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The Burgeoning of a Project: Pierre Hébert's La Plante humaine

Andrea Martignoni delves into Pierre Hert's radical method for marrying animation with music.

The germ of an idea for La Plante humaine grew many years ago, during the early 1980s, in the mind of Pierre Hébert, a Canadian filmmaker who had been active in the independent sector since 1962 and had started working with the National Film Board of Canada in the mid-1960s.

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF

Seeds of Inspiration

From the outset of his career, Hébert had earned the reputation of making unusual animated movies. Initially his films had been purely experimental, and can be regarded to a certain extent as having developed out of the work of Norman McLaren. Later, he began to make films with a strong narrative and social content, while continuing to make use of unconventional animation techniques. Entre chiens et loup (1978) and Souvenirs de guerre (1982), in particular, are powerful movies which appear to have posed considerable difficulties both for the general public and for specialized festivals, which often fail to recognize genuine masterpieces and simply send back films. In addition to these obstacles, Hébert was dissatisfied with the lengthy production time required for the completion of his two shorts, and started to radically rethink his cinematographic approach.

For a filmmaker accustomed to working alone, the decision to make an animated feature film is never an easy one. When he decided to make La Plante humaine, Pierre Hébert embarked on a journey that was to last 14 years; fourteen years during which his activity as a film director increasingly crossed over into the world of music and improvisation.

Between 1983 and 1984, Hébert met René Lussier, Jean Derome and Robert M. Lepage, young musicians who had for some years been active on the Montréal music scene in the area of improvisation and so-called musique actuelle. He was both intrigued and impressed by their ability to work in any situation, by their instrumental and compositional flexibility, and by their creative use of recording studies, and chose to work with them on the soundtrack of the short Etienne et Sara (1984).

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF

It was here that the idea for a full-length movie developed. To begin with, it was necessary for Hébert to find a means of speeding up the creative and production stages of short films. Perhaps more so than any other techniques employed in animation, the device of etching onto film, which is a characteristic of Hébert's work, demands a meticulous, and hence slow, application. The first steps in improving his method required learning to work to schedule, exploiting his experience as a film director, and moving out of cinemas and into the musical and visual performance or concert circuit. The movies were prepared by Hébert and projected with the soundtrack--an alternation of composition and improvisation--performed live by the three musicians. The best musical material was then selected for the movie's final soundtrack which was thus "fixed" mechanically to the film or videotape.

This was the technique employed for Chants et danses du monde inanimé-Le Métro (1985) and ô Picasso-tableaux d'une surexposition (1985). As a consequence, production time was cut down drasticall without, however, sacrificing the aesthetic quality of the movie; indeed, a significant gain in dynamic impact was made.

Live Cinema

Hébert's appetite for experimentation and his tenacity in pursuing his ideas spurred him onto the next stage in his attempt to produce a highly original mix of acoustic and visual genres. The necessary impetus was provided fortuitously: one day the musicians lightheartedly reproached the director, saying that it was only they who took risks on stage, while all the visual work was carried out in the safety of the studio and then projected during the performance. Hébert suddenly had the somewhat improbable idea of creating cinema directly, as a live event, using the technique of etching.

His first experiments with live etching on film took place during the performance of Jean Derome's musical composition Confiture de Gagaku (1986). There was a reversal of roles here: Derome's composition was performed by an ensemble of different musicians and was accompanied by Hébert's live improvisation. A loop of black 16mm film lasting approximately 40 seconds was projected continuously onto a screen. As the loop was unwinding it allowed Hébert a few seconds in which he could etch several photograms which, each time they were projected again, had either grown in size or changed in shape. If the technique of etching onto black film in Hébert's earlier movies had already struck many people as bizarre, this impression was merely magnified when he etched live onto film. Thus a mark created by a movement that was almost imperceptible originally was amplified on the screen; the jerking motion of the images projected and the alternation of the latter with black spaces took on new shapes each time, creating an arresting effect. The use of these elements creates a basic association between animation technique and music: in the same way as sound waves are produced by an instrument, here a small movement is magnified, with the black areas of the film corresponding to a pause, and subsequent projections of the film acting as continual variations on a theme which is gradually transformed, whilst nevertheless maintaining all its original features.

Following on from this experiment, Hébert produced a series of live performances which combined cinema and music, working alongside the English musician Fred Frith and the American Bob Ostertag. Improvisation, which is a well-known method of musical composition, thus became a method of film composition. The elements created on film through this technique of improvisation assumed increasingly complex visual and narrative forms. Some of these elements, such as the images created for the films Adieu Leonardo and Adieu Bipède, and for the performances with Frith and Ostertag, became the raw material which was later to be developed for La Plante humaine, a project which initially was still linked to performances of cinema and music with Robert M. Lepage and subsequently was associated with the final production of this feature film of the same name.

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF

Collaborative Composition

Through his collaboration with Fred Frith for the concert/projection duo presented at Montréal's Musée d'Art Contemporain in January 1989, Hébert discovered that live improvisation with a single musician produced better results than did improvisation with a trio. A more intimate, more direct dialogue was established between music and images, and this allowed for the potential in audio-visual synergy to be fully exploited. Apart from a few rare exceptions, such as the Fred Frith Connection Projekte (New Jazz Festival, Moers 1989) and In Memory (New Music America, New York, 1989), which required a large ensemble of musicians, in subsequent performances Hébert worked exclusively in a duo with either Bob Ostertag or Robert M. Lepage.

