Champlain

Historical documentary, 16mm, colour, 1964
Running time: 00:28:05
Director and writer: Denys Arcand
Producer: National Film Board of Canada
Producers: André Belleau and Fernand Dansereau
Camera: Bernard Gosselin and Gilles Gascon
Animation camera: Douglas Poulter, James Wilson, Murray Fallen and Jean Chouinard
Drawings: Frédéric Back
Location sound: Joseph Champagne
Editing: Werner Nold and Bernard Gosselin
Re-recording: Ron Alexander and Roger Lamoureux
Narrators: Gisèle Trépanier and Georges Dufaux

Synopsis

The first solo film by the celebrated director Denys Arcand, this documentary looks at the life of Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec and explorer of New France, from 1603 until his death in 1635. Based on excerpts from his journal, the film combines archival documents with recreated scenes filmed at Tadoussac and on Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain, along with over a hundred drawings by Frédéric Back.

View video clips on the NFB website

Illustrations archived on the NFB website.

Other video clips on the NFB's Parole citoyenne site.

Debunking history

The documentary was highly controversial. Certain critics called it a caricature and deplored its lack of respect for Champlain, a major figure in Quebec history. They also complained that the rapid zooms and pans made it impossible to appreciate the rich details of Frédéric Back's illustrations, which they termed magnificent. While superbly illustrating the subject of the film, his drawings also provided new information on Amerindian customs and life at the French Court. They were also innovative in presenting the Aboriginal people with warmth and humanity rather than as bloodthirsty savages.

A dream come true

In the early 1960s, Fernand Dansereau and Denys Arcand were not yet famous filmmakers: Dansereau was an NFB producer and Arcand was just starting out. But Frédéric Back jumped at the chance to collaborate on a film, considering it a more enduring medium than the TV programs on which he had worked so far. He had great admiration for the historic figure of Samuel de Champlain and welcomed the challenge of creating a hundred very large illustrations.

Technical details

Numerous preliminary sketches were required to determine the technique best suited to the subject and the needs of the film. The drawings also had to be large enough to permit camera movements. At the time, it was difficult to find pictures of Aboriginal people, and the image that existed in the popular imagination was fanciful, to say the least. Frédéric Back's realistic, well-researched illustrations thus helped promote a new perception of First Nations people.

From the ships, weaponry, architecture and furniture to the Amerindian and European clothing, every detail was a faithful rendition of the information that the illustrator had managed to glean about life in the 17th century. In 1961, there were no photocopiers. Frédéric Back spent many long hours in the archives going through book after book and making detailed sketches. With almost no visual records of Aboriginal people, he often had to create illustrations based on what he read. He did the final drawings in pencil and pastels on coloured cardboard. This painstaking work took him from 1961 to 1962, but the results were remarkable.