John Grierson's famous definition of documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality" would seem also to express the two traditions of filmmaking at the National Film Board. For along with documentaries, the NFB also produced many experimental and animated films that hardly seemed to fit into the Board's mandate. Some created films that combined a documentary impulse with the stylistic strategies of experimental film. Arthur Lipsett (1936–1986), for example, in such films as Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) and Free Fall (1964), used a collage style of found footage—frequently outtakes from other NFB films—to create bleak statements about contemporary alienation. The interest in using documentary footage unconventionally informs Canadian experimental film from Circle (Jack Chambers, 1967–1968), which consists of shots of four seconds taken each day for a year from the same camera position, to Moosejaw (Rick Hancox, 1992), which is a documentary of the filmmaker's prairie hometown in Saskatchewan and a poetic meditation on memory, home, and the process of documenting the past.

Outside the NFB, experimental filmmakers such as Joyce Wieland (1931–1998) and Bruce Elder, who is also an important film critic, have been influential in the development of an experimental film culture in Canada. But the country's most well-known experimental filmmaker is Michael Snow (b. 1929). Some of Snow's films reveal the influence of documentary, as in La Région centrale (1971), which is shot by a camera positioned on a hilltop and attached to a machine with preprogrammed movements. Snow's somewhat infamous structural film Wavelength (1967) is a 45-minute zoom shot across a room. Despite the challenging nature of his non-narrative films, Snow is known popularly for his installation of Canada geese in the Eaton Centre, Toronto's first urban mall (and home of Cineplex's first multiplex) and the sculptural facade of the Rodgers Center (formerly Skydome), home stadium of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team.

The NFB also produced many important short animated films by artists such as Richard Conde, George Dunning (1920–1979) (who went on to head the international team of animators that produced the Beatles' animated feature Yellow Submarine [1968]), Co Hoedeman (b. 1940), Derek Lamb (1936–2005), and Gerald Potterton. At the NFB, a number of artists experimented with unusual and innovative animation techniques. In The Street (1976), an adaptation of the Canadian author Mordecai Richler's story, Caroline Leaf (b. 1946) animated drawings composed of sand on a glass slide, lit from below; the German-born Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981) used silhouette cutouts in Aucassin et Nicolette (1975); and the Russian expatriate Alexandre Alexeieff (1901–1982) used his unique pinscreen method in En Passant (1943), a wartime sing-along film. Norman McLaren (1914–1987), both an animator and an experimental filmmaker, was the NFB's most acclaimed artist. In many of his abstract films, McLaren painted directly onto the filmstrip, as in Begone Dull Care (1949), which is set to the jazz music of Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson. But McLaren's work could also draw inspiration from the real world: the pixillated Neighbours (1952) is a powerful antiwar fable that won an Oscar ® for Best Short Documentary in 1953.

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