The live performances of La Plante humaine in collaboration with Lepage became increasingly complex; in addition to the projection of elements that were etched directly onto the film throughout the performance, Hébert used another projector which presented fragments of previously prepared film and which performed a basic narrative function in relation to the material that was created in real time. Robert M. Lepage worked in a similar fashion, using prerecorded tapes which had been produced with the help of a sequencer, a synthesizer and acoustic instruments. Improvisation was constantly combined, both visually and acoustically, with a selection of composite material. Sources were multiplied with, on the one hand, electronic music, sound effects, electro-acoustic music, clarinette improvisations, and, on the other hand, images etched on film, photographs, fragments of film and televised news reports, as well as abstract images. Hébert added the option of using a shutter attached to the lens that projected the images, which are etched live. Operated by a bass drum pedal, the shutter allowed Hébert more time in which to etch the photograms before these images were projected onto the screen; in this way, it was possible later to present a more elaborate image whilst maintaining narrative continuity through the use of a second projector.

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF

Definition of Visual Music

Hébert's cinema for the performances of La Plante humaine was never abstract, and always presented clear narrative elements, which were later further arranged and developed in the screenplay of the feature movie: a television screen, someone telling a story, fire, wind and trees, a man swimming, a tear running down a cheek and turning into stone.

Although the medium of television is always present, incantatory like a mantra, both in the performance and in the feature movie, it does not represent the central theme; instead, it constitutes a sort of meditation on humankind through a constant shift in levels of narrative and perception, moving from the inside to the outside, virtually a non-stop zooming action whose gaze either penetrates or is withdrawn. Hébert's cinema confronts images directly and does not present panoramic views shot at 360 degrees; it tends to be a frontal and limitrophe cinema which is constantly crossing over borders.

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF

Disrupting as it is of normal viewing patterns, this movie presents the real-life events of its characters through the device of animation, and leaves the task of describing the world of fantasy, of storytelling and of illusory knowledge to images taken from real life. The soundtrack, which in addition to music, includes sound effects and some rare snatches of dialogue, can neither be classified as external nor internal, extradiegetic nor intradiegetic, for its position within the film is in constant dialogue with the images. The end result is a masterpiece of audio-visual synergy.

As we have seen, the Hébert-Lepage duo, although reminiscent of other important partnerships in the cinema between directors and musicians such as Vigo and Jaubert, Hitchcock and Hermann, Fellini and Rota, constitutes a truly original artistic experience in this domain.

--Translated from Italian by Jane Dunnett

Andrea Martignoni is an Italian musician and researcher. He is currently involved in a project at the Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal, where he is studying various aspects of the relationship between music, sound, and image in Canadian animation films.


Histoire grise, 1962, 3 min. Histoire d'une bébite 1962, 8 min. Petite histoire méchante, 1963, 33 sec. Opus 1, 1964, 4 min. Op hop Hop op, National Film Board of Canada, 1966, 3 min. 30 sec. Opus 3, National Film Board of Canada, 1967, 7 min. Explosion démographique (Population Explosion), National Film Board of Canada, 1967, 14 min. Music: Ornette Coleman. Autour de la perception (Around Perception), National Film Board of Canada, 1968, 16 min. Le Corbeau et le Renard (The Fox and the Crow), National Film Board of Canada, 1969, 2 min. 34 sec. Co-dir/coreal: Francine Desbiens, Pierre Hébert, Yves Leduc, & Michèle Pauzé. Notions élémentaires de génétique, National Film Board of Canada, 1971, 7 min. Music: Andrée Paul et l'Infonie Du coq à l'âne, National Film Board of Canada, 1973, 10 min. Co-dir/coreal: Francine Desbiens, Suzanne Gervais & Pierre Hébert. Music: Pierre F. Brault. C'est pas chinois, National Film Board of Canada, 1974, 14 min. Co-dir/coreal: Gilles Gascon & Pierre Hébert) Père Noël! Père Noël!, National Film Board of Canada, 1974, 12 min. Entre chiens et loup, National Film Board of Canada, 1978, 21 min. Music: Normand Roger Souvenirs de guerre, National Film Board of Canada, 1982, 16 min. Music: Normand Roger Étienne et Sara, National Film Board of Canada, 1984, 15 min. Music: René Lussier, Robert M. Lepage, Jean Derome & Claude Simard. Chants et danses du monde inanimé - Le Metro, National Film Board of Canada, 1985, 14 min. Music: Robert M. Lepage & René Lussier.Love Addict, National Film Board of Canada, 1985, 5 min. Co-dir/coreal: Fernand Bélanger & Pierre Hébert. Music: Offenbach ô Picasso - tableaux d'une surexposition, National Film Board of Canada, 1985, 20 min. Music: Robert M. Lepage & René Lussier. Adieu Bipède, National Film Board of Canada, 1987, 16 min. Music: Jean Derome, Robert M. Lepage & René Lussier. La lettre d'amour, National Film Board of Canada, 1988, 16 min. Music: Robert M. Lepage. La Plante humaine, Canada-France: National Film Board of Canada-Arcadia Films (Paris), 1996, 78 min. Music: Robert M. Lepage

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF


Robert M. Lepage - René Lussier: Chants et danses du monde inanimé; Ambiances Magnétiques AM001, Montréal 1984-96. Jean Derome - René Lussier: Le retour des granules; Ambiances Magnétiques AM 006, Montréal 1987. Fred Frith: The Technology of Tears and Other Music for Dance and Theatre; Rec Rec, rec dec 20, Zurich 1988. Jean Derome: Confiture de Gagaku; Victo CD 05, Victoriaville 1989-93. Bob Ostertag: Sooner or Later; Rec Rec, rec dec 37, Zurich 1991. Bob Ostertag: Burns Like Fire; Rec Rec, rec dec 53, Zurich 1992. Robert M. Lepage: Adieu Leonardo!; Ambiances Magnétiques AM 024, Montréal 1992. Robert M. Lepage: La Plante humaine; Ambiances Magnétiques AM 042, Montréal 1996.

La Plante humaine. © 1996 NFB-ONF