Farewell, Frédéric Back

On Christmas Eve, as I traveled West for the hol(i/y)days, the world of animation lost one of its legendary “elder statesmen:” Canada’s own Frédéric Back, a two-time Oscar winner, and creator of the famous animated short, The Man Who Planted Trees.

From the LA Times obit:

Frédéric Back, 89, who won two Oscars for his poignant animated short films, died Tuesday morning at home in Montreal, said his daughter, Suzel Back-Drapeau. The cause was cancer.

“My films have become ‘classics,’ studied in universities and animation schools for their technical, artistic and cultural content,” Back wrote in the detailed autobiography on his personal website. “That goes beyond anything I might have hoped for and still surprises me. It shows that politically engaged art is both possible and worthwhile.”

The short is a gold-mine of wondrous moments. The wind swirling and billowing into the narrator’s distinctive orange blanket, for example, is just breath-taking. Or the tiled roof merging into the seashore. Elzéard Bouffier’s unforgetable mustache, imposing yet soft; the smoke from the raconteur’s pipe merging into the hillsides’ many pyres; the charcoal burners and their carts, and their harsh and hopeless lives; the way the birches spring from the ground, recalling yet transforing the mortar-blasts of The War to End All Wars. I could go on and on. And I haven’t even started in on the music or sound work yet, such as the way the relentlessness crunching of boots on the harsh, dry gravel dominates the short’s opening.

In his personal remembrance, animation historian Charles Solomon remarked that “Hayao Miyazaki remains the most admired artist in animation, but Frederic was the most beloved.” While it’s hard — OK, pretty much impossible — to know how one might go about measuring that sort of thing, it is easy to see the impressive technical abilities, the warmth and the charm, and the obvious emotions that have made Bark’s works so beloved. There’s an extraordinary organic, “shaded” quality to his drawing that draws me in every time.

He will be missed.

(HT to Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi for posting the sad news, and for tracking down a whole host of Back videos in commemoration of the man and his considerable talents. And the Jean Giono story that inspired Back’s most memorable work can be found here.)

Attribution(s): Trailer and stills are the property of Acme Filmworks, Inc. and other respective production studio and distributors, and are intended for editorial use only.

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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.