Frederic Back’s animated films have been nominated for four Oscars — and won two. At the age of 87 he is still working, both at his art and for causes he supports. His website is called Caring Together and reflects his view that individuals can make a difference.
Back was born in the Saar region of Alsace and his family had to deal with political upheaval in the 1930s. Back’s father was a professional concert musician who struggled to make ends meet in Strasbourg but, in 1937, found a post with the Radio Paris Orchestra. Three years later, France was occupied.
From 1938 – 43, Back studied art in Brittany. He drew what he saw about him: the everyday life of the Breton peasant. “Draw everything,” said Back’s teacher, “It will all disappear.” Later, Back said, “He was right.” In 1943 he was called up to the Army but a priest hid Back in exchange for him working on paintings in the church at Ste-Melaine. During this time he discovered the work of Quebec artist Clarence Gagnon whose work reflected rural themes similar to those of Back’s Breton work.
Gagnon’s painting and the works of Jack London inspired a romantic love of the North in Back. Not long after the War’s end, he began corresponding with a Quebec school teacher. In 1948, Back sailed to Quebec to meet his penpal, Ghylaine Paquin. A year later, he married her.
Back’s honeymoon was spent on a camping trip that took the young couple across the continent to Prince Rupert. Along the way he remarked on the vast landscape and, at Lake Louise: “All these mountains were magnificent, the forests amazing and the silence, infinite.”
For a few years Back supported his family by teaching, occasionally taking off for long periods of drawing and painting in the Gaspe, the United States (where he was disgusted by racial segregation), and Mexico. But in 1952 he took a job at the fledgling Radio Canada television network and soon was swamped in work.
Through the 1950s Back did drawings, designs, finished advertising, storyboards, and even a stint as an animator for the program Le nez de Cleopatre which required him to illustrate questions for a panel, live on-air. By the 1960s Back had enough of a reputation that he was commissioned to do a stained glass mural for the Montreal Metro, he illustrated children’s books, and began doing animation. During this same period, Back became involved in the environmental movement. He drew posters and designed booths for environmental organizations, the SPCA, and Native groups opposing the James Bay development. When Back’s father died, he enlisted family members and planted more than a thousand trees in his father’s memory, the first of some 30,000 trees he has planted so far.
Back’s animation received many awards. In 1981, Tout rien was nominated for an Academy Award. Back had put a great deal of work into this allegory about greed and self-destruction but it was nothing compared to the labor of creating Crac, his next feature.
Back did all of the drawings for Crac (YouTube), 8000 of them. The story revolves around a rocking chair at the center of a family’s life. Some of the drawings were taken directly from Back’s own life and reflect his deeply felt love of family. This time, Back’s film won an Oscar. Just before leaving for the Academy Awards, Back damaged an eye with fixative fumes. He was already suffering from glaucoma. Nevertheless, he continued working with the same excited energy and inner serenity that he had developed over the years.
The Man Who Planted Trees was a project that Back had been working on since he first read Jean Giono’s story. He travelled to Provence to visit Giono’s location but soon understood that the story was universal. Since Quebec accents are disdained by the French, a French actor was enlisted to do the narration. He was very bad and required much babying to successfully complete this colonial project. The Man Who Planted Trees (YouTube) won an Oscar in 1988.
Now Back’s films were published as books. He did the drawings for Crac by himself and Ghylaine wrote the text. Then he struggled to find a publisher. The Man Who Planted Trees also faced publishing difficulties but eventually both books were printed and found a receptive world audience.
Back’s last long animated feature was The Mighty River, a film about the St. Lawrence. (English version here with narration by Donald Sutherland). It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994 but lost to Wallace and Gromit (not a shameful loss, I think).
In 1996, Back gave an interview. He said that he was uncomfortable talking about theory:
I am not so intellectual and complicated to give good answers. I am a peasant in painting. My work is by instinct. I cannot explain. I have no beautiful theory, no fantastic explanation. I am surprised by the reaction I get. If it looks good, I am surprised. I never expect to have any kind of reputation. I just try to make good work.
A good message stands on its own. People see the film [The Man Who Planted Trees] and it encourages them to do their own work of service.
Many, many people understand that the most important thing in this story is doing something that you know is good, and you don’t look for any kind of big result. The reward is in the doing. You do what you feel you have to do.
I was always in a situation where I had the means to give the message in a very strong technique. Animation is regarded by most people as something very special and interesting. I try to use this fantastic circumstance to give out all the positive messages I can. You try to help people change their own life to make it better, to make it more valuable to others, to make it more peaceful and open to generosity in any kind of situation.
We were invited to the campus at Pixar. It is a fantasy place to work. They built a beautiful park and planted hundreds of beautiful trees. But the films they do inside have no relation to what they have done around their campus.
They make films about monsters, about nonexisting heroes. But in the world there are many existing heroes who should inspire them in creating an animation film.
We must keep working; otherwise, we just let go and everything will fall down. Many people have hope and work very hard to make people know. Many things have been created, and you cannot know the effects of what you do.
The Man Who Planted Trees is an illustration of the power each of us has. If hands and minds come together, we can have an important, beneficial effect. We have children, and we have grandchildren. We are motivated to react. Every reasonable person should have a reaction of this kind, to care for the future. We should preserve or replace so that the generations to come will get something as beautiful or maybe even more beautiful than what we discover when we are alive.
There are people who illuminate our way by the light of their hearts. Frederic Back is such a one.
(Note: Back worked in French. The links are mostly in English but Francophones can generally find a link to the French version.)