Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Short Subject: The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)

On what would have been his 90th birthday I’m reviewing Frederic Back’s academy award winning short film based on a story by Jean Giono.

This is an absolutely beautiful film in its look, sound, and message.  It tells the story of a young man who meets a shepherd in a barren wasteland.  The shepherd plants trees to restore the land and over the decades the man’s passion and determination is enough to change the landscape as his forest flourishes from 1910 to 1947.

For the English version, which is the one I’ve watched, the narration of this story was done by the always excellent Christopher Plummer.  He provides a very soft-spoken, but clear tone that the piece needs.  There isn’t a lot of music mostly just at the beginning and end credits.  The rest is filled with sound effects so the audience focuses on the words of the film more than anything.
Back wanted the audience to focus on the words on the story most of all and that’s why he made the animation very restrained.  He used coloured pencils on frosted cels as his medium, giving the film a very soft and subdued look.  The cels also allowed for many transparencies to be used so he could go back and forth over the film frames multiple times to create cross fades and other visual effects within the film like the great camera moves.  With the restrained animation the shifting in the film is very subtle.  The almost imperceptible progression as Back described it.  The way the film slowly adds more and more colour as the story unfolds until the images are rich and glowing.  Just as the land in the story goes from rocky and barren to lush and filled with life. 

This short film has a wonderful environmental message about how doing little things can have a great impact on the world around us.  Simply planting tress allows good soil and water to remain, and that in turn allows more plants to grow; then those tree and other plants bring back animals and people to the land.  There is also an uplifting message about the power of the individual to do great things with small actions. Not for fame or fortune, but simply from a sense of generosity.  A desire to live simply and to do good just for the sake of doing good.  To be happy with the so little and yet still give so much to others.

The message of one man being able to achieve great things applies to Back himself with this piece as it is primarily a one man project.  Yes, there was an editor and sound help, along with an assistant, Lina Gagon, who did several thousand in-betweens, but the design and animation of this film was largely done by Back himself over the course of five years.  Like the man who planted the trees the work was slow, but in the end it created something gorgeous and everlasting.

Back’s dedication and hard work really paid off with a film that is unique and timeless.  I would definitely recommend this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it already.  And I would also recommend checking out Back’s website as it provides background of his films and shows how this man not only made stories about environmentalism and the power of the individual, but practiced that in his own life too.        

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