Le Roman de la science

Weekly science magazine for teenagers
Broadcast by Radio-Canada from 1957 to 1960
Average running time: ½ hour
Writer, host and executive producer: Fernand Séguin, Niagara Films
Producers: Guy Hoffmann and Jean Martinet
Director of photography: Roger Moride
Costume designer: Nicole Martinet
Set designer: Frédéric Back
The roles were performed by top actors, and the series went into syndication, with shows playing in reruns for many years and in a number of French-speaking countries.

Synopsis

Conceived, produced and hosted by the great science popularizer Fernand Séguin, Le Roman de la science was an important tool for popular education in Quebec. Each episode in the series featured a scientific discovery and the historical character behind it. The didactic part was provided by Fernand Séguin and filmed in a permanent set depicting his office. The dramatized sequences, presenting highlights in the lives of major scientific figures such as Archimedes, Einstein, Gutenberg, the Wright brothers and the Lumière brothers, were shot in period sets created specifically for the individual episodes by Frédéric Back.

A fruitful collaboration

Frédéric Back first began working with Fernand Séguin in 1955 when he was asked to create animated clips for the television series La Science en pantoufles. He then designed a set for Séguin's La Joie de connaître, and was taken on as an employee by Radio-Canada when it programmed the first 33-episode season of Le Roman de la science. He received $200 per episode, which provided a certain financial security for his young family, though the work was gruelling. Nevertheless, he managed to keep up the pace for three years, creating sets for over 80 episodes.

A stimulating but exhausting challenge

"Each Saturday, everything had to be ready for filming the dramatized sequences," Frédéric Back recounts. "The sets had to remain up for three days in case anything needed to be reshot. Fernand Séguin often gave me the scripts only a very short time in advance, and I had to research the characters and their time period in order to make working models of the tools, machines or instruments they had invented. I also had to build libraries, laboratories and sitting rooms in the style of the day, with the appropriate props." All this was achieved with cardboard, plywood, paint, a few pieces of string and lots of imagination and resourcefulness.

Frédéric Back would design and draw the sets on Sunday, and had only four days to build them. He rose to the challenge each week with the help of two excellent carpenters, grips who could assemble the sets in a day and three painters who would do the backgrounds and add a few simple details. But it was Back who painted all the complex trompe l'oeil subjects and stylistic touches. Although it was fascinating work, with an enjoyable sense of camaraderie among the team members, the production schedule was extremely demanding. Frédéric Back often didn't get home until after midnight and would regularly spend the whole night working at Niagara Films. He resigned in the fall of 1959 but continued in television, with Radio-Canada's graphic arts studio.

Working in black and white

Niagara Films had started off in a cramped little studio but soon moved to an abandoned movie theatre in the Montreal suburb of Verdun. Black and white television was in its infancy and it required a great deal of ingenuity to create different tones of grey to give relief to the picture. "The paint was matte acrylic olive green mixed with black or white and was applied with rollers," recalls Frédéric Back. "Details were added with paintbrushes or with small rollers, which could be used for rapid shading or even drawing."

Episodes

Archimède et la jeunesse de la science grecque

An evocation of the life of the Greek scientist Archimedes and his discoveries in the fields of mathematics and physics: calculation of pi, the law of buoyancy (Archimedes' principle)...

Gutenberg et l'imprimerie

Part 2 of the biography of Johannes Gutenberg, featuring his dispute with the Dritzehen family, the heirs of one of his associates.

Robert Fulton et le bateau à vapeur

While living in Paris, the American Robert Fulton dreamed of adapting the steam engine for use in shipping and tested his first prototypes off the Quai de Chaillot.

Chardonnet et la soie artificielle

Gustave de Chardonnet announces to his son Hilaire that the Count of Chambord wants him to conduct research on the diseases that were ravaging the French silk industry.

Louis et Auguste Lumière, les Gutenberg du XXe siècle

Highlights in the lives of the Lumière brothers, from childhood photos taken by their father to the invention of the "Cinématographe," a combination motion picture...

Wilbur et Orville Wright, les frères volants

The story of Wilbur and Orville Wright, aviation pioneers whose research and experimentation led to the first powered flight, piloted by Orville, in 1903.