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Animation legend Grant Munro left a mark on global industry

By on December 29, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

Grant Munro, who has died at the age of 94, both starred in and did animation for Neighbours, a National Film Board short that won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1953.

Neighbours is a Cold War parody that opens with two men sitting in lawn chairs. They are smoking pipes and share a match. One is reading a newspaper with the headline: War is Certain if no Peace; the other reads: Peace is Certain if no War. All of a sudden a flower pops up in their garden, between their two houses. Not a word is spoken in the eight-minute film.

The two neighbours get down on the grass and draw imaginary lines from their houses; each one claims the flower. Then a white picket fence is animated; Mr. Munro’s character fences the flower on his side; with a swipe of his hand the other neighbour, played by Jean-Paul Ladouceur, lifts the pickets and they reappear on his side.

The revolutionary thing about Neighbours was its mixing of animation and live action. This would have been easy with a computer, but the NFB didn’t have any. So Mr. Munro and director/producer Norman McLaren worked out a stop-motion technique they could use to animate the film’s living subjects. Mr. Munro came up with a name for it: pixilation.

In the film, the two neighbours fence with pickets and continue to fight until their faces are distorted and covered in war paint. They kill each other – destroying their houses, crushing the flower – and in the end, the animated pickets form a fence around their graves.

The Oscar was either for the anti-war message in the era of red-baiter Joseph McCarthy or the revolution in mixing animation and live actors. Either way, it was one of Mr. Munro’s greatest achievements in a long career. Among other things, Neighbours was also honoured with a Canadian stamp. The main image on the stamp is a still from the film, depicting Mr. Munro.

William Grant Paterson Munro was born in Winnipeg on April 25, 1923. His father was a doctor and the family was well-off, even during the Depression, so Grant was able to have all the art supplies he needed.

He studied at the Musgrove School of Art, the Winnipeg School of Art and the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) in Toronto where he was a protégé of Franklin Carmichael, a member of the Group of Seven. Norman McLaren was setting up the animation unit at the National Film Board and travelled to art schools across Canada looking for talent. When he visited OCA in 1944, Mr. Carmichael insisted he meet Grant Munro.

“Norman saw something in Grant, and he went on to become Norman’s greatest collaborator,” said Bob Verrall, who joined the NFB as an animator in 1945 and worked with Mr. Munro on a film called Three Blind Mice. “Grant was an outstanding graphic artist, and I was honoured to work with him. I was a 17-year-old student at the time.”

Along with artistic talent, Mr. Munro had a magnetic personality.

“Grant was the star of any party, and there were a lot of parties at the Film Board. Women loved him,” Mr. Verrall said.

Gerald Potterton was an English animator who worked for two years on the animated George Orwell classic Animal Farm. Seeing the NFB film Neighboursinspired him to come to Canada when he was 22. “I was in a theatre in Piccadilly in smog-choked London when I saw Neighbours, with Grant Munro eating his neighbour’s face. I didn’t know then that I would soon be working with him,” Mr. Potterton said.

The two worked on Huff and Puff, a film made for the Royal Canadian Air Force to teach pilots how to breathe when wearing oxygen masks.

“One day Grant went for a ride in the back seat of a CF-100, the old Canadian fighter jet. There is a film of him taken from the jet flying alongside showing Grant’s head going back and forth. The ride made him sick. I think it put him off flying,” Mr. Potterton said.

Mr. Munro was a mimic, a natural actor and had the lithe moves of a dancer. It was why he doubled as an actor in some of the films he and Mr. McLaren made. In one of them, Christmas Cracker, nominated for an Academy Award, he dressed as a jester.

“Grant was like the court jester,” Mr. Potterton said. “He could be tricky to work with because he had such a caustic wit.”

Perhaps the most important film that Mr. Potterton and Mr. Munro worked on together was My Financial Career, adapted from the Stephen Leacock short story of the same name. The film was nominated for an Oscar.

Mr. Munro left the National Film Board for several years and went to London to work at an animation studio in London, run by George Dunning, who had been at the NFB. It was upstairs from a strip club in Soho, the then-seedy district off Piccadilly Circus.

He returned to the NFB and worked there until retiring in 1988. Mr. Munro led a comfortable life. Though he was not particularly frugal, an accountant he met at the NFB was his financial mentor, and he lived well, travelling a lot, in particular to Mexico. He stayed in Oaxaca, a city known for its silversmiths, and Mr. Munro studied with them.

“Grant was an accomplished amateur silversmith. This is one of his rings,” said his cousin Harvey Botting, holding up one of Mr. Munro’s creations.

Mr. Botting says his cousin was gregarious and had a wide world of acquaintances. “He knew everybody. When I mentioned the jazz great Fats Waller, Grant said he met him in 1942 at the Royal York.”

Ashley Botting, Harvey’s daughter, adored Mr. Munro.

“When I went to McGill, he would take me to galleries and shows. He was the first person I knew who made a living from art and he was an inspiration,” says Ms. Botting, who is a writer, comic actress and a panellist on the CBC Radio show Because News.

Mr. Munro was a generous man with a social conscience.

“Grant gave to Doctors Without Borders, the SPCA and anyone who needed something. One of his caregivers was a homeless person he rescued,” said Sandra Clementson, a retired CBC director, who cared for him for the past couple of years. “He had a conscience. Grant cared about people.”

He didn’t care about technology. In the digital age, Mr. Munro lived in an analog world. He didn’t use a computer and never owned a cellphone.

“Grant Munro was a Canadian animation legend, whose work has left an indelible mark on Canadian culture and on the global animation world. He was part of the first generation of young animators that Norman McLaren hired, trained and worked with, as the NFB was starting up in the early 1940s. For five decades, Grant worked on films here in addition to being a sculptor, painter and artist – for he was ceaselessly creative,” NFB commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur said.

In December, 2003, the Museum of Modern Art paid tribute to him with a retrospective of his work, called Grant Munro Rediscovered. In June, 2007, Concordia University awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his legacy for generations of filmmakers. He was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.

Mr. Munro, who died in Montreal on Dec. 9, leaves his sister, Gail McMillan, and extended family.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .


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