Media @ McGill

“The Music and Sound of the National Film Board’s Unit B, 1948-1964”

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Allyson Rogers


While a great deal of scholarly work has been done on the films, filmmakers, and history of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), no sustained work has been undertaken on NFB film music, the history of the music department, or its staff composers. Given the integral role of music in film, and the somewhat controversial role of music in documentary, the lack of research on the music of the NFB is a significant oversight. My research is at the nexus of communication, musicology, and film studies and my dissertation project will examine how music shapes the aesthetic and relates to the ideological and philosophical objectives of the infamous production unit B.

Unit B was in place from 1948 to1964 and included Film Board luminaries such as Roman Kroitor, Norman McLaren, Tom Daly, Colin Low, Gerald Potterton, Stanley Jackson, and Wolf Koenig. Their innovative work produced some of the NFB’s most highly acclaimed and influential films. It was a unique era in the Board’s history when full-time staff composers generated large amounts of original music. Notable shifts in policy and filmmaking occurred post-war and Unit B spanned three noteworthy shifts that Zoe Druick (2007) outlines, from propagandistic films of the forties to attempts at an impartial, observational style in the fifties to radical participatory filmmaking in the sixties. Even a cursory study shows concurrent changes in the use and style of music. Unit B had a wide range of activities and staff composers had to grapple with an astonishing variety of subject matter, from fish spoilage control to nature films, animated shorts, and experimental art films. Are particular subjects routinely paired with certain styles of music? Do the political and ideological codes of musical instruments and styles follow those of Hollywood and American films? What kinds of folk songs, hymns, and popular music are used? Is there anything distinctly Canadian? Scholars and filmmakers alike have remarked that a “Film Board sound” emerged in the 50s and 60s. If there is such a thing, how can we describe it and what circumstances contributed to the development of this aesthetic? Does it relate to the qualities of “suspended judgment,” detachment or even alienation that scholars attribute to Unit B’s style?