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Film Academy Revisits a 'Poet' of Animation

Movies: An exhibition looks back at the artwork of the award-winning Frederic Back.


"Animation is a folie amoreuse, something that comes from heart," says two-time Academy Award-winning animator Frederic Back. "I enjoyed working in many areas of the arts, but I never expected to find in animation something so fulfilling and a way to reach so many people."

"Artistry in Animation: The Drawings of Frederic Back," an exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, surveys the artwork of one of most respected and beloved artists in international animation. Since 1980, Back's films have received four Academy Award nominations, won two Oscars and earned more than 80 prizes at festivals around the world. Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics described him as "one of the few poets our medium has produced."

"When I first saw 'Crac!' I was so moved by its honesty, I cried at the end," says commercial animator Bob Kurtz, who's at work on an "Edith Ann" special for ABC with Lily Tomlin. "He's one of the few people who genuinely care about the planet, and he animates the unanimatable--images you don't believe could be drawn or evoke such responses. He's an extraordinary gift to animation."

An unassuming, soft-spoken man, Back seems almost embarrassed by the praise his work receives. In a recent telephone interview from his home in Montreal, he stressed the contributions of others to his films, especially composer Normand Roger and producer Hubert Tison.

Born in Sarrebruck, France, in 1924, Back immigrated to Montreal in 1948, where he worked as an illustrator, muralist, graphic artist and interior designer. In 1968, Tison invited him to join the newly established animation unit at Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Co. Inspired by Walt Disney's "Fantasia" and John and Faith Hubley's Oscar-winning short "Moonbird," Back taught himself to animate. He completed his first film, "Abracadabra," in 1970, and has devoted nearly all his time to animation since then.

Back experimented with cel animation and other conventional media for "Abracadabra" and his other early films: "Inon or the Conquest of Fire" (1971), "The Creation of the Birds" (1973), "Illusion" (1974) and "Taratata the Parade" (1977). With 1980's "Tout-Rien" (All-Nothing), Back began drawing in colored pencil on sheets of frosted acetate. The translucent acetate has a slightly rough texture that enables him to create small, delicately shaded images that fill the screen with beauty when they're projected. He made the thousands of drawings each film required himself, occasionally using an assistant to help with the coloring.

Back's films reflect his intense concern with ecological issues. "Tout-Rien" illustrates humanity's foolish desire to conquer the natural world rather than live at peace within it. The Oscar-winning "Crac!" (1981) is a warmly nostalgic portrait of the changes the 20th century brings to a family in rural Quebec. Based on a true story by John Giono, "The Man Who Planted Trees" (1987) depicts the work of Elzeard Bouffier, who revitalized a barren region in Provence by planting tens of thousands of oak trees. "The Man Who Planted Trees" received 40 awards in 11 countries, including an Oscar, and may be the most honored animated film of recent decades. "The Mighty River" (1993) traces the relationship between humankind and the St. Lawrence River, from the end of the Ice Age to the present.

Although he officially retired from the CBC after completing "The Mighty River," Back remains active, working for the Quebec Society for the Defense of Animals. He's also begun work on a direct-to-video film project, "Trees for Life." The project was suggested by Balbir Mathur, the founder of the Trees for Life Organization. Mathur's campaign to reforest the Earth has resulted in more than 14 million fruit trees being planted in the Third World: He hopes to raise that figure to 100 million in the next decade. For the first time, Back will do only key drawings; the animation will be completed by volunteers organized through Mathur's headquarters in Wichita, Kan.

"It's been a great privilege to have been able to make this kind of film," Back says. "I only regret not having more talent, not being a Picasso or a Braque, not for myself, but to show more people the potential beauty of the art of animation and its power as a teaching tool."

* "Artistry in Animation" continues at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 247-3000, through Aug. 25. The gallery is open Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon-6 p.m.; closed Mondays. Some of the drawings will be removed Sunday for a special exhibition at the International Animation Festival in Hiroshima, Japan.

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