The world of
animation grew darker and my own world grew sadder when Frederic Back passed
away the day before Christmas at 89. Hayao Miyazaki remains the most admired
artist in animation, but Frederic was the most beloved.
I met Frederic in 1981, when Tout-Rien earned his first Oscar nomination. I had been dazzled by Tout-Rien when I saw it in a compilation of short films Terry Thoren had assembled, and wrote that it approached animated poetry. A year later, I interviewed Frederic when he won the Oscar for Crac! I sent him a copy of the article and he wrote back to say how much he enjoyed it - except I had devoted too much of the article to him, instead of talking about Normand Roger's score which had added so much to the film. I thought at the time that this was a Hollywood First: A director saying he’d been given too much credit for a film's success.
That exchange began a friendship and a correspondence that lasted for decades. I used to joke that Frederic was a terrible correspondent: He answered letters almost immediately, and "write Frederic" became a more or less permanent entry in my list of things to do.
Frederic wrote as he spoke, with a passion for Nature, the fate of the Earth, the art of animation and how it could be used help correct the disasters human were inflicting on the planet. His tiny, crabbed handwriting, which required a magnifying glass to read (I don't know how he wrote that small) seemed inadequate to express the intensity of his beliefs.
When crews widened a road near his farm in the Laurentides, it caused the animals to shift their paths. Beavers discovered a number of trees he’d planted and gnawed them all down, including a weeping willow he was especially proud of, as it was at the northernmost limit of its range. When I asked what he’d done about the beavers, he replied he had done nothing: "Ils sont superbs" ("They are beautiful").
I always imagined that St. Francis of Assisi must have been like Frederic: Gentle, patient, devoted to all the creatures of the Earth - but never saccharine, self-righteous or ostentatious. Although he was a strict vegetarian, it never would have occurred to Frederic to inconvenience anyone else by insisting on eating at a vegetarian restaurant. He found something that met his dietary standards on the menu, and said nothing about it. He would be equally quiet when he left the table and paid the bill before anyone realized he had gone.
On one visit to California, I drove Frederic and his wife Ghylaine to the Muir Woods. We spent several hours walking through the ancient forest he’d wanted to visit since he was a little boy, and agreed that it would make an excellent setting for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A few years later, I took him to the Page Museum in Los Angeles to see the fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits. He was in his 80’s then, and roared with laughter when I said, "Frederic, every time you visit, I take you to see something older than you are - and that’s getting difficult."
People were often surprised to discover that Frederic had an impish sense of humor. He loved Bob Kurtz’s nutty film Drawing On My Mind. His letters were decorated with caricatures of me, of himself and of our pets. When a careless driver knocked me off my bike in Santa Monica, he drew me writing on a typewriter poised on the handlebars, while my pet rabbit ran ahead ringing a bell to clear the way. In response to an invitation to a party I gave in honor of Marcel Proust’s birthday, he sent a caricature of Proust serving carrots to a table of aristocratic rabbits, all of whom were making terrible puns off the titles of Proust’s novels.
On the visit that took us to Muir Woods, I drove him and Ghylaine back to their hotel near the San Francisco airport. With my typical lack of direction, I drove into the hotel approach the wrong way. When a valet officiously told me, "Sir, you’re facing the wrong direction," I snapped, "What other news do you have for me?" In the rear view mirror, I saw Frederic double over, echoing in French, "Quelles autre jolies nouvelles avez-vous pour moi?"
Frederic never realized how talented and beloved he was. When audiences stood and cheered at programs of his films, he thanked them for generously giving his work their time. He sometimes apologized for not being more talented, for not having the genius of a Picasso to convey the messages he believed were vital. I introduced a number of friends to Frederic and he was great encourager of younger talent. Two artists whose work he particularly liked were Pres Romanillos and Dice Tsutsumi—who later thanked me for introducing them to their hero (a title Frederic had trouble accepting).
long as animation exists, I have no doubt that Frederic's films will continue
to charm and inspire audiences and animators. But my eyes fog up when I look at
my to-do list see that "write Frederic" has been crossed out for the last time.