Frédéric Back, a visionary, multitalented film animator who died of cancer on Christmas Eve, said he made his films to motivate people, “to help our beautiful and fragile planet in its hour of great need.
“I suppose one always wishes to have more talent when you fight for important causes and are fighting for beauty,” he once told a reporter. “You can never do enough, because it is the quality of the work that enhances the message.”
His meticulously crafted, playful films have become classics that are studied at universities and film animation schools around the world. During his lengthy career with the CBC, Mr. Back was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two, for his 1981 film Crac and for his 1987 work L'Homme qui plantait des arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees).
He was equally renowned as a conservationist, animal activist, graphic artist and illustrator. Mr. Back was also a trailblazer who addressed environmental issues long before it was considered fashionable to do so. A French immigrant who was hired by Radio-Canada in 1952, he pioneered animation and special effects for the French-language network in Montreal just as television arrived in Canada. “More than a filmmaker, he was an artist who travelled many roads, including drawing, caricature, illustration, murals and interior design,” museum official Hélène Nadeau wrote in the exhibition guide accompanying the 2009 retrospective Frédéric Back, Artist: A Force of Nature, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “He was always experimenting, and enriched his range of skills by using his pencil to craft techniques that would make up his signature style.”
Frédéric Back, a musician’s son, was born on April 8, 1924, in St. Arnual, when it was part of France. He spent summers on a family farm in Alsace and even as a child brought home stray animals to look after. He grew up in Strasbourg and when the Second World War began, his family moved to Paris, where he studied art at the École Estienne and then at École régionale des beaux-arts de Rennes. His work was influenced by Mathurin Méheut, who specialized in paintings of marine life. Mr. Back launched his career as a painter with an exhibition at the Salon de la Marine in Paris in 1946. Mr. Back emigrated to Canada in 1948 at the invitation of a pen pal, Ghylaine Paquin, whom he married the following year. He decided to stay because, as he put it, “Canada was a place where there could be purification, a new start for someone who had lived through war.”
He taught at Montreal’s École des beaux-arts and worked at the National Film Board, where he did the illustrations for the Denys Arcand film Samuel de Champlain. He was then hired by Radio-Canada to create titles for its television programs. As demand for his lively illustrations grew, he was given free rein and began to experiment with film animation. “I wish every generation could experience such an exhilarating moment,” he once told a reporter. “It was a heady, stimulating time for young artists, musicians and writers.”
Mr. Back’s films – particularly La Création des Oiseaux, Illusion, Taratata and Tout Rien – exhibit a deep empathy with nature and a fear of the consequences that arise from its abuse. Mr. Back turned out his first animated short, Abracadabra in 1970, and made five more before Tout Rien was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981. He didn’t win that year, but the following year he took home the Oscar for Crac, a whimsical pastel masterpiece that traces the transformation of Quebec society as a result of industrialization and urbanization.
He lost the sight in his right eye gradually in the 1970s because of a chemical preservative he sprayed on his work. Although he underwent several eye grafts, he never regained his sight. In spite of that, he went on to win his second Oscar in 1988 for L’Homme qui plantait des arbres, a moving film about a shepherd who plants trees, oblivious to wars raging around him.
In 1993, his film The Mighty River got an Oscar nomination just as budget cuts spurred the CBC to shut its animation department, which he had established. He was forced to retire. Mr. Back was disillusioned and blamed the bureaucrats and bean counters. “The problem today is that artists and thinkers no longer are at the helm of creative organizations, only bureaucrats who make notes. They have no ideas to offer – nothing. They don’t take risks, and an artist is always taking risks. You can’t guarantee how it will turn out; there is no safety in art. And the bean counters don’t even seem to count very well, because after Radio-Canada dropped its animation department, I learned that more than half the money that comes to the corporation from product sales comes from its animated films.”
Mr. Back created the stained-glass mural depicting the history of music in Montreal at the Place des Arts Métro station, and was responsible for interior design at the Hélène de Champlain Restaurant, which was used as a reception centre during Expo 67. He also did the interiors of churches in and around Montreal.
A lifelong conservationist, Mr. Back claimed to have planted at least 10,000 trees on his farm in the Laurentians.
He was given the Order of Quebec in 1989 and was invested as an officer in the Order of Canada in 1990. Following the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ small but captivating exhibition of his work four years ago, Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art presented a much more extensive retrospective in 2011. The only other film animator to be so honoured by the prestigious museum was Walt Disney.
Mr. Back leaves his wife, Ghylaine Paquin, and their three children, Christian, Suzel and Francis.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of painter Mathurin Méheut’s name. It was spelled as Mathurin Màheut.