places for animation production and training worldwide. The idea of bringing in foreign directors has given the studio access to a broader range of approaches and styles. It’s worth noting that these directors are brought in for multiple reasons. In some cases, a producer invites a director for his specific technical knowledge, his notoriety, etc. In other instances, foreign artists travel to Canada hoping to join NFB’s studio, as Potterton and Lamb did. This happened as a result of the outstanding reputation and extraordinary projection this institution and its international work had acquired. During that time, Norman McLaren’s work, due to its unique and innovative character, had a tremendous impact over a huge number of artists, who craved for access to this kind of creation. It’s relevant to acknowledge that Canada’s policies on immigration were then much more flexible than they are today.

As a result, The 60s and the 70s were marked by a strong presence of international artists working on the animation studios, now in Montreal ( NFB was based in Ottawa from 1940 to 1956). More than twenty directors from all over the world came to work for NFB. The creation of the French animation studio in 1966 by René Jodoin was also part of this fruitful period.

This is the reason why the dutch, Co Hoedeman and Paul Driessen, and the Indian, Ishu Patel traveled to Canada. Arriving in Montreal at 25, the yet unexperienced Hoedeman got interested in puppet animation and finished his first film, Maboule, in 1969. Two years later, NFB sent him to Czechoslovakia on a four month internship program to develop his puppeteering skills. The decision of moving to Canada was crucial for this director which worked around forty years in NFB, winning an Academy Award in 1977 for his film Le châteu de sable. His career strongly inspired Paul Driessen. Eager about working with the NFB but lacking the means to travel to Canada, it was eventually Gerald Potterton who payed for the trip to bring him to his studio in Montreal.

Potterson’s sister, who Driessen met in London while working on the Yellow submarine that shared with him her brother’s search for animators. He visited the NFB several times before he managed to direct his first short film, Le bleu Perdu (1972). Nicknamed by his coworkers as “the animator in a bag”, Driessen spent his life between the Netherlands, Canada and France and continued his work with the NFB through international coproductions, on many occasions. As for the Indian artist Ishu Patel, he joined the NFB for a one year trainee program in 1972, through a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship. He ended up working in the NFB, as a director and as a producer, for twenty five years. He directed many films including Paradis, which won a Silver Bear in Berlin’s International Film Festival’s 1984 edition.
The czech director Bretislav Pojar initiated in 1969 a long collaboration with this institution, the same year he finished his short film To See or Not to See. He’s an expert in uppeteering and découpage, having directed more than a handful of animation movies in the NFB and enjoying a notorious influence over many filmmakers. His collaboration with Jacques Drouin in the film L’heure des anges (1986) is a good example of the productive nature of their work together. They worked sometimes apart – one in Montreal, the other in Czechoslovakia – and sometimes together, pushing the technical limitations of their respective techniques, combining puppetry with the pin screen, the latter being used with colours for the first time.

In 1975, the German animation pioneer, silhouettes and découpage expert, Lotte Reiniger was invited to run workshops at NFB and to direct the movie Aucassin et Nicolette, on of the last she made. As an executive producer of the French animation studio, René Jodoin reached out to numerous foreign film makers so they could contribute to the studio’s technical and aesthetic approach development. That is the case of Clorinda Warny, the Belgian artist which was one of the first international artists to work at the French studio. Acquiring a vast experience as an animator in Belgium, having worked at Belvison, she later helped to train a lot of young animators, as happened with Francine Desbiens and Suzanne Gervais. This was also the case with Caroline Leaf – Discovered by Derek Lamb in a workshop he gave in Radcliffe’s university, near Boston – who by then had mastered the technique of sand placed on a glass board and directed her first film with NFB in 1974, Le mariage du hibou: une légende eskimo. Jodoin’s interest in computers and new technologies paved the way for the invitation of Peter Foldès, the Franco-Hungarian director, drawer and computer animation pioneer. In a joint production between NFB and Canada’s National Investigation Center, Foldès directed two films in the animation studio: Metadata, in 1971, and his masterpiece La faim, in 1973.

In the 90s, first under the administration of Pierre Hébert and after 1999 of Marcel Jean, an international coproductions policy took shape. Despite Canada’s growing immigration restrictions and the financial evolution of the cultural organisms, friendly competition between NFB’s animation studios and the world’s best talents is still one of it’s main concerns and that shows through many new ways of collaborating. The twelve years association between the French animation studio and the Foliage artistic residence one of the crucial initiatives for this renewal. The new projects still in production like Je ne sens plus rien, by the Belgian couple Carl Roosens and Noémie Marsily, Sexe pour blasé, By the Polish Izabela Plucinska and Oncle Thomas, by the Portuguese Regina Pessoa are all example of the desire the NFB possesses of expanding the experiences of creative interchange with talents from around the world.

Julie Roy
Executive Producer
National Film Board of Canada’s French Animation Studio the 4th of September, 2014