Ottawa animation festival celebrates the work of Evelyn Lambart

Evelyn Lambart is seen here working on a map that would later be used in an NFB film. Photo: National Film Board of Canada.

In the history of film animation in Canada, the name of Norman McLaren is remembered and celebrated. But there are others who worked with him at the National Film Board who are equally deserving of wider recognition but haven’t received it.

One of those individuals is Evelyn Lambart, who was a decorated animator in her own right, but who is not as well known today.

To offer some redress, the Ottawa International Animation Festival asked NFB filmmaker Donald McWilliams to change that fact and he has produced a film about Lambart which will screen this week during the annual OIA festival.

Lambart, who was born in Ottawa in 1914, had originally wanted to be a visual artist. Her ability to focus on her work, which was legendary in the NFB, she credited to the fact that her hearing was impaired After graduating from Lisgar Collegiate she went to the Ontario College of Art. The Second World War blocked her from going overseas to study further and she got a job as a calligrapher and illuminator of the Book of Remembrance that commemorated the Canadian war dead from the First World War.

She moved to the NFB where she was initially hired to make titles for films. That work was under McLaren’s supervision and he apparently recognized her talents might be better employed elsewhere, McWilliams says. That led to her work as an animator, starting with making maps to be used in films showing the progress of the Second World War.

Evelyn Lambart. Photo courtesy National Film Board.

After the war she became more involved in animation and that led to collaborations with McLaren on films such as Begone Dull Care.

By the 1960s she was making  her own films several of which were award winners. In her work she often used cutouts made of paper and later of metal to make her stop-motion films. Among her award winning films are: Fine Feathers (1968), The Hoarder (1969), Paradise Lost (1970), The Story of Christmas (1973), Mr. Frog Went A-Courting (1974), The Lion and the Mouse (1976) and The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (1980). As one can see from the titles she often worked on stories for children. Lambart died in 1999 in Ottawa.

McWilliams agreed to become involved in the project because “I did a thing last year at the festival. I was the honorary president and was asked to put together a compilation of things I thought animators should see about the NFB. So I put this program together which I called Eleven Moving Moments. 

“Chris Robinson (the festival’s CEO) asked if I would do another one this year. He gave me the theme which was Evelyn Lambart. He felt she was overlooked.

“I readily agreed for the simple reason that I had been part of that world and I knew her a little bit. She was overlooked. She contributed a lot more than people realized.”

Lambart was a woman in a man’s world. Her opinion, McWilliams said, “was that they treated her with great respect because they knew she knew more than they did.”

“After the NFB hired her to do titles which she hated doing, they realized she wasn’t cut out for titles but she was curious about maps. She was also really interested in math and physics. When she got a chance to do maps for wartime documentaries. she just leapt into it and they soon realized she was doing very elaborate things off her own bat,” he said.

Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart at work on the film Mosaic in 1965. Photo courtesy National Film Board.

Lambart was a very straightforward person, McWilliams said. adding that “she could be quite blunt.”

She was tall about 5’10” and quiet. She was very “self-contained” but she “had a presence about her,” McWilliams said.

McWilliams isn’t sure why she was so direct, but he knows that McLaren encouraged complete openness in his studio.

The NFB, after the war, became very patriarchal, he says, suggesting that she may have been responding to that.

“I’m sure she felt that in the atmosphere of the place.” He says that the male dominated environment is one of the reasons for the establishment of the famous Studio D for women filmmakers inside the NFB.

Her deafness was discovered when she was six, he said.

“She always wore an old fashioned, very visible hearing aid. She said to me once, ‘The one big advantage of having a hearing aid is if it’s not interesting, you can just turn it off.’

Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart in 1949. Photo: Guy Blouin

“She was quite formidable when you met her. She was not a milquetoast.”

In her upbringing Lambart’s mother encouraged her painting side a great deal and her father encouraged her photography. McWilliams said that Lambart was always taking photographs on the job.

Skill with a camera would come in handy in her animating career, both working collaboratively with Norman McLaren and after 1965 on her own projects. 

McLaren taught his team of animators a simple lesson, McWilliams says. There was no money so they had to make up their own techniques. He also believed filmmakers and animators should do everything themselves in a production.

And that’s what Lambart did. She refined the age-old technique of cutout animation into a fine art, McWilliams said.

“Her cutouts were made of metal. She would sketch them on paper and transfer the image to metal and paint the metal pieces.”

She even would hing the cutouts so they were connected when the pieces were moved. The result were animations of bright colour and quality.

Lambart was known around the NFB for making finely crafted wooden boxes on a lathe she kept at home and handing them out as presents. McWilliams has one of those. She was also an accomplished weaver.

“She had incredible craft skills. She stood out in the animation studios because of these various skills.”

Detail from a poster for The Hoarder by Evelyn Lambart. Photo courtesy of the National Film Board

As for Lambart’s private life, McWilliams knows almost nothing about it except that she was single all her life. 

McWilliams’ own career at the NFB began in 1968 when he left a job as an elementary school teacher and started making movies.

He had met McLaren before going the board and had become friends. McWilliams would go on to make many films including a highly regarded documentary on McLaren. He is still making films.

“I’m supposed to start one of my own soon. I did a couple last year. I don’t go in every day any more but I’m still at it. I had made a film on McLaren which was successful and Evelyn was mentioned in it.” But, he says, he regretted not focussing on her more.

“So when Chris had asked me, I thought, ‘here’s a chance to deal with another of the ghosts. Evelyn has always been under-recognized except amongst animators. (the noted animator) Caroline Leaf says no one ever did cutout animation the way Evelyn did.”

The film board was solidly behind the project, he said, noting the active support of  Michelle van Beusekom, Head of English Production and Michael Fukushima, Executive Producer of English Animation. McWilliams’ film will have a life, but the NFB has to decide how they will distribute it. He believes it will probably go on the Internet.

“It will have a life but as Variety magazine would say ‘it won’t be boffo in Buffalo’ because it is a niche film.”

Donald McWilliams. Photo: Pierre Letarte.

His own opinion of Lambart is that “her craftsmanship is incredible. It is beautiful to look at. It’s not exactly my sort of film but she was a hell of an animator. She was first Canadian woman animator and if you add her own work to all the stuff she did with McLaren in terms of Canadian animation she is a very very significant figure.”

McWilliams’ favourite Lambart film is The Hoarder.

“One of important things she got from McLaren was the feeling of freedom. It’s why when she worked under the camera she worked so freely. Film-making was supposed to be play, McLaren would say.

“She says in the film, ‘You have to be open to accidents.’ That’s where the art happens,: he said.

He says that whenever she was interviewed Lambart would always downplay her career.

“But I do know from conversations that were not being taped that she would sometimes express that she felt had not been recognized enough. When she saw my film about McLaren she was pleased she was mentioned as McLaren’s key collaborator. But I always felt badly that I couldn’t give her more airtime. She’s had it now.”

Eleven Moving Moments with Evelyn Lambart
Ottawa International Animation Festival
When: Thursday, Sept. 21 at 5 p.m., Friday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m.
Where: National Gallery Auditorium
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.