Thursday, 24 October 2019

The NFB's Log Driver's Waltz turns 40!

© 2019, Christian Cassidy
Source: NFB.ca

If you are of a certain age you will remember Canadian content television shorts back in the thirteen-or-less channel universe. They were filler, often used to close the gap between the large amount of time American TV shows left for commercial breaks and the limited number of commercials Canadian channels were allowed to show.

These shorts included the one-minute Hinterland's Who's Who series produced in the early 1960's by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the National Film Board's "Canada Vignettes" series of the late 1970s.

One of the most enduring and beloved films in the Canada Vignettes series is John Weldon's Log Driver's Waltz. It was released in 1979 and is one of the most watched films on the NFB's website today.

Here's the story behind the series and everyone's favourite log driver who has pleasing girls completely for four decades!

In 1977, the country was still reeling after the election of the separatist Parti Quebecois as Quebec's provincial government in November 1976. The federal government struck back by announcing that additional funding would be made available for Canadian cultural institutions.

The CBC was in need of fillers primarily for its daytime programming and approached the NFB to work out what would become the Canada Vignettes series for broadcast on both its French and English networks. They submitted the proposal to the feds and on September 6, 1977 the Treasury Department approved nearly $1 million for the project to create films that would "foster and maintain cultural unity".

Some were critical of the announcement, even within the NFB. They expressed concern that the series would be little more than flag waving propaganda to promote the federal government or even the governing Liberal Party itself.

The NFB appointed Bob Verrall as the series producer for Canada Vignettes and around 80 directors, animators, writers, camera operators, editors and researchers worked on the shorts at the NFB's Montreal headquarters and its seven regional studios.

In May 1978, production was well underway and Verrall said in a Canadian Press interview that as many as 100 films would be ready for release starting on Canada Day 1978.

Verrall said of the series, "Our idea was to produce spots that would deal with Canada, that would reinforce pride and excitement in the country and a sense of heritage." He added that from the start they decided to steer away from a "flag waving approach" which would be a turn off for audiences, or to create a romanticized history which audiences would find unbelievable.

The films rolled out onto the CBC's networks beginning in the summer of 1978 and were eventually  released to other broadcasters for use. Some, including the Log Driver's Waltz, were also show on the big screen as shorts before feature films at Cineplex Odeon cinemas.

According to this NFB database there are 124 films in the Canada Vignettes series. The vast majority were released between 1978 and 1980, though a dozen or so titles released later in the 1980s are credited as being part of the series. (Here's a more descriptive episode guide to the series without links to the videos.)

 John Weldon, ca. late 1970s and today (Source: John Weldon)

One of the NFB filmmakers who answered the Canada Vignettes call was animator John Weldon. The Montrealer joined the NFB in 1970 and in his 33 year career worked on over 50 films. He and Eunice Macaulay won an Academy Award in 1979 for Best Animated Short for Special Delivery.  

Weldon decided to animate a song called The Log Driver's Waltz written by Canadian folk singer Wade Hemsworth in the 1950s. (Here's an hour-long look back at Hemsworth's music.) In the 1960s, he was part of Montreal's folk music scene and sometimes performed with a group called the Mountain City Four made up of sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jack Nissenson and Peter Weldon, John Weldon's.

The animated version of Log Driver's Waltz was released in 1979 and is said to be one of the most requested films in the NFB catalogue to this day.

I contacted Weldon through his website and asked him about his work on the film, which he animated and directed. I began by erroneously thinking that it was he, not his cousin Peter, who was part of the Mountain City Four!

WED: In the book, Mountain City Girls: The McGarrigle Family Album, I read that you were part Mountain City Four with the McGarrigle Sisters in Montreal in the 1960s. Another source says that the band knew and performed with Wade Hemsworth and maybe even performed The Log Driver’s Waltz at the time. Is that true?  

JW: I think you’re confusing me with my cousin Peter, who was one of the founding members of the MC4.  I was never part of the band.  The original four were Kate and Anna, Peter Weldon and Jack Nissenson.  I knew them all, including Wade.  Other members of the MC4, added later, were Chaim Tannenbaum, Dane Lanken, and Ron Doleman. 

WED: Fast forward more than a decade and you are working on an NFB animated short based on The Log Driver’s Waltz. How did that come about? 

JW: The NFB wanted a bunch of short films that would stimulate a sense of Canadian identity.  Wade’s songs are the most Canadian thing I could think of, and Log Driver seemed suitable for animation.  When we suggested it to Wade, he thought it was a great idea. 

WED: What do you remember of the process of making the film?

JW: The song gave lots of room for fun animation. Three minutes of a guy bouncing around on a log, what could be better?  If it’s fun for the animator, then it will probably be fun for the audience.

WED: The song used in the short is credited to Kate and Anna McGarrigle and the Mountain City Four. Was it recorded especially for the short? Were you were part of the soundtrack as well? 

JW: The song was recorded at the NFB.  I was present for the recording, but I didn’t play or sing. 

WED: The NFB credits say The Log Driver’s Waltz was released in 1979. How long did it take to make the film? 

JW: I think it was about 6 months, but that’s a guess.

WED: The song and film have become a part of Canadiana. People still watch it at the NFB website and share it on social media. As a filmmaker, how does that feel knowing that an animated short you made 40 years ago is still so well loved? 

JW: I’m always surprised how people react to it. I once got a big kiss, but unfortunately it was from a male.   

WED What do you think it is about The Log Driver’s Waltz that has made it a timeless favourite? 

JW: The song is great. I’m glad my efforts brought it to a larger audience.

Log Driver's Waltz NFB.ca
Other John Weldon Films to watch at the NFB website
The Songs of Wade Hemsworth CBC Radio Archives
The Log Driver's Waltz children's book review Quill and Quire
Weldon Alley: Home of John F. Weldon

Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh?  - NFB Blog
$1 million film series to show on CBC - Sep 7, 1977, Winnipeg Free Press (CP)
Canada's past to invade small screen before July 1 - May 25, 1978, Winnipeg Tribune (CP)

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