The National Film Board (NFB) of Canada was founded in May 1939 by a Scottish documentary filmmaker, John Grierson. Grierson had a vision of film to “create democratic loyalties” and “stir the collective consciousness of society” according to Gary Evans, one of Grierson’s former students and author of one of the only books on NFB’s history. Under Grierson’s direction, NFB supported the war effort by creating propaganda films and newsreels that were distributed in Canada and abroad.
However, NFB hasn’t only engaged in documentary production. Over the years, it has supported a wide range of film types, including French-language film, scientific films, and – of course – animation.
The most well-known animator to work under the auspices of the NFB was also its first: Norman McLaren.
Like Grierson, McLaren was Scottish, and he worked for Grierson in the late 1930s, making films for the UK’s General Post Office (GPO) film unit. Then, in 1941, Grierson invited McLaren to join the newly-established National Film Board, and McLaren accepted, kicking off an incredibly creative period of the filmmaker’s career.
McLaren pioneered an experimental animation technique called “direct animation,” which involves painting and drawing directly on a strip of film. These direct animation films were rhythmic and playful, often directly supporting Canadian propaganda efforts.
Take for example Dollar Dance (1943), a film McLaren created to promote war bonds. In it, a money symbol dances across a yellow background. As is typical in McLaren films, the figure disassembles and reassembles its body, multiplies itself, and transforms into other objects.
In the postwar period, the NFB went through a period of crisis, with the government questioning its utility and questioning the management choices from the film commissioner that replaced Grierson in 1945, Ross McLean. McLean attempted to navigate tensions between NFB and the Canadian government for five years, but was ultimately ousted in 1950.
In his place, W. Arthur Irwin was invited to head NFB, and under his leadership, NFB was reorganized to operate more efficiently and moved from Ottawa to a Montreal suburb to get out from underneath the conservative eyes of parliament.
1950 also saw the passage of the National Film Act, which in part stated that “The [National Film] Board is established…to produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.”
We can still see this mandate “to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations” lingering in many of the animated films NFB continues to fund and promote in the 21st century.
Take, for example, Wild Life (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, 2011), which was nominated for an Oscar in the animated shorts category. Wild Life delves into Canadian history, telling the story of a naïve British man who travels to one of Canada’s western provinces, Alberta, to stake his claim in the new world. However, he’s unprepared for the difficulties of isolated prairie life.
NFB animation has also more consistently supported indigenous films within the past two decades, including the creation of the Nunavut Animation Lab in 2006, which has as its mission the training and promotion of First Nations filmmakers.
One of the most successful films to come out of the Nunavut Animation lab is Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2010 film, Lumaajuuq. Based on an Inuit story, Lumaajuuq relates the sad tale of a young man attempting to find closure for a childhood trauma.
The National Film Board is the envy of animators working across the world, as independent animators generally find few avenues of support for their work. Former NFB chairperson Tom Perlmutter commented in one interview, “The kind of auteur animation that the NFB does is almost impossible to do in the private sector, because there is no financing or business model for such high-end creative work.” In its commitment to the art of film, Canada cultivates some of the most consistently creative voices working in cinema today.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.