The Creation of Birds (La creation des oiseaux)

(Check out my review of Frederic Back’s previous film here: Abracadabra)

Frederic Back was a Quebecois animator whose career as an animator and as a graphic artist in the stained glass medium goes back to the late 1940s. That is, a full twenty years or more before he began directing his own animated short films in 1970 with his debut Abracadabra. That film was a paltry 9 minutes in length, despite taking Back many months to make. But those were the demands of the medium before digital assistance techniques and when one was producing works on a shoe-string budget with few fellow collaborators.

His second film, The Creation of Birds, would not be released on syndicated Canadian TV until 1972 though it only clocked in at 11 minutes. However, the film is interesting insofar as it continues to lay bare Back’s ideological commitment to ecology through its personification of nature as a mythic force to be revered and respected. The more central focus of the piece is to present a past narrative, however. In this case, a classic Native American tale about the cycle of the seasons. The short length of the animation, in addition to its nature as a mere recounting, means that Back relinquished any inclination toward didacticism and instead merely presented an interesting- albeit obviously pre-modern and pre-scientific myth- in order to entertain a young audience.

The story begins with a group of Native American (I use this term broadly here as the particular Nation or Tribe to which they belong is not made explicit in the text)  children as they romp about in an idyllic world. Here, the deer, the birds, and men roam together throughout the eternally virgin land wherein the cold of frost has never once killed off any living creature, and presumably, wherein no animal finds it necessary to consume one another for sustenance. A Chieftain smokes a pipe and sits happily upon a tree log in a small dell. The children approach and knock the man off of his seat, whereupon he drops his pipe and loses his composure momentarily. But these are good times and the man immediately forgives the children for their indiscretion just as they recognize the error in their tomfoolery and begin to help the man reclaim his pipe and reposition himself upon his perch.

However, this idyllic scene cannot remain eternally so after all. A large wolf spirit descends from the heavens and brings along with him a strong wind that transforms the foliage into a glorious assemblage warm colors. A cool breeze appears, which subsequently forces the people to retire beneath structures for warmth during the night. Later, a polar bear spirit appears and wards off the wolf. With the bear comes a blanket of white snow that covers the domiciles of the land, forces trees to become bare and lose their leaves, and drives off birds whilst killing other animals unaccustomed to the change in temperatures.

Just as the people begin to feel the pressure of the new state of things and begin to become malnourished, one of the girls breaks out in tears. The depth of her dread projects these tears toward the heavens wherein a god decides to send along a message to the sun using smoke signals from his pipe. Then, the sun awakens and thaws out the land. The god descends and breathes life back into the world. Birds lay eggs and chicks hatch and begin their incessant chirping as flowers bloom and new fawn and human children are born. The cycle of seasons becomes a yearly phenomena as this mythological procession of spirits and personified celestial objects giveth and then taketh away in equal measure.

The film is animated mostly through the use of cut-out animations on painted backdrops. The form is reminiscent of methods employed in the graphic works of French artist Henri Matisse augmented with a then-modern liberal application of color palette associated with the late-1960s counterculture. However, the animation lacks a fluidity that Back’s works would later gain and retains an amateurish, experimental quality one might expect of such a green director, though decidedly not of someone who had been working in the field for decades already.

I can’t really say that I recommend viewers watch these first two early Frederic Back animations. However, for the cineastes and cinephiles of this platform who find themselves studying animation history, these animations are a must-view. At very least insofar as they can help one better understand how an obscure Quebecois animator making shorts for TV syndication became the auteur of The Man Who Planted Tree/ L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbres, and eventually influenced figures as important as Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

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