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Frédéric Back: The Man Who Planted Inspiration

Bill Desowitz chats with the two-time Oscar-winning master of environmental animation.

The Oscar-winning short The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) by Frédéric Back has been an inspiration for many animators, including John Lasseter. © Frédéric Back and Radio-Canada.

Following Back's stirring appearance at SIGGRAPH 2008 last month, he sat down for a brief chat with Bill Desowitz to discuss his two favorite passions: the preservation of nature and the art of animation. As part of the newly expanded Computer Animation Festival, Back was feted at the Nokia Theater, where his inspirational Oscar-winning short The Man Who Planted Trees was screened. The 84-year-old Back was introduced by John Lasseter and AWN Co-Founder Ron Diamond to a standing ovation. An exhibition of his artwork, "Frédéric Back: A Life's Drawings," is currently on display through Nov. 1 at the Linwood Dunn Theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1313 Vine Street in Los Angeles). The exhibition showcases drawings, illustrations and sketches created by Back using colored pencils on frosted cels, and spotlights his commitment to environmental issues. Admission is free.

Bill Desowitz: I wanted to begin by asking you about the wonderful SIGGRAPH tribute and kind words of introduction by John Lasseter. He said that, beyond the animation, The Man Who Planted Trees is one of the most inspirational films for him.

Frédéric Back: It was great to be in front of so many people and [John] is such a fantastic man. I've known him for 25 years. Through all his success and all his great works, he is still the same simple and amiable man.

BD: Are you still involved in animation?

FB: I'm not so much involved in the [making] of animation. I mostly teach in collaboration with an organization that fights for the protection of animals and nature, and so I make posters and drawings to raise money for them to do their work. I'm very busy with the website ( and the teaching tools for the older teachers or parents or children that come on the site and look for inspiration for writing and drawing... to do better than I did in animation, which is no more the way animation is done.

BD: What do you think about contemporary animation?

FB: The computer now offers fantastic possibilities... you can make things that were just dreams in the past. I find always that technology must not be the aim of making films. The most important is to have a good scenario and a subject to illustrate using any technology. It's what you learn and what you find out. I think too many films are made to have fireworks. The magic is beautiful, but when it is finished you are in the dark again.

Frédéric Back.

BD: Speaking of John and Pixar, do you keep up with their latest films?

FB: Yes, yes. I love Ratatouille and WALL·E is really a great film...

BD: It touches on your theme of protecting nature...

FB: Yes, in an amazing way. We were with many children in the cinema and the reaction of the children was so moving when WALL·E was calling,"EVE, EVE, EVE!" And all the small children joined in. It was really showing that children understand the feelings and magic of this thing that was more than a machine.

BD: I read that "The Rite of Spring" in Fantasia had a big impact on you when you were young.

FB: I was absolutely overwhelmed when I saw this. During the war I had few occasions to see animated films, but they were always funny or telling a story very, very nicely like Gulliver from Fleischer. And so after the war, I saw Fantasia and it was all the resources of talent and music and image and technology together to build up something that was unique. It was really like opera, especially "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "The Rite of Spring." It was like a dream, but I never expected to get into animation. I was trying to learn by making studies of nature and lots of drawings of animals and illustrations and paintings of landscapes and historical subjects...

BD: What was it like watching the audience enjoying The Man Who Planted Trees last night?

An exhibition of Back's artwork,

FB: I'm always amazed. I was very lucky to be able to work with Hubert Tison at the Radio-Canada animation studio. And he was a trained animator who gave up his own creations in order to conduct the studio. He was an inspiration. He helped me as a collaborator and was very critical and demanding, so it was really a fantastic chance to be involved in animation. There was no animation camera outside the National Film Board, so I was able to be involved in this studio and learned from one film to another to be a little better. And, finally, he proposed in 1970 an international exchange of animation productions, and it succeeded for over 14 years. It was a fantastic occasion to make films about [protecting nature]...

I had made so many drawings and posters and had no impact in this field. But as soon as I made the animation films related to this kind of problem, for children, helping them think about it, I had teachers writing to me and sending me the drawings of children, and the reaction was great. In each film I tried to tell about the problem in a different way with a different technique, and it was an ensemble the way each film gave strength to the next. And Normand Roger did the music, which transformed the image with the meaning and the beauty, so I was really lucky. I can only thank all of these people that helped me to make this kind of message that was needed in the building of a balance in the way we share the riches of the world and maintain the riches of the world. And animation is a fantastic tool for this message.

BD: And your work has touched and inspired so many people.

FB: When I was invited to the Marc Davis lecture a few years ago, I used to say that the only reason I came was to tell the audience to make films with all your talent and all your means better than I did. That's true… sincerely.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.