In precise and elegant scribbles, a robust party comes to life filled with folk dancing and social rituals; peasant couples in colorful dress twirl and part, women in rocking chairs sway in time to joyous fiddles, children watch from the top of a stairway. A man takes a drink and sprouts antlers, shadows flicker across the candlelit room. And the image itself can hardly contain the energy as the “camera” constantly shifts to capture as much of the action as possible, finally tilting up to the chandeliers while continuing to rotate in its own private exhilaration.
An avant-garde film? No, just a few moments from the intensely creative animation of Quebecois artist Frederic Back, who was honored last night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The event hosted a round table discussion with industry professionals (including the director of Monsters, Inc. and Disney’s top animator, Glen Keane), screened four of Back’s most famous works–All Nothing (1980), Crac! (1981), The Mighty River (1993), and The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)–and interviewed the octogenarian himself.
Back has been described as an impressionist who draws with colored pencils on frosted acetate, then uses a variety of dissolves to animate his pictures into highly textured and suggestive movement. His films are particularly notable for their transitions between scenes; objects or backgrounds morph into new ones and the perspective fully incorporates 360-degree space, creating a deeply immersive and vibrant aesthetic. Back has no qualms using white space and relays only the details he needs from shot to shot. The information he presents follows emotional rather than logical rules.
Back studied art at the Rennes School of Fine Arts but emigrated to MontrÈal in 1948. After being profoundly inspired by the “Rite of Spring” sequence of Fantasia, he decided to embark on a career of animation. During the ’50s, he worked for the French CBC doing graphics and special effects for television and in ’68 he joined the new CBC Radio Canada (which released Back’s films on DVD in 2002). Directing his own films for the first time, his subjects were ecological in theme and often incorporated Native American legends.
At the honorary event, Keane used an overhead projector and showed the audience some of Back’s original drawings, which were only a few inches wide–a much smaller scale than most animators’ work. “Back’s drawings are like miniature Sistine Chapels,” Keane said, and surprised the audience by focusing on a detailed rendering of whales swimming together and placing his thumb, gargantuan by comparison, next to it. (“He is doing what I want to do,” Keane said of Back in 1997. “He is saying something personal, because he believes it and his drawing is a passion for him.”)
The Man Who Planted Trees is widely considered to be Back’s masterpiece. Five years in the making (he and an “inbetweener” assistant produced 20,000 drawings), the 30-minute film tells a quiet fable about a mysterious old shepherd who lives by himself in the mountains and plants trees simply for the joy of it, whose efforts eventually outlive two world wars and establish a national park. It is highly poetic in its shadings and literary narration (the English version was recorded by Christopher Plummer) and the color design is stunning as it slowly evolves from monochromatic, rocky landscapes to a fully blossoming forest.
Back is renowned for his modesty, and only appeared on stage at the end of the program. The small, elderly man seated across the aisle from me, looking every bit like the man who planted trees with his wintery white mustache and wispy hair, suddenly stood up and walked to the front of the theatre. But as critic Charles Solomon praised Back’s work, the animator continually deflected compliments by highlighting his collaborators, such as composer Normand Roger and producer Hubert Tison.
Mostly, however, Back obviously relished the opportunity to voice an impassioned plea for the industry to use its technology and distribution resources to make better quality films. And the resulting applause didn’t deter him–he really meant it. As the clapping built in intensity, Back had to raise his voice to be heard. “You can do more,” he said. “You can do better.”