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Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh!

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You’ve all seen them on television. Those wonderful, short, fascinating Canada Vignettes that cover the history of Canada, from the ill-fated establishment of the Republic of Manitoba to the exploits of train robber Bill Miner. This series of over 120 short films has played continually on Canadian television since the late 1970s.

We are launching a DVD compilation of some of the best Canada Vignettes in time for the holidays, so I thought it would be a great time to write a post on how this project came to be and single out a couple of the more interesting films in the series.

The Genesis of the project

The story of Canada Vignettes goes back to early 1977, when the CBC’s children’s programming department approached the National Film Board about producing short films, up to five minutes in length, that they could use as “fillers” to complement their programming for kids. The NFB was interested in this project and began to look into a way to produce it.

Meanwhile, events in Ottawa would kick-start this initiative. The Secretary of State announced in the fall of that year that $13 million would be given to Federal Cultural agencies to help promote national unity. The NFB was allocated $2 million of this money to produce films that would be broadcast on the CBC, similar to the Bicentennial Minutes that had played on CBS in the United States the previous year (the original title of the series was to be Canada Minutes). No one in either agency was interested in making or showing “propaganda” films; after some discussions, it was decided to make films on Canadian history and famous Canadians that would be a celebration of Canada, and not anything that could be perceived as propaganda.

Production begins

Radio-Canada eventually agreed to come onboard to broadcast the French films in this series. Over the next three years, a team of 80 filmmakers from across the country worked on the project, including artisans from the NFB’s Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto production centres. Many of the films produced were animation vignettes that presented Canadian history in an amusing way. Some of the vignettes were culled from material excised from full-length documentaries. The key was that they tell an interesting story in a few minutes. It was decided that no credits would be included in the films, only a title.

Television broadcasts

Eventually, the first Vignettes were shipped to the CBC and Radio-Canada on 16mm for broadcast. Though they had initiated the project, the CBC’s children’s department advised the NFB that it could no longer show films that were longer than two minutes as their programming needs had changed in the time that it took to get the series produced. This posed a problem, since a quarter of the vignettes were more than two minutes in length. The main network agreed to make the longer films as well as the short ones available to the affiliate stations, who could then choose what they would show. The films were shown on both prime time and during children’s programming slots. The most popular film in the series to air on Canadian television was Canada Vignettes: Faces, a beautiful work of animation that depicted the faces of Canada (including a cameo by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau).

Other Canadian networks eventually picked up the films for broadcast, including CTV, Global and TV Ontario. The TVA network also picked up the French titles and broadcast them over several years, to great response. Television sales of the best vignettes were also made to Turkey, Italy, Algeria, Norway and the United Kingdom, among other countries.

The Theatrical run

Pretty much every Canadian who has ever seen a Canada Vignette remembers the McGarrigle sisters singing in The Log Driver’s Waltz. It is one of our most viewed films on NFB.ca (closing in on 200,000 views). This is not surprising as it played extensively on television and was one of three films from the series to be released theatrically in the 1980s. This came about from a deal the NFB made with Cineplex Odeon to show short films before main features in Canadian cinemas. Cineplex specifically asked for very short films; they agreed to test three of them in their theatres and conduct an exit poll with the audiences to gauge their response.

The NFB was responsible for providing 35mm printing elements to Cineplex Odeon, who would in turn make the release prints for the theatres. Since all the animated Canada Vignettes had been produced on 35mm, it was easiest to produce 35mm prints of these as opposed to blowing up the 16mm documentary vignettes. Of the 22 vignettes proposed to Cineplex, the aforementioned Log Driver’s Waltz was chosen, as were The Horse and News Canada. Unfortunately, audiences were indifferent to the films and Cineplex eventually pulled them from their theatres (The Log Driver’s Waltz received the best response of the three).

The Log Driver’s Waltz had also been submitted to the Annecy (France) Animation festival and had won the prize for best foreign animation film. This led to theatrical sales in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and South Africa. The success at Annecy also secured television sales in a dozen countries, most notably in France, Greece, Australia and Switzerland.

Whether offering a humorous take on learning French or a beautiful song by the Cape Breton miners, the Canada Vignettes have become a treasure of Canadian nostalgia. Enjoy.