Spotlight: Evelyn Lambart
I didn’t want to be left out of life, I wanted to participate.This was really the driving force of my life. I didn’t want to be left out, I wanted to get an education. I was interested in drawing and painting. I wanted a job and I wanted to compete and I wanted to stand on my own feet. And I didn’t want anybody marrying me off to somebody.
I was really mad about the whole thing, my fur was up, and I knew I only had one life.
And I wanted to live it.
In these grey locked down times we could all do with a little joy. The films of Evelyn Lambart, Canada’s first female animator, offer us just that. Rarely longer than a few minutes, these gorgeous vignettes have a deceptive staying power. At once familiar and bracingly strange, Evelyn’s unmistakeable cut outs lodge themselves like a shard of stained glass in the heart. The first time we discovered her singular and intoxicating world we fell in love. Since that encounter we’ve screened her films several times, and the reaction of audiences is always the same. Evelyn never fails to transport us to a place of childlike wonder.
Evelyn Lambart was born in 1914 in Ottawa, Canada. At age six, she began to lose her hearing, and within a few years was nearly deaf. Growing up without hearing aids was an isolating experience, but Evelyn learned early to find comfort and company in the visual. Encouraged by her resourceful mother, Evelyn began painting and drawing, a formative connection with art which was to shape the course of her life. Indeed, she seems to have considered no other path. In 1937 she graduated from Ontario College of Art and ventured out into the world in search of a creative career.
Evelyn’s plan had been to continue her training in the UK, but those dreams were cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Instead, she spent a year and a half working on illuminated illustrations for Canada’s Book of Remembrance, a sombre starter job that would nevertheless have a lasting influence. Years later, when developing her voice as an animator, Evelyn’s glowing images would bear a clear debt to religious art.
It didn’t take long for the young artist to find her way to film. In 1939, Scottish film producer John Grierson, had been invited by the federal government to set up the National Film Board of Canada. Grierson had built his reputation in the 1930s as one of the pioneers of the British Documentary Movement and was a highly regarded public figure when he was called upon to build a new cutting-edge centre for film production in Canada. Ottawa, Evelyn’s birthplace, was home to its headquarters. For a young woman with creative ambitions, the shiny front doors of the NFB building must have exerted an irresistible pull.
While John Grierson directed only one film himself across his long career, he had a gift for spotting talent. Back in the UK he had presided over a school of innovative emerging filmmakers, many of them independent-minded women like Evelyn. Grierson was keenly aware that in times of war, when men might be called to serve in other roles, women could prove a valuable resource. As Canada joined World War II, the new NFB sprung into action making propaganda films, training young women to fulfill the surging demand for workers. These women were generally recruited into assistant roles however, with leadership positions dominated by men. One of John’s key early hires was a fellow Scot, the artist and filmmaker Norman McLaren. McLaren was something of a boy genius, still in his twenties when he was invited to head up the NFB's new animation department in 1941, but already with a track record as an artistic and experimental filmmaker.
When Evelyn herself arrived at the NFB in 1942, that department was in its infancy, employing only McLaren and the film producer Guy Glover (who was also McLaren’s lifelong partner). Evelyn’s first job was as a letterer, a position that she admitted she was not especially good at. But it wasn’t long before Evelyn’s talent and art school training was to make itself apparent. One day McLaren asked Evelyn for help on a sequence and was impressed by her skill. He continued to invite Evelyn to assist on projects, and the two hit it off. A long and productive creative partnership was born.
Between 1944-1965, Evelyn and McLaren produced a total of eight films in collaboration. While that output might sound low for a near two-decade partnership, it’s important to recognise that this was cutting-edge frontier work. The filmmaking process was often laborious and physically uncomfortable, and available technology could not keep up with imagination. Evelyn recalled standing all night up a ladder as McLaren animated below, manually operating the camera's shutter release because there was no automated clicking. Working late into the night was commonplace and Evelyn would often stay until 4am. The work was challenging, but the environment was inspiring. McLaren was a generous mentor, willing to talk about every aspect of the filmmaking process, and he cultivated in his protegee both technical skill and a profound sense of belonging. With McLaren, Evelyn found her place, as she remembered:
I loved it right away, I landed right on my feet. The whole thing grabbed me. I was so anxious to earn a living with what I could do. I was absolutely so excited to realise that perhaps there was a place in society for me after all.
The Lambart/McLaren films are radical, boundary pushing adventures in abstraction. Lines Vertical (1960) and Lines Horizontal (1962) for instance, were “a protest against too much pep,” minimalist experiments in pure design based entirely around the zen-like movement of lines to music. Mosaic (1965) offers an altogether more frenetic experience, a mind-bending interplay between tiny pin pricks set to flickering colour and throbbing sound, with irreal graphics reminiscent of early video games. The furious avant-garde nature of some of these films demonstrates the freedom of McLaren and Evelyn’s working environment. They seem to have largely been left to their own devices, and with this space to breathe they worked together on many technical innovations. Evelyn helped to pioneer key techniques such as stereoscopic animation, an early form of 3D, the travelling zoom, and a card system for synthetic sound.
McLaren was captivated by music and several of these collaborative pieces are attempts to capture a kind of visual music on screen. Perhaps their most striking collaboration is Begone Dull Care (1949), a fluid response to the jazz records of Oscar Petersen and a colourful riot of apparently spontaneous motion. The multi-lingual opening sequence, which introduces the film in several different languages, demonstrates an excited engagement with the potential of animation (and music) to transcend language. As the film progresses there are no further words, just phantasmic combinations of colour and sound, visual delights which fizz and fracture in time to the music. Just as the dizzying riot gets too much the soundtrack switches to a gentle ballad, and a beautifully controlled black and white central sequence, composed simply of quivering lines and dots, reminds us that this is not an improvisational free for all but rather a carefully controlled, technically virtuosic piece of work. Then the music goes crazy again, as does the screen, and we give in once again, to wild abandon.
