D'Iberville

Historical series, colour, 39 episodes
Broadcast in French by Radio-Canada from 11/10/1967 to 10/07/1968 and also in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Monaco and Luxembourg
Broadcast in English by CBC from 07/10/1968 to 23/06/1969
Average running time per episode: 00:30:00
Co-produced by Radio-Canada (Canada), ORTF (France), RTB (Belgium), SSR (Switzerland)
Producers: Pierre Gauvreau and Rolland Guay
Head of the graphic arts studio: Pierre Garneau
Model makers: Jean-Paul Boileau and Frédéric Back
Sets: Léon Hébert
Costumes: Gilles-André Vaillancourt
Head of historical research and writing: Guy Fournier
Writers: Guy Fournier, Jacques Létourneau and Jean Pellerin, with the occasional collaboration of Maurice Gagnon, Pat Gagnon and Michael Jacobs
Composer: Michel Perrault

The series

This historical drama is one of the most ambitious television series ever produced in Quebec. Though targeting a young audience, it captivated young and old alike with the adventures of the intrepid soldier, naval commander and explorer Pierre Lemoyne d'Iberville. Between 1682 and 1704, the native-born Canadian was involved in numerous forays to defend the territory of New France against the British and the Dutch. Displaying great personal bravery, he managed to drive the British out of Hudson Bay and later captured Fort William Henry (Pemaquid) in Acadia and the fortified settlement of St. John's in Newfoundland. He also led an expedition to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River, where he founded the city of Mobile and port of Biloxi before sailing upriver to establish the colony of Louisiana.

As part of a 12-member technical team, Frédéric Back and Jean-Paul Boileau designed a great many 1:20 scale models of warships, cities, forts, trading posts, houses, a castle, cliffs, hillsides, ice floes and icebergs-the biggest set of models ever built in Canada. They were designed with such realism that the Military and Maritime Museum of Montreal (now the Stewart Museum) on Île Sainte-Hélène acquired certain models to display to the public. Unfortunately, however, they remain hidden away in its basement where no one can see them.

Preparation

Frédéric Back was in France when Jean-Paul Boileau, head of Radio-Canada's model shop, contacted him in 1963 about a project for a series to be called D'Iberville. Back sent him ship blueprints he discovered at the Musée de la marine in Paris.

When he returned to Radio-Canada in 1965, Frédéric Back, together with Jean-Paul Boileau, conducted preliminary tests on the shores of Lac Saint-Louis for scenes to be filmed with the glass shot. Producer Pierre Gauvreau also asked him to create "period" maps, manuscripts and other official papers. In the spring of 1966, the model-making team, consisting of a cabinetmaker, three carpenters, a model maker for miniature characters and five inexperienced students, set up shop in an empty store on Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal. For an entire year, they worked with Boileau and Back to build all the different models required for the series.

A few statistics

Filming began in 1967 and lasted a year. The series was filmed on 16mm and comprised an impressive 4,000 shots. It involved 500 film and television craftspersons along with 350 actors and hundreds of extras. The overall budget for D'Iberville came in at almost $3 million Canadian.

It took over a week to adjust the rigging on each of the model ships, and 400 latex figures were created to be displayed on these small-scale sets. The naval battle scenes were filmed in a 90 m2 tank containing 40 cm of water.

Together the models covered an area of approximately 140 m2. They all had to match the real, life-size sets. The depictions of Montreal, Quebec (at different periods and seasons), La Rochelle, the six forts on Hudson Bay and the different trading posts were each 11 metres wide and 1 to 3 metres from front to back.

Warships and other vessels

Seven fibreglass ships were designed for the naval battle scenes. They were exact replicas of late-17th century vessels but French on the port side and English on starboard for half of them and vice versa for the other half so their nationality could be easily changed. They were equipped with a network of electrical controls for remote triggering of the cannons. Everything above deck was made of wood, decorated and painted in period style with partially removable panels and ornately carved aftercastles. The rigging required an incredible amount of rope, which was connected by pulleys made from dried beans. (Although the beans did produce the desired effect, in the damp environment of the tanks where most of the maritime scenes were shot, they ended up germinating!) There were two colours of sails. These were created in two sets, furled and unfurled, which could be quickly switched between shots. In addition to the warships, the team also built a wrecked ship, a flyboat (Dutch two-masted vessel) and 20 rowboats.

Special effects

While Frédéric Back was in charge of the artistic side of the sets, designing and building the ships, city scenes and landscapes, Jean-Paul Boileau was responsible for the technical and strategic side, organizing all the necessary manoeuvres for the ships: moving them through the water, switching their sails, changing their nationality, firing the cannons, etc.

In the tank, to control the ships' movements, they were pulled at the required speed by nylon cables held in place with lead weights. Rain was created with watering cans, and falling snow was simulated with salt. The technicians beat the water with paddles to make waves, adding soap to help produce foam crests. Large fans inflated the sails and swirled the rain and snow. The scenes were shot at 100 frames per second to give the movements a realistic speed.

Glass shot technique

How can you film a scene with the Château de Versailles in the background when you're thousands of miles away? By using the glass shot technique, of which Frédéric Back was one of the few experts in the 1960s. On part of a large sheet of glass, he would paint the Château, or any other scene they were unable to film on location or recreate in the studio. The glass sheet was then placed in front of the camera, and the action was filmed through the unpainted part of the glass. The fake background thus had to be painted not only in a detailed and realistic manner, it also had to be to scale and take into account the perspectives of the overall shot of the scene. It was very complex and precise work. Frédéric Back used the technique several times on the D'Iberville series, creating views of 17th century Montreal in addition to the Château de Versailles.