Among all the pieces we watched this week, I was deeply captivated by Norman McLaren’s Synchromy (1971) in terms of his innovative approach of translating sounds into visual images. Specifically, I was curious about the techniques McLaren employed to create the soundtrack as well as his intention to construct a film like Synchromy, given the fact that cinematic digital sounds were not invented until the 1990s, five decades after McLaren embarked on his career as an experimental filmmaker.
The first source I’ve found is a journal article that provides a great overview of McLaren’s career and his typical production techniques. According to William E. Jordan, “the popularity of Norman McLaren’s films is certainly due in a large measure to their appeal to the senses” (Jordan, 1). The focus of McLaren’s works lies on “animations”—he designated “‘lifelike’ qualities” to “what is ordinarily considered inanimate”—and thence often involves the visualization of sounds (Jordan, 1). Specifically, he created synthetic sounds by directly drawing on or manipulating the film strips: “I draw a lot of little lines on the sound-track area of the 35-mm film…The number of strokes to the inch controls the pitch of the note: the more, the higher the pitch; the fewer, the lower is the pitch” (Jordan, 6). This indeed helps to explain the shift in pitch as the numbers of cubes in the middle of the frame decrease in Synchromy (0:50-0:57). Moreover, McLaren claimed that “by drawing or exposing two or more patterns on the same bit of film I can create harmony and textural effects”, which is also consistent with the segmented sequence around 4:40-4:45 where we observe two types of cubes that both vary in colors and sizes and hear the chords they create (Jordan, 6).
In addition to the article, I also found a video in which McLaren directly demonstrated the process of hand drawing sounds. In opposition to the conventional way in which sounds were recorded and stored as distinctive patterns of light and dark on the films, McLaren manually drew patterns on the films and explored the possibilities of generating sounds. Such a method is considered to grant the filmmaker “direct, personal control at every stage of the film’s production” (5:16-5:19).