The male-dominated film industry has never had a great track record when it comes to crediting female talent. Grierson himself, while a regular employer of women, had not always proved straight forward when it came to recognising their labour as filmmakers. McLaren by contrast seems to have been a gentler soul. It’s possible that McLaren’s lived experience as a gay man might have predisposed him to another outsider – a hearing-impaired young woman finding her way in film. In interviews in later life McLaren described Evelyn as a valuable collaborator who shared his ideas about the use of colour and movement. Significantly she is listed as co-director on six out of the eight films they made together. At a time when women were frequently un- or under credited on film projects this is a clear marker of mutual regard. While McLaren was the more experienced animator and was seen as the field’s maverick genius, Lambart’s virtuosity earned his respect. As Lambart would later put it, somewhat modestly: “his role was the conceptual one, but I wasn’t just pushing the broom.”
Eventually the partnership ran its course. In his later career, McLaren became increasingly obsessed with dance, a subject Evelyn in which had little interest. Having spent years mulling over the possibility of solo work, the timing seemed right. Evelyn had made films alone at the start of her career, most notably The Impossible Map (1947), a striking painted-on-glass work demonstrating the difficulties of animating a map of the world in two dimensions. Nevertheless setting off on her own after years working with McLaren still felt like something of a leap, albeit a liberating one. As Evelyn recalled:
I wanted to help Norman work out his ideas, but I realised I could do more than that and I would sit there and think: ‘come on Eve, you’ve got to make some films of your own.’ It was a bit of a stretch for me to realise that my opinion mattered. You see I was accustomed to discussing everything with Norman and coming to a consensus about something. And suddenly I had to make all the decisions myself. And also my love of colour began to come out…
That love of colour is one of the defining characteristics of Evelyn’s animations. Working with McLaren, who favoured cool shades of greens and blue, Evelyn had side-lined some of her own sensibilities. Now on her own, she was free to use colour however she wished, to play with reds and bright pinks and let her personality run riot. Right from her first solo work Fine Feathers (1968), Evelyn’s distinctive style is in place. The influence of McLaren’ is there, as is a heavy debt to Lotte Reiniger, the mother of the paper cut out, but these films are from the start unmistakably Evelyns. In contrast to Reiniger’s typical silhouette style, Evelyn’s offers a feast of incandescent colour dramatically contrasted against an inky black background, a stained-glass window come to life.
Evelyn’s films usually centre on the natural world, with material drawn from fables and folklore, universal stories which allow the animation to shine. That’s not to say however, that they lack depth. While her films are often aimed at children, like all the best kids stories they often present layers of meaning, moments of darkness or sly humour. The Hoarder (1969) is a charming cautionary tale about a greedy bird which takes a chilling turn when its central character steals the sun from the sky and leaves the world a blue-tinted freeze. Paradise Lost (1970), a fable about the effect of pollution on the natural world, takes a similar dark twist, and is cut through with a deep melancholy about human folly. Even the rollicking Mr Frog Goes A-Courting (1974), a jaunty folk tale about a kind of dashing cowboy Frog who elopes with a mouse, takes such a gleefully malevolent twist that it comes with a content warning for young children on the NFB website.
Evelyn took control of every aspect of production - story, design, painting, drawing and shooting. Her films are usually without dialogue, using only music and delicate sound effects, so it is the movement that carries the weight of the story. To convey emotion purely through the manipulation of cut outs requires real skill. Evelyn’s dexterous empathy is apparent in the clarity of her storytelling. Every move her characters make is imbued with easily decipherable feeling. This commitment to silent filmmaking harks back to her days animating to music with McLaren. Like those abstractions, Evelyn’s fables are universal, transcending borders and language, reaching out generously to every corner of that Impossible Map.
It’s a romantic kind of speculation, but we like to think that Evelyn was fated to animate. This distinctive form provided a place where Evelyn’s insecurities could alchemise into artistry. Cut off from others as a child, Evelyn found solace in her art. The world she constructed for herself, hermetically sealed and all her own, was a slow, quiet, exquisitely realised one. To become an animator, especially one who works with cutouts is to take patience to the extreme, to lose yourself in methodical, meticulous movement making. To conjure whole worlds from flat pieces of paper requires a very unmagical kind of grit.
Evelyn retired in 1974, although she stepped out temporarily to make a couple more shorts. She made her final animation, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse in 1980, before settling into life in the countryside, surrounded by plants, animals and peace. Within her lifetime her contribution to the field was acknowledged and celebrated. Two biographical documentaries have been made about her, Margaret Wescott’s Eve Lambart (1978) and Don McWilliams’ Eleven Moving Moments (2017). In Joanna Robertson’s Making Movie History (2014) Evelyn makes a memorable appearance in an archive interview, sat in a jolly knit, hearing aid in place, a deceptively youthful character with a galloping manner of speaking. She died, aged 85, in 1999.
While it is easy for animators, especially female ones, to slip through historical cracks, today Evelyn seems to be receiving at least some of her due celebrated with festival retrospectives and recognised as “The First Lady of Canadian Animation.” The greatest testament though, is of course her films, most of which are available to watch online for free. It only takes a few minutes to dive into Evelyn’s world. Go on, transport yourself, it’s a beautiful place to be.
David Kilmer. Animation World Network. Obituary: Evelyn Lambart.
Donald McWilliams. Eleven Moving Moments
Joanna Robertson. Making Movie History: Evelyn Lambart
Marc St-Pierre. The Life and Times of Evelyn Lambart