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Award-Winning Animator Plants Pleas for Ecology in His Poetic Short Films

“Animation is a folie amoureuse , something that comes from the heart,” says Academy Award-winner Frederic Back. “It’s such an immense privilege to make films and for other people to take time to watch you present your ideas.

“That’s why the content of a film is so important: You can put all your fantasies into it, but there must be a beautiful idea at its base.”

Back, whose Oscar-wining short, “The Man Who Planted Trees,” dominates the 21st International Tournee of Animation (currently playing at the Balboa Cinema) has been blending poetic fantasies and beautiful ideas for 18 years. The exquisite visuals in his films emphasize their strong, ecological messages.

He received his first academy nomination in 1981 for “Tout-Rien” (“All-Nothing”), a plea for environmental sanity, and won an Oscar in 1982 for “Crac!"--a film about the changes the 20th Century brings to family life in rural Quebec. In addition, Back’s films have earned dozens of prizes at festivals all over the world; the Oscar was the 15th award “The Man Who Planted Trees” had won in less than a year. (It has subsequently won eight more).

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Based on a true story by the modern French writer Jean Giono, “The Man Who Planted Trees” depicts the labors of the humble shepherd Elzeard Bouffier, who transformed a barren Provencal wasteland into a prosperous countryside by planting hundreds of thousands of oak trees. Back drew the film in colored pencil on sheets of frosted acetate, creating a subtle, Impressionistic palette that deepens as the forest grows.

Lee Mishkin, who directed the Oscar-winning “Is It Always Right to Be Right” (1970), declares: “ ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ may be the most beautiful animated short ever made.”

Says Tournee producer Terry Thoren: “We traditionally limit the Tournee to films of 10 minutes and under; ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ lasts 30 minutes, but it’s such a masterpiece, the length doesn’t matter. I think it’s one of the finest animated films to come along in at least a decade.”

Back, a gentle, soft-spoken man, seems almost embarrassed by the admiration his work receives. (When told that the ending of “The Man Who Planted Trees” moved the entire audience to tears at the animation festival in Annecy, France, he suggested setting up a tissue concession outside the theater.)

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He was born in Sarrebruck, France, in 1924, and moved to Montreal in 1948, where he worked as an illustrator, muralist, graphic artist and interior designer. In 1968, Hubert Tison invited him to join his newly established animation unit at Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Co.

Back taught himself to animate at the CBC and completed his first film, “Abracadabra,” in 1970. Since then, he has devoted himself almost exclusively to animation.

His involvement in environmental causes began during the mid-'60s, when the construction of a series of artificial islands near Montreal for the Expo ’67 World’s Fair destroyed important habitats along the St. Lawrence River.

Back first read Giono’s story in an ecological magazine at that time. He was immediately struck by its cinematic possibilities, but he felt he wasn’t ready to attempt such an ambitious project.

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He thought about “The Man Who Planted Trees” for more than a decade and did the first story boards in 1979. He reworked the story boards while making “Tout-Rien” and “Crac!” and finally started the film in 1982, working with a single assistant--a process he describes as “a five-year rush.”

In contrast to the lightning pace of traditional cartoons, “The Man Who Planted Trees” unfolds with a stately dignity, underscored by Norman Roger’s subtle music.

“I deliberately went against the usual pace of animation to emphasize the mood rather than the movement,” Back explains. “It’s very difficult to sustain, as the tempo seems almost like slow motion. But the speed is actually very close to the rate of real motions. Creating a quick action is much easier in animation, as you only have to give the impression of the motion. With a slow movement, every detail counts. If you make an error, the audience has time to notice it and grow annoyed.”

Back has also worked with his wife, Ghylaine, and their three children to plant more than 10,000 trees in the Laurentides region of Quebec. He christened the project the Jean Giono Forest and hopes his film will inspire others to plant trees and care for the Earth. (Back mentioned that he is using a windowsill in his home to raise 50 oak seedlings from acorns he found in a historic forest in Brittany.)

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Back is now completing the illustrations for a special edition of Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” and working on the story boards for his next film, which will focus on the effects the growing population of Canada has had on the St. Lawrence River.

“Each time I start a film, I never believe it will be a success, so I work as hard as I can to try to make it one,” Back said. “Winning an Oscar is a fantastic experience, but I’m a little ashamed that there are so few Oscar winners and so many people who have worked so hard without the support and the facilities I have. They must take on other projects just to earn a living. I feel the only thing I can do is work as hard as I can, as I have no excuse for not doing something well.”


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