The Street
The Street

Director: Caroline Leaf (Canada)
1976 Grand Prize Winner

Ottawa 76: The Street by Caroline Leaf
Essay by Madi Piller

Winning the very first Grand Prize at OIAF in 1976, The Street generated tremendous recognition for Caroline Leaf for her creative achievements. Consequently, as an animator, she was inscribed into the annals of film history as an Oscar nominee, and achieved other high distinctions around the world. She became known as one of best animators anywhere.

The Street is a National Film Board production based on one of the stories included in Montréal author Mordecai Richler’s 1969 short story collection of the same name. The film adaptation follows the story closely, but leaves out certain details that were considered sensitive or controversial by the NFB. As Leaf recalled in an interview with John Canemaker, “they’re very sensitive not to provoke any public outrage, or outcry, so they take a middle road. Nothing should be too controversial.”[1]  As a result, there are no ethnic jokes in the film, and no children smoking cigarettes (even though there is some playful childish sexual commentary). Apart from this, however, the film is true to the mordant humour and spirit of the story. The social spaces of the street and the house are beautifully rendered in continuously shifting paint by Caroline Leaf, who also uses the soundtrack to profoundly enrich its sense of a vibrant, intimate community.

The Street tells the story of a family caring for an elderly, bed-ridden grandmother who has moved into the home of her daughter and son-in-law.  The film revolves around the effects of the grandmother’s prolonged death on the family, particularly on the two young grandchildren who endure various forms of displacement and discomfort as a result. The opening line, “The summer my Grandma was supposed to die…,” draws the viewer into the perspective of a young boy coming of age. He has finally been offered his own bedroom, only to have to give it up to his grandmother who lies in bed, taking too long to die. The few months until her death, as predicted by the family doctor, extend to several years.

Shot on 35mm film, The Street is an example of Leaf’s characteristic paint-on-glass animation technique. She uses a modest palette of black and white, along with some red, some pale blue, and just touches of green and yellow. Black frames form the lines of the story on the white background, delineating the characters and their environments.

Much has been said about Caroline Leaf’s pioneering techniques, such as sand animation and paint on glass, but I would like to stress the notion of the persona of the animator as a unique tool on its own, entwined in the resulting animation. The artist engages in the animation process - a process that, as any animator knows, is lengthy and painstaking and full of emotion.

The work of an animation artist encompasses not only the creation, but also the economy and technique of a film, which should elevate its aesthetic. In Leaf’s case, she has traced the development of her main techniques to her limits as a filmmaker: “All my animating life I did not know how to make an edited cut, and found my way around the problem by making morphed scene changes.” The performative emotions generated by the actions of the artist as she creates her work are reflected in the concreteness of its form. Even traces of her fingerprints are left in the work.

Caroline Leaf’s artwork plays in the realm of visual artists as much as of media artists. Just as a painter works on a canvas, she paints on her light box, creating not just on it, but within it, by means of choreographed movements. Her artistry manages to take us into a moving painting, executing shifts of points of view through the paintings, rather than with sophisticated camera movements.

There is much to be said for the formative ways of a liberal arts education that prepares people to creatively resolve their own paths. Leaf is the product of such an educational process: in addition to the fruitful environment of open discussion and exchange of information at Harvard, she says, “I credit my originality to the animation class where we were left alone for the most part and found our own solutions.”[2]

Leaf was fortunate to be able to have employment and support at the NFB, which was tremendously helpful in advancing her artistic creations during this time of her career. Thank you, Caroline, for your inspiration.


Madi Piller is a filmmaker, animator, programmer and independent curator currently living and working in Toronto, Canada.

[1] The following is from the book, Storytelling in Animation, The Art of the Animated Image Vol 2. This anthology was edited by John Canemaker in conjunction with the Second Annual Walter Lantz Conference on Animation. Walter Lantz Conference – 1988 A Conversation with Caroline Leaf.


  (Don't miss our ONE-ON-ONE WITH CAROLINE LEAF, Thursday September 22, 5:00pm - 6:00 pm at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts! Details HERE )