Advent of television
On September 6, 1952, journalist Judith Jasmin emotionally announces the arrival of television in French Canada. Broadcast to some 135,000 homes, the new medium would help transform Quebec society by opening up new horizons in news, entertainment and culture for some of the country's most isolated communities. Frédéric Back was 28 years old. After studying fine arts in his native France, he had immigrated to Canada in 1948 and was teaching at Montreal's École du meuble and École des beaux-arts. Television offered an undreamed-of outlet for his artistic talents. It would be the start of a whole new life.
41 years with Radio-Canada
That same year, Frédéric Back joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's French-language television network, Radio-Canada. He was thus one of its early pioneers and, other than for three fairly short breaks, would spend his entire career with the public broadcaster, until his retirement in 1993. He started off in the graphic arts section as an illustrator, creator of visual effects, set decorator and model maker. Television was in its infancy and everything had to be invented from scratch. The enthusiastic young artist devoted great ingenuity to enriching the cultural content of the programs on which he worked. He also thrived on the creative tension that resulted from the fact that all shows were broadcast live.
During the first 15 years of television, Frédéric Back designed sets and did illustrations for numerous cultural, educational and science programs. Some of the ones that remain engraved in Quebecers' collective memory are Le Grenier aux images, Les Récits du Père Ambroise, Maman Fonfon, Le Roman de la science, La Science en pantoufles, La Joie de connaître, Le Nez de Cléopâtre and L'Heure du concert. The historical series D'Iberville, produced in 1967, was also a highlight in the history of Radio-Canada television production.
From primarily a graphic artist, Frédéric Back soon developed into an animator, devising ingenious ways of adding movement to his still images: unspooling drawings past the camera in sync with the music, manipulating jointed figures or 3-D puppets, and creating cardboard illustrations with movable or relief elements. Sometimes he would be on the set during the broadcast, doing drawings live on air or overseeing the animation operations. However, he usually worked on several weekly programs at the same time. Since the set decorators' and illustrators' studios were located far from the recording studios, he had to give the producers instructions for the staging, framing and camera movements and hope they would be followed. Although the results were not always exactly what he had in mind, viewers were still treated to the magic of television.
Frédéric Back had his first real experience in animated filmmaking in 1954, when he created his first short film to accompany the music of Scaramouche. At that time, there was no animation equipment available in Montreal. But far from damping his enthusiasm, this lack of resources only spurred his creativity. He recounts: "My animated films were shot frame by frame on a Bolex. The camera was attached to a heating pipe, and the radiator served as my animation stand! To do a pan, I had to move the camera by hand. (…) At our St-Mathieu Street premises, we also had a camera that could be raised or lowered on a pillar. We called it our animation camera. Whenever we wanted to do a zoom, we had to go across the room and crank it up or down. Nothing was easy!" After the exciting though not entirely successful experience of Scaramouche, Frédéric Back had to wait another 14 years before Radio-Canada acquired a proper animation stand equipped with a 35mm camera.
In 1968, Frédéric Back joined Radio-Canada's brand new animation studio created at the urging of Hubert Tison. Tison's team included illustrators such as Graeme Ross, Léonie Gervais and Daniel Méry, designers such as Pierre-Yves Pelletier and André Théroux, and cameraman Paul Webster. For 25 years, the studio made title sequences, promotional films and special presentations for Radio-Canada programs, such as Nos chers vieux téléromans, celebrating the fifty or so soap operas produced between 1952 and 1972. But more than anything, the animation studio was a very special environment that enabled Frédéric Back to create the nine animated films for which he is known around the world.
Given complete freedom to express his love of nature and animals and his outrage at the destructive folly of human beings, Frédéric Back conveyed his environmental and pacifist message in films such as Taratata!, Crac!, All Nothing, The Man Who Planted Trees and The Mighty River. Robert Roy, the head of youth programming and later director of programming, encouraged and supported him in his educational efforts. Despite the deadlines and hectic pace of working for television, Frédéric Back considered himself extraordinarily lucky to have had a chance to present his works to the general public thanks to Canada's public broadcaster and the European Broadcasting Union's exchange program. He also appreciated the fact that Radio-Canada's international relations department arranged for his films to be shown at all the major international film festivals.
End of a dream
For over 20 years, the films produced by its animation studio added immeasurably to Radio-Canada's international reputation. Despite all the accolades, the network decided in 1993 to close it down. Nearing 70 at the time, Frédéric Back was completing The Mighty River. As he worked, he witnessed the dismantling of the studio where he had made his world-famous films and which he had hoped would serve as a model for other television networks. It was with great sadness that realized that the glorious adventure was over.
The vocation of television
In 1970, Frédéric Back published an article entitled "Reflections sur la télévision" ("thoughts on television") in Radio-Canada's in-house newsletter, Circuit fermé, (vol. 6, no. 9, Montreal, May 15, 1970). The concerns he raises are every bit as relevant today. The following excerpt resonates with the integrity of a man who has consistently defended creativity and life in all its forms.
" Just as the finally recognized field of ecology reveals that rampant industrialization has endangered life on our planet, similarly, broadcasting has an impact that we largely fail to realize. This impact is serious and far exceeds immediate materialistic interests, small or large, and our desire to produce programs at any cost. Let us beware of overproduction and mind pollution. Only heartfelt, thoughtful, considered and impartial investigation can earn us the pardon of future generations.
Our screen will soon be the image that many people have of our country. Yes, it should reflect reality, but it should also reflect the passionate striving for an ideal and worthy aspirations. Only thus will Radio-Canada, and we too, be true to our vocation. "
Le Nez de Cléopâtre
A very popular Sunday-evening quiz show consisting of a set of riddles to be solved with the help of a verbal clue and a drawing done live on air by Frédéric Back.
Le roman de la science
Conceived, produced and hosted by the great science popularizer Fernand Séguin, Le Roman de la science was an important tool for popular education in Quebec.
The Concert Hour
Operas, operettas, symphonies, concertos, ballets, etc. In the course of 207 programs over 13 seasons, L'Heure du concert presented some 300 musical or choreographical works...
In 1952, not long after Radio-Canada television first went on air, Frédéric Back was hired on as a graphic artist, set designer and model maker.
During the heyday of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose the music for a ballet based on a Russian folk tale.
This historical drama is one of the most ambitious television series ever produced in Quebec. Though targeting a young audience, it captivated young and old alike with the adventures...
This entertaining mix of interviews, satire and variety acts was a mainstay of Radio-Canada programming in the 1960s.
À ta Santé, Jacques
The tribute included a roster of celebrities, performers and politicians who had been associated with Jacques Normand throughout his career.